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Hockey In Newark Scores With Newark Kids

by Anthony Smith / New Jersey Devils

These Hockey In Newark athletes participated in a clinic at Ironbound Recreation Center in Newark (Photo/Facebook/Hockey In Newark).

For years, youth ice hockey was known as a suburban sport. Hockey In Newark turned that theory into a myth.

Newark Public School teachers Keith Veltre and Dennis Ruppe, formerly teammates on the men’s ice hockey team at William Paterson University, took on the task of bringing hockey to inner-city children free of charge, and they succeeded. The challenge was something they embraced, says Ruppe.

“We wanted to be involved in hockey, it’s our passion,” Ruppe explains. “Keith [Veltre] was given the opportunity to come down here, and he asked me to come with him, and it just exploded from there. It snowballed from us loving to work with kids, to us deciding to become teachers. The team that wound up being built is amazing.”

The program, which started in 2003 with only five children, has blossomed into a program that barely has enough space to accommodate every child who wants to participate.

Devils Arena Entertainment Chairman and CEO Jeff Vanderbeek wanted to make sure Newark children had the opportunity to learn and grow with the sport. While parents from other areas may have doubted the potential for youth hockey succeeding in Newark, Vanderbeek believed that was a strong misconception.

“I knew Hockey In Newark would be a great success because of the passion that Keith and Dennis have,” Vanderbeek says. “We are so proud to be working with the program.”

Veltre coaching the East Side High School Red Raiders (Photo/Facebook/Hockey In Newark).

“We just had our equipment handout for 6th through 10th graders, and we had over 40 kids sign up,” according to Veltre. “At one time, we could send out flyers to all the Newark schools and have five kids show up … I think it’s fair to say we’ll have well over 200 kids when all is said and done this year, ages six on up to 18, maybe more.”

The program lacked success in its early years, which inspired Veltre to keep his eye on the prize and keep his young athletes motivated.

“You can’t sugar coat things with these kids,” Veltre explains. “I told them you might not see results this year, and you might not see them next year. Maybe by the time you graduate, you may not have won many games. But you guys are going to lay the seeds, you guys are going to start the foundation for this program that you guys can look back on and say, I was a part of that, and maybe in ten, twelve years, be very proud of what you see. I said we need you guys to help build this program, because it was kind of like us against the world.”

While Veltre sees results on the rink, he also sees hockey equal results in the classroom. But without a program like Hockey In Newark, many student-athletes wouldn’t be as successful as they are today, not only while playing hockey, but in school as well, East Side High School Principal Dr. Mario Santos points out.

“It’s engaging them in the high school experience,” Santos says. “They come to school, they’re eager, they’re happy. They’re walking into a class that they’re not really excited about it, they’re saying you know what, there’s a bigger picture than this, at the end of the day I get to go play hockey. The hook is that it saved a lot of kids in terms of in terms of hooking them into a good high school experience, and from there once they get the grades, the opportunities of college open up.”

Because of the Hockey In Newark program, Santos sees poorly performing students blossom into honor roll students because of what hockey provides to a child.

Santos is proud of one child in particular who had to move back to Newark from a suburban area with his mother after she fell on hard times, he explains. The mother was working three jobs just to get by. Her son is a hockey player, and she wanted him to continue to play, so she sent him to East Side High School because of their association with the Hockey In Newark program. Over time, she earned back the means to move back to the suburbs. But she opted not to, because her son, who always struggled in school, was finally succeeding.

“What she finds actually was a prize,” Santos continues. “Her son now getting excited about coming to school. The first time she got a report card, he made the honor roll, and when she finally had the means to go back, she said [she’s] not going anywhere.”

As a teacher, Ruppe also sees hockey create success in his students.

“A kid’s father wanted to take him out of [Hockey In Newark] because he needed to get his grades up,” Ruppe states.

Because the child did not want to stop playing hockey, the prospect of having to quit in order to do better in school provided plenty of motivation.

“Well three semesters in a row he made honor roll, after that he has not had a problem,” Ruppe continues.

