Youth Work On Ice

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An unusual twist in youth development work began modestly in 1977 when Neal Henderson decided to use his driveway outside Washington, D.C., to show his son and a few neighborhood kids how to play ice hockey.

The youngsters' interest gave Henderson other ideas. The next year he founded the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, now the nation's oldest hockey program principally designed to teach hockey to minority city kids - kids who might not otherwise ever visit an ice rink or learn to skate.

Against the tide of stereotypes, Henderson, himself a former semi-pro player, believed hockey was a great game for black youngsters.

Coincidentally, a similar idea surfaced in 1981 as an answer on an application to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Asked what he would do with a year of free time, applicant Dave Wilk, a former Rutgers College hockey player, wrote that he would "develop an inner-city hockey program." Five years later he did, persuading Seagrams, his employer at the time, to support the founding of Ice Hockey in Harlem.

With 35 black or Hispanic kids from schools and recreation centers in East Harlem - none knew how to ice skate - Wilk created his own landmark youth program against the advice of many adults in Harlem. "I was repeatedly told, 'Our people don't play hockey,'" Wilk recalls. "But as soon as I began talking to the kids, I was struck by their obvious interest.

"They wanted to know, 'When are you coming back? Can you come back next week?' So I went back the next week - and in a way, I've been coming back ever since."

The Fort Dupont and Harlem initiatives became models for other skating programs targeting minority youths. Wilk moved on to create the largest such program in the country, here in Anaheim, through the Mighty Ducks NHL team. Yes, even the overwhelmingly white National Hockey League is endorsing the effort: The NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force lists 30 youth programs "in various stages of development" to focus on bringing the game to minority communities. Along with players from 22 countries, the NHL now lists 31 "minority" players on 2000-01 rosters, out of 750 active players.

But developing future stars or winning games now is not the primary goal for Henderson, Wilk, et al. The minority youth hockey programs feature strong off-ice youth development components, stressing schoolwork and community service.

Huge obstacles abound. Aside from stereotypes, there is the fact that playing hockey is very expensive.

Fruit for Pucks

The uniforms, pads and skates required to turn a youth into a force on ice are costly. Most programs say that it costs $500 to $1,000 a player for a season, and in the pay-to-play youth leagues that are common across North America, parents can shell out several thousand dollars on equipment, fees for ice time and travel. Some elite youth teams fly to Europe; the cost to play in such leagues can rise to five figures per child.

Programs like Fort Dupont and its descendants - such as the Skating Institute of Rochester (N.Y.), Hockey K.I.D.S. in Cincinnati, and the Clark Park Coalition in Detroit - aim to give minority kids the chance to play at no cost, but some offshoots accept donations or dues from parents. (A few charge the $22 USA Hockey membership fee on the theory that a small fee encourages parents to make sure the kids show up.)

The efforts are usually staffed by volunteers who tape together old equipment and pull together myriad fund raisers. Henderson, who played semi-pro hockey in Utah and in the Washington, D.C., area, began the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club in 1978 with 23 kids, none of whom could skate. "We started with almost nothing," he says. "A few friends donated some old equipment."

Today the program serves 70 kids, who practice twice a week. Volunteer coaches include a Maryland minister who drives over an hour to the rink and a D.C. policeman who was in the Fort Dupont Club as a youth.

The biggest expense: $13,000 a year for ice time. Activities like out-of-town trips for games sometimes depend on what's in the treasury overseen by Betty Dean, a school secretary who's been the club's volunteer business manager since 1981.

Dean has never been on ice skates and had never seen a hockey game until Henderson recruited her. "Coach asked me if I had any ideas for fund raisers," she says.

These days Dean attends every Fort Dupont practice, keeps attendance records and oversees fund-raising efforts that have included selling candy, raffle tickets and, at Christmas time, boxes of Florida fruit. The fruit sales produce $2,000 a year. "We never felt the need to raise major money," says Dean, "because we didn't have grandiose ideas."

Fort Dupont has received a $10,000 grant from the NHL ASSIST Program, which gives about $100,000 a year to hockey programs, and another $5,000 grant from USA Hockey. The NHL Washington Capitals once chipped in $1,000 for a trip.

"We work with what we have," says Henderson, a retired motor vehicle inspections supervisor in D.C.

Fort Dupont has an advantage over many minority-oriented programs: The Fort Dupont Ice Arena, D.C.'s only indoor rink, is in a minority neighborhood. Many players live only a few blocks away.

Thus, Fort Dupont practices draw a faithful corps of parents; the program has a notable "family" atmosphere that Henderson encourages.

