Newark, N.J. — Not every kid gets the chance to try hockey, whether it’s on the ice or on the street. The New Jersey Devils are working to change that by bringing street hockey to Newark children. As an after-school program, the Devils are giving students the chance to try a new pursuit and develop an interest in the sport. And if they become Devils fans, that’s icing on the cake.
The program was built through a partnership between the team and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s office, as an aspect of the Mayor’s seasonal “Fun in the City” initiative. Devils senior vice president of community investment, Jim Leonard, recalls the administration was looking for help increasing physical activity in Newark. Leonard and volunteers assist “primarily in areas that don’t get as much attention paid to them.” The program is designed to provide fun, physical activity while also raising hockey awareness.
In recent weeks, a rotating group of Devils staff has accompanied Leonard to the Quitman Street Community School in central Newark to run hockey games for up to 100 students ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade.
Each week is a little different. Depending on the available space, and how many kids attend a given day, there might be skill competitions, an inflatable puck-shooting station, beanbag toss and, of course, hockey. No matter the activity, the kids at Quitman are always smiling and having a good time, although some clearly wish they could play hockey the entire time.
Each hockey session starts with a quick tutorial or refresh on the basics. The most important thing volunteers try to teach the kids, whether kindergarteners or more advanced students, is the importance of keeping sticks on the ground. Since sometimes it becomes a mob of players chasing the puck, keeping sticks on the ground helps avoid accidental injuries. Whether it’s three-on-three, five-on-five, or sometimes a free-for-all trying to score goals, the kids embrace trying to get the puck in the net. It does not matter if there’s a peer, a volunteer, or nobody playing goalie, the fun is all the same.
Sometimes with the younger children it becomes a game of taking turns in a shootout style competition, with each kid taking a turn on offense and as goalie. But with the older students, more traditional hockey is much more common, and the children have fun trying to take shots against the volunteers, who don’t make it easy.
The group of kids is never small enough for everyone to play hockey at once, so volunteers divide the players into groups that rotate between the activities. Sometimes it’s by grade level, allowing volunteers to adjust the hockey station based on age and ability, and sometimes it’s as simple as the first ones in the room get first choice.
At the end of the afternoon, when it’s time for the students to head home, everyone gets one last surprise. Whether it’s a t-shirt, pennant, puck or poster, no kid goes home without a gift from the Devils.