The Devils provided tickets to Game 4 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to these Hockey In Newark participants (Photo/Facebook/Hockey In Newark).

“Now he’s like the mayor of the school, running for all sorts of council positions, and everything else.”

Despite the success, Hockey In Newark would not be able to survive without a source of funding. For several years now, the New Jersey Devils have had a strong interest in allowing the program to thrive.

When the Devils moved to Prudential Center in Newark in October of 2007, it created knowledge for hockey that previously didn’t exist within the city.

“It brought a different buzz to the city,” Ruppe observes. “The other day I walked into a gym class [at East Side High School] to recruit kids for the program, and a kid has a New Jersey Devils shirt on, probably something you would of never seen before the Devils came in. It exposed the sport a lot more, and we get the support from the Devils.”

By creating that buzz, Newark kids had a newfound awareness for the game of hockey, and it allowed the Devils to assist in promoting Hockey In Newark, and help the program prosper.

Veltre reiterated that Vanderbeek and the Devils were unwavering in their support of the program.

“Before [the Devils] broke ground, Jeff [Vanderbeek] and Mike [Gilfillan] reached out to Dennis and were interested in helping out in any way they can, Veltre says. “Their lines of communication are always open. We appreciate them always being interested in what’s going on with our kids, in our community, and with our program.”

Ruppe also appreciates the support the Devils provide, and the means they provide to assist in the program’s success.

The Devils hosted a clinic for Hockey In Newark participants at AmeriHealth Pavilion at Prudential Center on October 8th. (Photo/Facebook/Hockey In Newark).

“We get ice [at AmeriHealth Pavillion] for our games, East Side plays all their home games there, they hold equipment drives for us, they give tons of free tickets to all of our high school students, and they have the honor roll program going on throughout the city.”

The honor roll program allows students to earn free tickets to Devils games based on academic success.

While the Devils provided many of the necessary means for the program to continue, Newark Councilman Augusto Amador helped provide the support of the city. Amador convinced the city of Newark to take unprecedented action to assist the program, finding extra funding that could be provided to the program so it could thrive.

“We were able to get the city of Newark to sign an agreement with Hockey In Newark for the utilization of the [Ironbound Recreation Center],” Amador states. “This is a first for the city.”

When Amador came on board with the program, he was criticized for supporting a program that was not a popular sport in Newark.

“It’s a soccer community [in the Ironbound]. The decision [Councilman Amador] made at the time wasn’t a popular one, but it was the right one,” Veltre believes.

Amador was aware that backing the program would be a very large risk. But years later, Amador could not be more pleased with the rewards that his risk produced.

We want to keep this a free program so that no matter what demographic you're from, you can be a part of hockey ... That's what Hockey In Newark is doing, we want to expose any kid who wants to play the sport, no matter where you're from, no matter what you have, you can try the sport. - Dennis Ruppe

“It was a very pleasant surprise for me, to recognize that the program was going to be as successful as it is now,” Amador says. “We began with about 40 to 50 kids about four or five years ago. Now, not only the entire community is aware of the program, but also the city of Newark is aware of the program, and it’s gone beyond not only the city of Newark, but into the state of New Jersey.”

Seeing how much hockey has grown in Newark has not only been a pleasant surprise for Amador, but the growing success of the program and of the teams that participate in it leaves many folks from suburban areas outside of Newark in shock as to just how far hockey has come in the city.

“Most parents who come with their kids from suburbs to play East Side [High School], they’re under the perception that this is an urban team, they’re just starting to play hockey, and they’re going to be demolished,” Amador notices. “But all of a sudden they’re faced with reality, and to them it’s a shock.”

Vanderbeek also thinks that Hockey in Newark would always succeed, despite what some outsiders may have believed.

“Quite frankly, to me that [belief] was BS,” he told The Star-Ledger.

With the progress and success that has been seen as a result of the Hockey In Newark program, Amador believes that many people underestimate the power of what hockey can do for a child.

“Hockey has become an outlet for kids to dream higher, and really become serious about their own lives.”

For more, head to NJ Youth Hockey Central.

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