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Youth Players Represent the New Jersey Devils at Yankee Stadium

by Brittany Burke / New Jersey Devils

Members of Hockey in Newark and the New Jersey Rockets skated against athletes from Hockey in Harlem during the intermissions of the New Jersey Devils/New York Rangers Stadium Series game at Yankee Stadium on January 26. (Photo/Prudential Center)

The NHL Coors Light Stadium Series games have given NHL players the chance to get back to the game’s outdoor, pond hockey roots, while also giving fans the opportunity to see their beloved sport in the elements in which it was meant to be played.

On January 26, it wasn’t just the professionals on the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers rosters that had been given that experience. Thirty-one kids from New Jersey and New York were also given the opportunity of a lifetime when they were chosen to play pre-game and during the main event’s intermissions on the outdoor rink constructed within Yankee Stadium.

“Most of them have never been to Yankee Stadium, the old one or the new one, so to see them walk into Yankee Stadium and to see their eyes open up, you saw how excited they were,” explained Keith Veltre, co-director of Hockey in Newark. “It gave you chills as an adult to see how much they appreciate it and how excited they were. They couldn’t take it all in at one time, it was overwhelming for them.”

“When we first walked in, it was kind of surreal to just take in the moment,” said Dennis Ruppe, co-director of Hockey in Newark. “I’m sure the kids didn’t look at it that way because they were just so excited to be there and start playing some hockey. It was just something you had to sit back and remind yourself where you were at, and the history of the stadium, and the opportunity that you’re going to get. It’s once in a lifetime experience that [the kids] are going to get and they won’t be able to replicate it.”

Games of 3-on-3 were played during each intermission as well as prior to the start of the Devils/Rangers game. (Photo/Prudential Center)

The 15 kids sporting Devils sweaters from the New Jersey Rockets and Hockey in Newark programs were shuttled to the Bronx on the sunny, Sunday afternoon to battle the elements as well as the youth athletes from New York’s Hockey in Harlem program, boasting the Rangers’ familiar red, white and blue.

“[The kids] didn’t want to lose. At the end of the day its 3-on-3 and it’s for fun, but they did not want to lose. Partially because they’re competitive and you should never want to lose and secondly, [the opponent] represents the Rangers and [our kids] represent the Devils. The last thing they wanted was for anything representing the Rangers to beat them, so they took great pride in it,” Veltre said.

As part of the festivities, the kids played on the ice early in the morning and stood front and center as the National Anthem played. It didn’t matter how cold the temperatures were outside, or that the sun was causing a glare on the ice, the kids just wanted to play.

Due to that sun glare, the puck drop between the Devils and Rangers was delayed, allowing the young athletes more time on the ice, which they loved.

“They were so excited they could not wait,” Ruppe said. “It was hard to get them off the ice, which is what the problem was … we had to switch them and they were all fighting to go back on the ice. They just couldn’t get enough of being out there. It was more of a problem getting them off because of how excited they were.”

Despite the extra ice time pregame, the true magical moments of the day came during the intermissions; this is when the young players got to showcase their abilities in front of a packed house.

The young athletes from New Jersey proudly pose center ice after a full day of skating. (Photo/Prudential Center)

“[The kids] were like little celebrities with the crowd of people cheering for them. When we walked back before the game started people were screaming for them, cheering for them and high fiving them,” described Veltre. “I think they got a little glimpse of what it was like to be a professional hockey player. The crowd was great, the fans were great, and they treated them like they were rock stars.”

For one player, Malachi Clyburn, who was announced the New Jersey Devils Kid Hero, the day was extra special. Clyburn is an avid hockey player and fan with a passion for the Devils, but for a long time his love of the sport wasn’t bringing him acceptance in his community, it was getting him bullied.

After finding the courage to ask for help, Clyburn was able to transfer to Newark East Side High School where he currently plays on the ice hockey team. This is where he is allowed to be himself. When he’s not in school or suited up for a game, Clyburn is volunteering his time with Hockey in Newark and other youth hockey organizations in the city. He is a player that despite adversity never allowed for his passion to dim, and during the time outdoors he was thanked for being an Ambassador to the game.

“I think Malachi knocks down that stereotype as the kind of kid who likes hockey. Malachi went against the grain … he was made fun of because he loved hockey so much and when you find a passion like that, Malachi didn’t care what any one said to him,” Veltre said. “What happened was, he found something that he absolutely loved and for me, that’s courage, that’s character, that’s a leader … to honor him and his mother … it was a great day that both him and his mom deserved.”

Hockey is a game that was meant to be played outdoors and on a frozen rink, but some fans never get the chance to experience that; especially when they live in an inner city. They never know what it is like to skate in the biting cold, to keep going for hours without ever caring of the numbness that has slowly taken over all because of the love of the game. But now, thanks to the Stadium Series coming to New York, 31 New Jersey and New York athletes can now say that they have, and they’ve done it in the home of one the most storied franchises in sports history.

For more, head to NJ Youth Hockey Central.

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