Across the country, the Disney program has more money than Fort Dupont, but can only wish for the same amount of parental involvement.

Hockey in Spanish

"We beg for parents. We plead for them," says Wilk as he watches Disney GOALS youths skate in the practice rink of the NHL's Anaheim Mighty Ducks. "But if I see one parent a week, that's a lot - parents just don't come to our games."

Yet some participants say Disney GOALS is like a family. "It got me off the streets," says Frank Cardona, 20, who skates with a Disney GOALS college-age team that plays against college teams in Southern California - and sometimes wins.

Cardona says hockey saved him from gang involvement that landed his older brother a 25-year prison sentence. "David [Wilk] is like a father figure to me. We never really saw our dad. My younger sister is a goalie in the program."

The Walt Disney Company lured Wilk to Anaheim from Harlem in 1994 to create Disney GOALS. It is now the largest program of its type, with 500 regular participants, ages 6 to 19, and year-round activities scheduled five days a week. Funded by activities such as celebrity golf tournaments and fund-raising auctions with NHL players, along with some corporate gifts, the program has an annual budget of $1.2 million. Fund raising and managing the programs takes a professional manager with entrepreneurial skills - namely, Wilk, who'd rather spend more time on the ice coaching.

On the ice, the shouts between players often comes in Spanish, as in, "ÁPase la!" (pass it) or, "ÁVente a la izquerda!" (go to the left). Most of players come from Hispanic neighborhoods near Anaheim.

There are other ways in which GOALS stands out. Because hockey is played in intense spurts, with one shift of players replacing another every few minutes, the GOALS games are designed to allow younger and older siblings to be on the same team. Each team has shifts of different ages that skate against corresponding shifts on the opposing team.

Hence, older players are encouraged to mentor young ones, and brothers and sisters of differing ages play on the same team. "You don't usually see 21-year-olds playing with six-year-olds," says Wilk, "but I can put a whole family on a team."

Wilk remains an ever-energetic entrepreneur, who regularly devises new activities that involve a hockey theme - even inventing new ways to play hockey-like games. He plans to bring hockey-like play to the corridors of children's hospital wards. He dreams of going nationwide, but Disney wants to go slow. He currently plans only a southward expansion to San Diego.

Pass Class to Pass Pucks

"Almost every kid in our program is a pioneer," says Dee Rieber, executive director of Ice Hockey in Harlem. "Most are trying something that nobody in their family has ever done."

With an almost $500,000 annual budget, Ice Hockey in Harlem serves 285 youngsters ages 4 to 17, including traveling teams that play against teams from suburban pay-to-play leagues. The program uses two New York City sites (an outdoor rink in Central Park and a partially covered rink in a state park).

 "Our kids just don't have the ice time that kids in the suburban leagues get," says Rieber, "but they do wonderfully well for a sport that's not traditionally supported in inner cities."

Rieber, a former Army officer, soap opera actress and school teacher, also remembers her first impression of Ice Hockey in Harlem. "I wondered, 'Do these people really know what they have here in terms of educational and child development values?'"

Ice Hockey in Harlem has a paid staff of four, including an education director and social service director. The program provides counseling services, mentoring and summer camp scholarships. Players must attend classes that range from vocabulary development for small children to tutoring and college preparation classes for older players.

"We use hockey as a catalyst to address other academic issues," says Rieber. A geography lesson, for example, can involve learning the location of the cities in the NHL. Last year the program held its annual graduation, when youngsters advance to the next level in the program, at the historic Apollo Theater.

Lessons Learned

Yet it may be too easy to underestimate how much the chance to play hockey can by itself motivate youngsters. At a recent practice, Henderson underscored the rules to a sad-faced 10-year-old who had produced a bad report card: No skating for a week.

Two of Henderson's players have gone on to play for the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. One was captain of the Navy team.

Yet organizers of new programs also say they still encounter assumptions that minority youngsters cannot, or do not want to, play hockey. Such problems might be partly addressed through the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force advisory committee, which holds an annual summit where the youth programs share their expertise, and which maintains a bank of used equipment. Henderson, of the Fort Dupont program, is vice chair. Betty Dean, his fund-raiser, works on the task force's annual Willie O'Ree All-Star Game (named after the first black player in the NHL), which brings together 24 players from participating minority programs.

But Dean, now in her 20th season keeping Fort Dupont accounts on the fruit box sales, still has to wonder where Coach Henderson will get the new sticks he needs for all his players. On a recent trip to Cumberland, in western Maryland, "Coach says he had just enough sticks for each child," Dean recalls.

The equipment held out; Fort Dupont's older boys beat a high school team from Pennsylvania.

Jim Myers can be reached at