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Making Strides: Another success story for Columbus Ice Hockey Club

Ayo Adeniye, 18, is further evidence CIHC's diversity efforts are paying off.

by Brian Hedger BlueJacketsNHL / BlueJackets.com

O'Ree talks to AAA Blue Jackets

NHL trailblazer talks to youth hockey club

In his latest visit to Columbus, Willie O'Ree spoke to members of the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets

  • 03:05 •

One of Ayo Adeniye's most vivid memories is the story of how he fell in love with hockey.

He's 18 now, a tall, rangy defenseman who plays for the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets, but was only 3 at the time.

He was at a friend's birthday party at the OhioHealth Chiller Easton, and Adeniye saw his first hockey game rather than ice skating with the other kids.

"My mom was super over-protective," said Adeniye, who eventually learned to skate and play through the Columbus Ice Hockey Club (CIHC). "She wouldn't let me skate at the party, so she took me on the other side and there was a high school game going on. I think it was DeSales vs. Gahanna."

The game moved fast. The players ran into each other at high rates of speed. There were skates and sticks, and a whole bunch for a 3-year old boy to like. He was hooked.

 "There was a kid who just got slammed right in front of me, and I was like, 'That looks sick, I want to play hockey,'" Adeniye said. "I told my mom that, and she was like, 'No, you can do this or you can do that, maybe football, maybe basketball,' but I was like, 'No, I want to play hockey.'"

His mom, Lisa Ramos, remembers that day too. It was the day that led to her current status as a hockey mom.

"He was so little at the time," Ramos said. "The only way he could get on the ice at the party was if I got on with him, and, you know, that wasn't happening. At the Chiller Easton, they used to have these benches around the glass. He couldn't see over the railing, so I stood him on the bench, so he could see the game."

She remembers what happened next in great detail.

"He literally laid his hands and face on the glass, and they kept crashing into it in front of him," Ramos said. "He turns around, looks at me and goes, 'Mommy, I want to play hockey.'"

Ramos didn't give it a second thought.

Nobody in her family played hockey. None of her friends played hockey. She didn't even know where to start with that one, so she gave her son the old, 'OK, whatever,' and thought that would be the last of it.

It wasn't the last of it. In fact, it was just starting.

LIFE-CHANGING DISCOVERY

They tried other sports first with little Ayo, like pee-wee football and Little Tykes basketball at the YMCA. He wouldn't let go of hockey.

During one of the basketball games, Ramos noticed him sort of gliding up and down the court, using long strides, lost in a world of his own.

"What are you doing out there?" she finally asked.

"I'm pretending to play hockey," he answered.

That was the end of it for basketball.

Ramos, who now lives in Mississippi with her husband, realized she was fighting a losing battle. Her son loved a sport she knew nothing about, but she was determined to learn more about it. It didn't take her long. She ran into a former high-school classmate, Jeff Christian, and he told her about a hockey program designed specifically for city kids.

Christian and others, including John Haferman of the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, co-founded it in 1999. The program was CIHC, which has a partnership with the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation.

One of the program's goals is to promote diversity in hockey by introducing the sport to disadvantaged kids who likely wouldn't get exposure to the spot otherwise. There are clinics held at more than 30 recreational centers and Chiller ice rinks each year, starting with floor hockey and progressing to skating.

Eventually, they teach kids how to play hockey, and put together competitive youth teams. That's where Adeniye finally got his wish to lace up skates and hit the ice.

He isn't the first to go through the CIHC program, won't be the last, but is among the many great stories that have sprouted from it. An athletic defenseman with size (6-foot-5), Adeniye is starting to draw some college interest.

"Every single year, we've had some kind of amazing story that comes out of our program," said Haferman, CIHC's executive director and CRPD's director of hockey operations. "So, to me, it's not amazing. It doesn't justify our program as a sort of a 'Developing the Next NHL Player,' program, but we take a kid like Ayo, who would never have played hockey, and we helped him in his maturity and the maturation process. We use hockey as a hook to get kids in, so we can affect their lives in a positive way. Those are the big things that we work on."

Haferman has a long list of inspirational stories to pick from.

For starters, there's the girl who played with CIHC and won the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship. She played in two women's national championship games for Miami of Ohio, winning one, and is now back in Columbus teaching at an inner-city school.

Yet another CIHC alum is working for Huntington Bank. Others are attending college.

"You've got super good kids who've come through our program, and I think hockey helps give you those characteristics of a person who can be very successful … the perseverance and everything else," Haferman said. "They're not professional hockey players, but they're doing exactly what you would hope they could do with the kind of support they get in a program like this."

WILLIE'S WORDS

Adeniye's been getting that support for nearly 15 years, and much has happened since he started with CIHC.

He's played a lot of hockey, has given back as a volunteer coach at the clinics, and he's met the legendary Willie O'Ree, who broke the NHL's color barrier Jan. 18, 1958 with the Boston Bruins.

"He's the Jackie Robinson of hockey," Adeniye said. "I've met him countless times, actually. He's worked with the [CIHC] program. My mom moved to Mississippi, so I'm up here with my grandparents, but when she was here, we'd drive him around wherever he needed to go. I'd pick his brain a little bit, which was fun."

O'Ree, 82, has made quite a few visits to Columbus since CIHC began. His most recent trip was in October, when he attended the Blue Jackets' game against the Los Angeles Kings at Nationwide Arena and met with more CIHC kids.

"I tell these boys and girls, 'We are three individuals within ourselves,'" said O'Ree, rubbing the Bruins alumni ring on his right hand. "We're the person we think we are, we're the person who other people think we are and we're the person who we really are.' The thing is to look down inside yourself and find out who the real person is within yourself, and believe in yourself."

Adeniye heard that message when he was younger.

He later embodied it, at the age of 14, when he didn't make the final cut for the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets.

"It was devastating for him," Ramos said. "That was really hard. He knew that he wanted to keep playing hockey, so we did everything we could to stay in a competitive situation."

Adeniye joined a team out of Indianapolis for a season, playing on weekends. He also joined the Cleveland Lumberjacks for a year, with Ramos driving him to and from games.

"That was his mom's least favorite year," she said. "We'd drive 2-1/2 hours up there. I'd sleep in the car. He'd play a game or practice, and then we'd drive 2-1/2 hours back home. Then, he'd get up and go to school the next day. Then, we'd do it all over again."

Adeniye also spent time with teams in Iowa and Florida before the AAA Blue Jackets asked him to try out again, prior to this season.

This time he made it.

"As we say, the paths for everybody are different," said Ed Gingher, who heads up the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets program. "As soon as we saw him at tryouts, it was like, 'We've got to get Ayo back in the program.' He's been a big part of our team this year, and he's already generating some college interest, because he's a 6-foot-5 defenseman. He's one of the best athletes on our team, and he's willing to put in the work."

He's thrilled to be back home, too, living with his grandparents. They used to work at Nationwide Arena as ushers, but know about hockey because of their grandson.

"I'd always go to Blue Jackets games, and they'd try to sneak me down to the lower bowl a little bit," Adeniye said. "My family loves coming out to games now. I always try to get a surplus of tickets and get them to Jackets' games. I'll sit behind them to explain what's happening, and once they learn how the game is played, they're like, 'This is fun.'"

His family's reaction is similar to the kids who first experience hockey through CIHC.

"Everyone should be able to try and play hockey," he said. "It's a fun game. I've played basketball. I've played football. I just loved hockey."

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