When Scott McManigle took over as executive director of Hasek’s Heroes, the youth hockey organization had close to 200 participants.
Fast forward two years and that number has skyrocketed to 1,000. There is even a waiting list of kids who want to get on the ice.
“The more successful that you get, the more individuals want to be part of your organization,” McManigle said.
Hasek’s Heroes was started by legendary NHL goalie Dominik Hasek in 2001 to give economically underprivileged youth in Buffalo, New York, an opportunity to try hockey. Now, the organization is booming.
In the short time McManigle has led the program, he’s established valuable collaborations with area organizations.
“Our program offers an opportunity to different communities like the Boys & Girls Club,” McManigle said. “As we start to work with the Buffalo Public Schools system, with the charter schools, as we start to do more with that, then we obviously provide more of an opportunity.”
Hasek’s Heroes board of directors member Rich Jureller has watched McManigle work wonders with increasing the numbers in the program.
“He really went in there and was able to make the connections and open the doors to different places that had access to these children, because a big part for the kids in that demographic is access to this sport,” Jureller said. “Can they get to the rink? Do they understand what hockey is, because a lot of them aren’t seeing it on TV or they’re not coming to the games.”
Hasek’s Heroes gives kids ages 4 to 14 opportunities to learn how to skate and play the sport. With 1,000 youth in the program, it can be challenging to get them all ice time. However, Hasek’s Heroes manages two city rinks — Riverside and Cazenovia Parks — so the organization is able to slot ideal ice times for its young skaters. Each kid is on the ice a minimum of one hour each week.
Parents don’t register their kids for the program, instead, they submit an application.
“There’s criteria they have to meet financially, and everybody under the poverty line gets a free roster spot in our program,” McManigle said.
That includes free equipment, ice time and coaching.
Hasek’s Heroes keeps moving forward with the help of grants such as the NHL and USA Hockey’s partnership through the Hockey is for Everyone grant. Another big supporter is the Buffalo Sabres and the Sabres Foundation. Hasek’s Heroes is one of the Sabres’ signature programs it assists.
“It’s important for us that anybody that wants to play the game or experience the game in some fashion has access to it,” said Jureller, who is the president of the Sabres Foundation and is the Sabres vice president of community relations. “With the popularity of this sport, when you get into the suburban communities, all the kids are already playing. It’s trying to find the kids who aren’t playing and figure out why they’re not playing and try to eliminate those barriers. At least try to introduce them to the sport and what they do with it from that point, some will love it, some won’t. At least make sure they all have access to it on some level.”
Hasek’s Heroes’ latest push is to raise enough funds to start an in-house league free of charge for the participants. McManigle noted there were quite a few communities around the United States that offer free skating and hockey lessons, but very few that offer a league at no cost.
At this time, kids go through learn-to-skate and gradually move up to each level when they are ready. Once they reach high school age, however, the kids don’t have a place to play.
“Inner-city hockey here in high schools is just failing, it’s decreasing,” McManigle said. “Those kids are just not playing the game. So, as we put them through our program, if we can get them to 12 to 13 years old, we then can provide them with a hockey team or a league. Then, when they’re eligible for high school, they’ve got those skills — and we can hopefully provide a scholarship for them.”
Creating an in-house league is important to the Hasek’s Heroes board as well as everyone with the organization.
“Most importantly, it’s important to Dom,” Jureller said. “We really want this to be an opportunity where it’s not just the instruction and ice time, but it’s, ‘Hey, I’m on a team, I’ve got a jersey. My team’s playing my buddy’s team this week.’
“Our city’s not unlike a lot of other big cities that are struggling and things get cut, sports programs get cut and a lot of kids don’t have access to playing hockey. So, for us to be able to create a league is really, really important.”
Kids who participate in Hasek’s Heroes aren’t just taught hockey, they are told the importance of doing well in school. The kids have their grades monitored and McManigle tries to use hockey as a motivating force to help the kids succeed academically.
Hasek’s Heroes also provides the kids a safe haven and a place where they can have positive interaction with coaches, who also serve as role models and mentors.
“It’s a place where kids want to be,” McManigle said. “If we can occupy them for at least an hour a week inside a building and give them something to look forward to, I think that it carries over to the other hours that they’re not with us.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.