William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past seven years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March and will be writing about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles the Belgrave sisters, who are playing college hockey through scholarships awarded by the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation.
Hanaa Belgrave enjoyed her freshman year at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, though something just didn't feel right.
She dedicated herself to her studies, putting aside extracurricular activities -- including hockey, which she loved playing as a member of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, part of the NHL's Hockey is For Everyone initiative.
"I didn't play because I didn't know if I could balance it," the 20-year-old geoscience major said. "I don't know why I felt that way because I did it in high school and I was academically strong. It was weird, then I figured, 'Snider prepared us for this, I know what to do.'"
Belgrave now has her head in the books and her skates back on the ice, courtesy of Snider Hockey. She was already attending the university on a Goals & Assists academic scholarship through Snider Hockey that covers her tuition, room and board. But she received another scholarship from the foundation that paid her fees to join West Chester's American Collegiate Hockey Association Division II women's team this season.
"I fell in love with hockey," she said. "It felt only natural to just keep playing."
Talk to anyone connected with Hockey Is For Everyone programs and they'll you that their goal is to educate and prepare young people to succeed in the game of life, not necessarily to build good hockey players.
But the initiative appears to be accomplishing both. Designed to expose boys and girls from all backgrounds to hockey and use the sport as a tool to encourage them to succeed academically, Hockey Is For Everyone programs are seeing more of its graduates continuing to play the game into college.
A total of 22 Snider Hockey alumni are playing college hockey this season, primarily on ACHA teams. Defenseman Georgia Wunder plays for Neumann University, an NCAA Division III school located outside of Philadelphia.
"Snider always pushed academics before hockey," said Zaynab Belgrave, Hanaa's sister and teammate on West Chester's hockey team. "If there was the slightest struggle with your academics, you wouldn't get ice time. I'm used to what Snider instilled in me; I won't feel right just playing hockey and not have my academics in order."
Scott Tharp, president and CEO of the foundation created by the late Philadelphia Flyers chairman Ed Snider in 2005, said the academics and character-building aspects of the program and Hockey Is For Everyone will always be the main missions, but that doesn't mean its former participants have to abandon the game on their path to adulthood.
"Hockey is going to continue to be a part of all our kids' lives. But most of them realize it will only ever be just a part of their lives, that there are a lot more important things," Tharp said. "But that doesn't mean you throw away something that's been a big part of your life since you were four, five, six years old. We're thrilled that they're still playing."
Snider Hockey is providing assists through partnerships at West Chester and seven other Philadelphia-area four-year and two-year institutions where 43 students attend on Goals & Assists scholarships.
The other participating schools are Kutztown University, Elizabethtown College, Rowan University, the University of Delaware, the Community College of Philadelphia, Williamson College of the Trades, and the University of Sciences. All but three of the schools have hockey teams.
Snider Hockey and the Goals & Assists Scholarship Foundation deepened their relationship with West Chester on Tuesday with a $500,000 donation to provide more scholarships at the public university located 20 miles west of Philadelphia. The gift is an addition to a $500,000 donation made in 2017 that's currently helping 19 Snider Hockey graduates attend the university at no cost.
In addition to Goals & Assists, eligible Snider Hockey graduates can apply for the Snider Hockey Over Time (S.H.O.T.) scholarship program which covers college club hockey dues and provides summer on and off-ice training ahead of tryouts.
Tharp said about 80 percent of the Snider Hockey graduates who are playing club hockey received S.H.O.T. support.
"We want to continue to make the support available to our kids and we want to do our best to remove the obstacles," Tharp said.
The scholarships are helping three Belgrave's sisters -- Hanaa, Zaynab, who is studying respiratory therapy at West Chester, and Maryam Belgrave, a freshman goalie majoring in electrical engineering at Duke University -- to play, something that feels just right to them.
"Hockey probably is what keeps me the most grounded," Maryam Belgrave said.
Photo credit: Carl McCombs