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
Three minutes and 18 seconds. That’s all the time it took for the 1996 United States World Cup squad to shock the hockey world. From 1981-1994, the U.S. Men’s National Team struggled against their neighbors to the north. They had never before beaten Canada in a best-on-best battle through that stretch. But during the inaugural World Cup of Hockey, they did. They became the best in the world, a success USA Hockey hopes to repeat in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
“In Canada, hockey is their pride,” Hockey Hall of Famer and 1996 U.S. team member Pat LaFontaine said. “You’re not supposed to come in to Canada and beat them, best against best. Just look at the names we were going up against. Their four centermen were Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic. We had to beat that talented group of players twice in a row in Montreal. It was a pretty hefty task but the guys really took it upon their shoulders and made it happen.”
America put its best on the ice, too. Along with LaFontaine, the 1996 U.S. World Cup roster boasted legendary last names such as Chelios, Amonte, Modano and Richter. It was a team made up of 97 percent NHL players with a blend of Olympic veterans and rising stars.
Rise to the Top
In its inaugural year, the format for the World Cup of Hockey changed slightly from its predecessor, the Canada Cup. Eight teams were separated into two groups, European and North American.
The U.S. completed the round robin group games with a perfect 3-0-0 record, defeating Canada (5-3), Russia (5-2) and Slovakia (9-3). The team’s scoring prowess was notable, outscoring the combined three teams 19-8.
The victories moved Team USA to the semifinals against Russia. The boys in red, white and blue ousted the Russians, 5-2, at Madison Square Garden.
“Beating Russia in Madison Square Garden, that was a pretty emotional game,” said LaFontaine. “I think there were a lot of eyes on that U.S. World Cup team in 1996 and everyone wanted to see us succeed and move on to the finals.
“The way our team came together with a passion and a want to achieve something is why we advanced.”
The win pushed the U.S. to the finals where they faced the heavily favored Canadians in the best-of-three championship. The U.S. narrowly lost the first game in Philadelphia with an overtime score of 4-3. It set up a must-win situation for Game 2 in Montreal. Team USA rose to the occasion, forcing a decisive Game 3 after downing the Canadians, 5-2.
But Game 3 in Montreal wasn’t going to be as easy the first. Heading into the third period, Canada held a 2-1 lead as the clock dwindled.
With just 3:18 remaining in the game, Brett Hull deflected a shot from Brian Leetch past Canadian goaltender Curtis Joseph to knot it at two. Forty-three seconds later Tony Amonte found himself skating through the slot. Derian Hatcher sailed the puck toward the net, Amonte getting a piece of it. After a lengthy review, the goal stood. Team USA was ahead, 3-2, with little more than two minutes to go.
“I remember watching the puck go in off Tony Amonte and soon after that we just took complete control of the game,” recalled LaFontaine, a 15-year NHL veteran, two-time Olympian and 2003 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee. “It’s amazing how things happen and how they can change in a matter of minutes. It was just one of those surreal moments. No one was rattled as the third period wound down. It was a collective calm and that’s what helped us rally to win.”
Derian Hatcher followed with an empty-net goal and Adam Deadmarsh snuck one more past Joseph to seal the deal, 5-2. U.S. goaltender Mike Richter was outstanding in net. The hall of famer made 180 saves through six games and finished the tournament with a .923 save percentage. His play earned him the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award, cementing his place among the world’s elite players.
“We couldn’t have done it without Mike,” LaFontaine said of the team’s netminder. “He was absolutely amazing. He carried the team on his back through that tournament. We all have him to thank for achieving what we did in ’96.”
For LaFontaine and his teammates, the win was comparable to what they had witnessed watching the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice.’ It was the first international championship for Team USA since Lake Placid and a monumental step forward for USA Hockey. Once again the paradigm of hockey in the world had shifted in the Americans favor.
“We broke a barrier,” said LaFontaine. “Just look at where USA Hockey is now. There was a respect we earned worldwide with that victory.”
Bringing it Back in 2016
The World Cup of Hockey made its second appearance in 2004. After a 12-year drought, the NHL announced this January that the series is coming back in 2016.
“I think bringing back the World Cup is tremendous,” LaFontaine said. “I think the game is at a great place. It’s grown and seems to be achieving great levels as far as exposure, excitement and growth. To have the World Cup come back again, I couldn’t be happier.”
With 20 years between the 1996 World Cup, LaFontaine says it’s time for the U.S. to mark another big win on the international stage.
“If you look back in USA Hockey, there were those pillars that were defined by important wins,” said LaFontaine. “The 1960 and 1980 Olympics were two, followed by the 1996 World Cup and the 1998 women’s Olympic gold medal. Those were the big defining moments of USA Hockey. I think we’re due for another one.”
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