Michael Watson got his boys into hockey at a young age.
Spencer and Sam both played up through the ranks of the Columbus Ice Hockey Club (CIHC). Now, Spencer is playing for one of the best prep hockey schools in the country, Culver Academy, and Sam is lacing up his skates for the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets.
The two kids have the central Ohio-based CIHC to thank for their development as players and young men.
“I think the ice hockey club really exposed them to and built the love of the game in them,” said Watson, who is president of the organization. “There’s not many kids of color that play hockey, especially during the time when they started. Diversity is something that has gotten better. But when I look at my two kids specifically, Columbus Ice Hockey Club really bred into them, not only the love of the game, but the importance of respecting the game, honoring the game and really what it means to be a good teammate — what it means to actually step outside of your comfort zone and find success.”
There have been similar success stories for some of the hundreds of kids who have played for CIHC over the years.
In a grassroots effort, John Haferman and Jeff Christian co-founded the club in 1999 and partnered with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department (CRPD) to offer economically disadvantaged boys and girls of all ages in the Columbus area opportunities to play hockey. Roughly 60-65 percent of the kids in the program are either at or below the poverty line.
“I think the best thing about the organization is we are a program that is here to help feed the passions that the kids have to play hockey and once we start feeding that passion, one of the greatest things is we connect the kids,” said Watson, who has been associated with CIHC since 2006. “We show the kids through hockey all the different possibilities that hockey can bring to them.”
CRPD runs street hockey and learn-to-skate programs. CIHC then takes those skaters and allows them to play ice hockey through a learn-to-play program and in-house teams.
“One program couldn’t exist without the other,” Haferman said, who is the executive director of CIHC and director of hockey operations for CRPD.
Over the last 19 years, CIHC has grown to 11 teams: one 4U, one 8U, two 10U, two 12U, two 14U, one 16U, one high school junior varsity and one girls 19U.
“We’re a small group, but I consider us a developmental program for the city of Columbus,” Haferman said.
There are more than 4,000 kids who participate in Columbus’ street hockey and learn-to-skate programs with around 170 kids playing in CIHC, along with another 40-50 kids in the learn-to-play program.
“Hockey is growing in this city and we want to be part of that growth engine,” Watson said. “We want to be a key cog in the engine. And so, the way to do that is to continue to partner, continue to open up doors to schools and rec centers throughout central Ohio.”
The hockey club has a pretty solid retention rate as players who start in the system work their way up.
“Some years you’ll have a kid who goes from our October learn-to-skate to our November learn-to-play to playing games in January,” Haferman said. “It’s a little bit rare, but it happens every year.”
With nearly two decades of players coming through the CIHC program, the organization started an alumni game three years ago to celebrate its history. This year, the game brought back more than 40 former skaters.
“You don’t really know the kind of impact you have on peoples’ lives until years later when they come back and say what an amazing little ride they had and how much they liked it,” Haferman said.
Even more impactful is all but five or six of the nearly 30 coaches who help with the learn-to-skate and the 11 hockey teams played for the CIHC program.
“It’s amazing how kids are now coming back and coaching,” Haferman said. “That’s probably the best story; that we have kids who come back and want to coach after they graduate college.”
Said Watson: “Success is getting those kids to come back into the community and to give back in a meaningful way. We’re starting to see that.”
CIHC isn’t just about hockey; it’s about teaching good academic foundations. The program stresses having the kids do well in school and learn lifelong lessons on and off the rink.
“For us, if the educational component isn’t there, it doesn’t matter how good of a hockey player you are,” Watson said. “It’s your mind that’s going to get you further than anything else.”
When Haferman helped start the CIHC program, he never imagined where it would be nearly two decades later.
“I’m ecstatic,” Haferman said. “I don’t think there was ever any way we thought it would get to where it is now and we’re continuing to evaluate every year with things that are going right, things that we could do to improve and try to get one thing added every single year.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc
Steve Alley’s hockey resume is long and covers almost every level. He played four years at the University of Wisconsin under “Badger” Bob Johnson, winning two NCAA national championships. He played in three IIHF World Championships for Team USA in 1974, 1975 and 1978, also making a pit stop in Innsbruck for the 1976 Winter Olympics with Team USA. Eventually, he made his way to the pro leagues, playing a handful of NHL games with the Hartford Whalers after several years with the Birmingham Bulls in the World Hockey Association.
In his time abroad with Team USA, Alley was able to experience hockey in a new fashion, often travelling to Europe and playing against revered powers in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. While he was able to learn from and adopt the European style of hockey at the time, spending time behind the Iron Curtain was a social educational experience, too.
“What I’ve realized is that the Olympic experience, of all my hockey experience, winds up being the most important because it’s a global experience,” Alley said. “To this day, me saying I’m an Olympian probably means more than anything relative to my hockey career. USA Hockey gave me that opportunity.”
Those days inspired him to give back to USA Hockey. Alley, and his wife Joanie, are members of The USA Hockey Foundation’s Circle of Champions, meaning they make a donation of $1,000 or more annually.
With his pro hockey days now behind him, Alley owns his own money management firm, Alley Company. He enjoys watching hockey and seeing how it’s evolved since his playing days, and he cheers for the Blackhawks and the Red Wings.