Malik Garvin and JJ Velez have come full circle in their hockey journey.
The two alumni of Ice Hockey in Harlem have returned to help lead the 33-year-old program that sparked their love for the sport as kids and played a pivotal role shaping their adult lives and careers.
Garvin, who got involved with the program at the age of 4, became its director in August and oversees the on and off-ice activities for the Hockey is for Everyone affiliate.
Velez joined IHIH in 1989 and was named to its 11-member board. His addition, along with IHIH volunteer coach Tatiana Donaldson and the appointment of Tara Gardner as board president, gives the program a heavy dose of diversity that reflects its mostly Black and Hispanic participants.
"Being a part of the board allows me to bring a different perspective that most board members would never have being a former participant, being able to able to walk in the shoes, being able to see things and experience things that most board members haven't been able to do because they never grew up in Spanish Harlem," Velez said. "They didn't have the experiences that I had to go through to survive on a daily basis."
Gardner said the leadership changes has energized the free ice hockey and academic enrichment program for kids ages 5 to 18 and exposes them to a world of possibilities beyond their neighborhoods if they stay in school and pursue a positive path.
"There's real excitement for the possibilities about the future," said Gardner, whose son, Travis Bobb, joined the program at 9 and went on to play hockey at McKendree University in Illinois. "Bringing Malik on, bringing JJ on, who are alum of the program and who have benefited from their own engagement with the program, just brings a whole new level of dedication and interest and enthusiasm."
That enthusiasm is being tested as Ice Hockey in Harlem deals with a host of challenges.
Concerns surrounding COVID-19 forced it to cancel or postpone several key fundraising events, costing it about $150,000 in much-needed contributions, IHIH co-founder Todd Levy said.
The program scaled back its enrollment this season to 130 participants, down from 250 in previous years, and local health restrictions have limited the number of kids on the ice at Central Park's outdoor Lasker Rink to 25 at a time.
Ice Hockey in Harlem also faces the prospect of being away from its home for several years beginning next season, when the Lasker rink and pool located in the northern end of Central Park closes as part of a $150 million renovation project that could reduce the size of it.
"The challenges that I face as director are finding solutions to these problems, keeping participants, families, coaches optimistic that we are going to find solutions," Garvin said. "It's day by day. We'll see where COVID takes us. My message to everyone is be thankful for what we have. The opportunity to play hockey, even in this environment, is a privilege."
A young Malik Garvin, right, playing hockey on a frozen pond
Garvin said he and Velez are living proof of the power of that privilege. Ice Hockey in Harlem paved the way for Garvin to attend boarding school in Connecticut and Maine, sponsored him at hockey camps and led him to Western New England University, where he walked on to its Division III hockey team in his senior year of 2014-15 and score one goal in 10 games.
He worked on Wall Street, shifted to a financial planning firm in Westchester, then moved on to a program called Bronx Lacrosse, a nonprofit sports and academic-based youth development program.
When the Ice Hockey in Harlem director's position became open, Garvin jumped at the chance to go back to where it started for him.
"I wanted to give back to the program because the program shaped my life tremendously from a very young age," he said. "It gave me a sense of being, of being part of something bigger than myself. It instilled values of hard work, sportsmanship, academics, family. I love sports in general, so to fall in love with a non-traditional sport, it took me on a non-traditional path."
A young JJ Velez, left, with IHIH co-founder Todd Levy (middle)
Velez said his mother enrolled him in Ice Hockey in Harlem because she "was scared of the trajectory of where I was going."
"For me, being one of these kids growing up in Spanish Harlem, the trajectory for the most part was three-fold: you'd be on the corner hanging out with people you shouldn't be with and doing things you shouldn't be doing," he said. "Those people who are doing that end up in three places - on the corner, in jail or six feet under. The program saved my life because I found a passion that I didn't know existed."
Velez's hockey and academic prowess, bolstered by IHIH's off-ice programs, led to a scholarship to the Indian Mountain School in Connecticut. He moved on to the South Kent School and attended Wheaton College in Massachusetts.
Velez lives in Detroit and is director of public space for the Rocket Community Fund, the philanthropic arm of Quicken Loans. He oversees all public spaces for Dan Gilbert, Quicken Loans co-founder and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA, in Cleveland, Detroit, Charlotte and Phoenix.
Velez, Garvin and the other newcomers to Ice Hockey in Harlem's leadership said they're using these uncertain times to re-examine the program and chart its future.
The board engaged the help of Community Resource Exchange, a consulting firm where Donaldson works. IHIH recently unveiled a new logo and launched "Get off the Bench," a show on its social media platforms that highlights the program's past, present and future.
"Part of this has been great," Donaldson said. "It allows us a chance to reset, really focus on the kids we have now to make sure they have the skills and the development they need to move up in the program. But it's also hard because part of the mission is to try to reach as many kids as possible and really introduce them to the sport of hockey."
IHIH volunteer coach Tatiana Donaldson, far right, is one of the group's new board members
Levy, who co-founded IHIH in 1987 with Dave Wilk, said the program will overcome whatever obstacles that the pandemic and rink renovation create. He said the program has already received offers of free ice time from rinks in New Jersey, Connecticut and Westchester.
"We'd take our resources and probably turn them into busing resources," he said. "I'm hoping we're way post-COVID by then and people can get on buses together."
Gardner said that she expects Ice Hockey in Harlem to "exist another 33 years, if not longer," despite the current challenges.
"There's a just commitment to continuing this non-traditional engagement for Black and brown children in particular, but all children of color for whom this sport is not a traditional gateway for opportunities," she said.