WASHINGTON – Fourteen years after the NHL developed its Hockey is for Everyone initiative, tens of thousands of inner city youth have benefitted from the chance to play hockey at little or no cost.
At a Congressional Hockey Caucus on Capitol Hill, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stressed that the real benefits of the program go well beyond the rink.
"The NHL's Hockey is for Everyone initiative is about character development and life skills training," Bettman said Wednesday during a panel discussion which also included Ed Snider and Ted Leonsis, majority owners of the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals, respectively. "These skills lead to success in life and help clear a pathway to academic achievement and in most cases, higher education."
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With an emphasis on success in the classroom, Bettman announced a partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund that will provide future participants in the NHL's official youth development program opportunities to further their education with four-year academic scholarships.
The scholarships will be awarded based on need and merit and will allow recipients to attend any of the country's 47 public Historically Black College & Universities (HBCUs).
"The Hockey is for Everyone initiative isn't about making it to the NHL," Bettman said. "It's about more than just shooting, passing or scoring goals. Rather, it's about essential life skills, education and the core values of hockey, which are commitment, perseverance, team work and hard work. We leverage hockey as a catalyst to help children become better citizens, hard workers and to value education."
Snider and Leonsis were included on the panel due to their efforts in helping expand hockey participation among inner city youth.
Leonsis and the Capitals have partnered with the Fort DuPont Ice Hockey Program -- the oldest inner city hockey program in the country -- and recently donated $50,000 to the Friends of Fort DuPont ice rink. Earlier this season, Capitals forward Joel Ward ran a hockey clinic with program participants.
In Philadelphia, Snider helped launch the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation (ESYHF) in 2005. The program began with one full-time coach but now includes 76 full or part-time coaches with more than 1,400 youth players.
"Playing in the program is one of the most wonderful experiences I've ever had in my life because it opened me up to a lot of opportunities," said 15-year-old Kaseir Archie. "Three years ago, hockey wasn't even in my head at all. At first, I didn't even want to join, but I tried out and I love it because it's given me a lot of opportunities. Last week, they sent me up to Buffalo for the Willie O'Ree Skills Competition, and I played pond hockey for the first time in my life -- you can't do that in Philadelphia."
Archie, who plays for the ESYHF Wolfpack – one of Snider's youth travel teams – is a self-described rink rat. With practices three days a week, Archie spends his two other weekday afternoons helping coach younger kids during their scheduled practices.
"When I see what's going on in the inner cities in this country, particularly in my city, Philadelphia, I can't imagine what it would be like to worry about not just fists, but guns," Snider said. "And to me, that's just horrible. So I wanted to do something and I realized that I could help through hockey."
In six years since he created the foundation, more than $20 million has been raised from private donors, the city of Philadelphia and from Snider himself to help get inner city youth involved in hockey.
Under Snider's watch three city rinks have been refurbished -- all now also include classrooms on site.
"The young men and women that are participants in the program," said Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., "will be schooled in their life skills and their commitment to their academics as well as their hockey skills.
"So it's not just about seeing an inner-city man have the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League," the former NHL referee said. "But maybe someday we'll see someone from that background come in and be the NHL commissioner."