“There’s a lot of opportunities kids will never get if they don’t get to step on the ice for the first time.”
18-year-old Akeem Adesiji would know.
Adesiji, who built a relationship with hockey through the Columbus Ice Hockey Club (CIHC), was recently named one of four recipients of the 2016 NHL/Thurgood Marshall College Fund Academic Scholarship awarded to outstanding youth hockey players.
John Haferman, CIHC’s director, remembers Adesiji from the time the young man was three years old. He started in a non-hockey related pre-school club put on by Columbus’ Parks and Recreation department. Adesiji’s family wanted him to pursue soccer, but he eventually started playing street hockey and moved to the ice thereafter, leading to an experience Adesiji calls “life changing.”
Now 10 years after starting, Adesiji is not just playing hockey, but he’s moved on to volunteering and coaching through CIHC, motivated by their slogan “hockey is for everyone” – a saying that is now on a sticker on Adesiji’s refrigerator.
“A lot of people don’t understand how inaccessible hockey is for inner city and underprivileged kids, and CIHC makes hockey affordable,” Adesiji said. “Everything they do to drive down the cost and make (hockey) accessible is really important.”
The importance of that access is obvious when Adesiji rattles off a list of volunteer coaches who helped him, including who taught him a slap shot, guys he loved being around and who showed him the value of working hard.
“They made hockey a lot of fun for me, so I’m just trying to be that same person for the kids I’m working with,” Adesiji said.
It’s that compassion, in addition to his intelligence and sense of humor, that Haferman says makes Adesiji such an asset to those who come in contact with him, including those he first started mentoring through CIHC.
Haferman had Adesiji work within the therapeutic rec program, which brings children with cognitive and physical issues to the ice. From there Adesiji has expanded his contributions to working with the group at every opportunity to teach and grow the game of hockey, including in the summers.
“The kids absolutely love him,” Haferman said. “He’s also highly-skilled, so the other kids in our program listen to him.”
So when it came time to apply for the NHL’s scholarship, Haferman knew Adesiji would be a fit. Haferman and one of last year’s winners, Cassidy Guthrie (who also hails from CIHC), encouraged Akeem, a Whetstone senior, to apply and they were also two of the first to congratulate the 4.0 grade point average student when he won.
But Adesiji doesn’t have much interest in talking about his own accomplishments; he’s quick to deflect attention back to the organization he calls his ‘home away from home.’
“It’s great for me to be able to get (CIHC) a little more recognition because the things they do are really great, and I don’t think enough people know about it,” Adesiji said. “Whenever I can do something to help the club look good or give them the recognition they deserve, I am always happy to do so.”
Adesiji will bundle his NHL Thurgood Marshall Scholarship along with other awards including scholarships from the Rotary Club, the Blue Jackets Foundation and his destination this fall, Allegheny College, where he plans to study environmental science.
“The opportunities (hockey) has given me…I’ve been all over the country. I’ve been to Minnesota for the #HartnellDown camp; I went to the Willie O’Ree skills competition,” Adesiji said. “It’s taken me so many places I never thought I’d be able to go, and now it’s helping to pay for college.”
And though Adesiji is leaving Columbus to pursue his studies, he’s far from done with ice hockey and CIHC. He hopes to join the club hockey team at Allegheny and is looking forward to coming back to Columbus during breaks to help out with hockey and skating lessons, as well as open skates and street hockey sessions.
“He’s the kind of the kid you want all your kids to meet and say: this is what hard work and passion look like, and look where it will take you," Haferman said. "His legacy is just being a really good kid.”