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Weekes meets Newark kids at NHL Store

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils

Harry Smyre (l.) and Kevin Lopez (r.) played Nintendo Wii hockey with Kevin Weekes at the NHL Store on Wednesday.

email – Kevin Lopez and Harry Smyre are a couple of Newark kids that love the Devils and the game of ice hockey.

Lopez, a goaltender, idolizes Martin Brodeur and likes to study chemistry. Smyre, nicknamed "The Bonecrusher," is a defenseman who prides himself on being tough to knock off his skates. His favorite subject is reading, and like Lopez, he excels in the classroom.

Weekes autographed a pair of Devils jerseys.
Lopez boasts a 4.0 GPA at Newark’s Technology High School, while Smyre is an honor roll student at Lafayette Elementary. Together, they're members of the Hockey in Newark program's Newark Americans.

Beyond the rink, they're evidence of the impact that ice hockey is having in New Jersey's largest city.

On Wednesday, the two teens traveled to the NHL Store in midtown Manhattan, where they met with Devils' goaltender Kevin Weekes as part of the League's Hockey Is For Everyone initiative.

“It was awesome,” Weekes said. “They were great kids and a lot of fun to be around. It was nice to get a chance to spend some time with them.”

Just a few years ago, neither Lopez nor Smyre knew much about sticks or pucks – now they can't get enough. Having a chance to hang out with Weekes, share some stories, and play some Nintendo Wii seemed to seal the deal: they’re crazy about hockey.

“I credit the League for taking the initiative seriously and committing the resources,” said Weekes. “I want our game to matter to as many people as possible. The more people that our game matters to, the more relevant it becomes to more people. Any time you have kids hooked on something positive, be it just recreationally or competitively, then their parents, grandparents and siblings are going to follow.”

Smyre, an eighth grader, was shocked to find out he had been selected to meet Weekes.

“He was almost crying on the phone when I called him,” said Keith Veltre, a coach with Hockey in Newark. “It’s a nice experience for them; something different. It’s nice to get them into a different setting.”

The Devils moved into Prudential Center before the start of the 2007-08 season, and local ice hockey participation has been on the rise ever since.

“Since the Devils have come in, our numbers have jumped tremendously,” said Dennis Ruppe, who also coaches in the program. “It seems that there’s a little bit more of a hockey buzz in Newark.”

The numbers back it up. Veltre and Ruppe saved the hockey program at Newark’s East Side High School in 2003 and have grown Hockey in Newark from five skaters to more than 100.

“The sport’s not as foreign to them as it once was, or to their parents,” Veltre said, adding that the Devils have made it possible for kids in the program to attend games at the Rock. “Kids want to be involved with the program and start playing hockey themselves.”

Cynthia Smyre said her son had played basketball and football, but was ready for something different when he decided he would commit to hockey.

“I was surprised when he picked ice hockey,” she said. “I asked, ‘Are you sure?’ I was shocked.”

Harry loved it from the first puck drop.

“After the first week or so, after the practices, after a month, after a year, he started getting good at it,” Cynthia said. That was almost three years ago.

“When I first started, I was an OK skater, but I couldn’t really stop,” said Smyre, who earned his unique nickname after an on-ice collision with a teammate.

“He was skating with the puck, and bumped into me, but he fell. It made it look like I hit him,” Smyre said. Just like that, “The Bonecrusher” was born. “I like hitting people,” he added.

Playing hockey has fed Smyre's interest in the NHL. The Smyres, who have been to about a dozen Devils games, had never attended a single one until the club arrived in Newark.

“Never thought about it,” Cynthia said. “We had only seen games on TV.”

Lopez had only casually noticed hockey on television while flipping through the channels. That changed once he introduced hockey to a household of life-long soccer fans.

“After I started, they were absolutely in love with the game,” Lopez said of his father, who is from Ecuador, and his mother, who is Colombian. “I didn’t have to tell them to go watch hockey, they would do it on their own. I could be playing outside, and they would say, ‘Kev, Kev, the game is on.’ They’re totally in love with the sport.”

Lopez said he had five unsuccessful tryouts for local soccer teams before coming across a Hockey in Newark flier.

“It said, ‘Can you imagine yourself wearing this jersey?’” Lopez recalled. “It’s been great ever since then.”

"Goalie 2 goalie, good luck! - Kevin Weekes"
Lopez, a ninth grader, shares his long-term goals in precocious detail. He doesn’t rule out the possibility of someday playing in the NHL himself, which he thinks about “all the time.”

“Sometimes I close my eyes in the locker room and think, ‘I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna become a professional,’” Lopez said. “I imagine that I’m already in it. I take every game as if it was a professional game.”

And he’s not just focused on hockey while he’s awake.

“Even when he’s sleeping,” said Kevin’s father, Guido, who has witnessed him calling out hockey play-by-play while dreaming.

“Sometimes I scream out ‘Glove save!’ or something like that,” Lopez said. “I’m telling you, hockey’s really, really good for me.”

Lopez takes the detail-oriented approach you’d expect from a teenager who hopes someday to major in chemical engineering. He has his father record each of his games on video, then reviews every one to see what he can improve on.

The goaltender is hockey's last line of defense, and Lopez discusses the position with all the poise of a seasoned NHL veteran.

“As you come into the rink, you feel that the pressure’s mounting,” he said. “But when you put on your equipment and get close to the door, and see all the people, your heart starts pounding. When I touch the ice and start warming up, it all melts away. It’s like nobody’s there, just me and the other team.

“Even if we lose, I still have a good outlook for the other games. A new game is a new chapter; anything can happen.”

When Lopez and Smyre aren’t suited up on the ice, they also participate in the Street Devils street hockey program. Having secured back-to-back Street Devils championships, they competed Thursday for their third title in four seasons.

“You can see they like to win,” said Cynthia Smyre.

Weekes has said hockey is more than a game to a young athlete discovering it for the first time. He believes it can teach kids values and life lessons as much as it can power plays and slapshots.

The enthusiasm shown by Lopez and Smyre reinforces Weekes' sentiment. The look on their faces as they talk about hockey suggests that the effect of programs like Hockey in Newark is much bigger than sports.

“It feels great, being recognized for something outstanding,” Lopez said. “All my life, I’ve wanted to be recognized for something good. Hockey – this program, Hockey in Newark – is definitely one of them.”

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