Hockey as bait?
The Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, an NHL Diversity partner, is proving that's a great idea while it improves Philadelphia-area children's recreational activities, after-school supervision, tutoring programs and life-skills instruction. More than 2,500 Philadelphia school children are enrolled in the program, which has had a startling impact on student improvement.
"Like most citizens, I'm concerned with the plight of kids in our inner cities," Snider, the Philadelphia Flyers
' founder and chairman, said. "And not just in Philadelphia but also Camden (N.J.) and Chester (Pa.) and other places. I've always wanted to introduce hockey to the inner city, an area where hockey doesn't exist. These kids had never been on skates and never paid attention to hockey. They knew nothing about it.
"So the opportunities are many-fold. We're not only teaching them to skate and get off the streets, but we're teaching them to play hockey. Girls and boys are all doing these things. It's a wonderful thing in many ways. The educational component is a very important part of it. My No. 1 goal in creating the foundation was to get inner-city kids off the streets and onto the ice."
More than 96 percent of the enrolled students have matriculated to their next grade, despite coming from neighborhoods where the average is around 45 percent, said Scott Tharp, President of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. The ESYHF followed another Philadelphia NHL Diversity program that disbanded.
Snider created ESYHF in 2005 to provide opportunities to those who would otherwise not have such options. The program has experienced rapid growth and uses hockey as its hook to gain and hold the attention of young people, resulting in positive youth development. The mission of the foundation is to use hockey to help educate young people on how to succeed in the game of life.
"We provide supplemental educational services," said Tharp. "Our life-skills curriculum is our staple, or flagship program. That curriculum is built around some core subjects, such as communication skills, study habits, healthy habits and respecting others. All of our coaches are trained to look for windows of opportunity and they kind of carry around the curriculum in their pockets.
"For instance, if we see an instance of bullying or disrespect on the ice during one of our daily sessions, our coaches are trained to intervene and break out into a life-skills session on respecting others or that type of thing. If we see an incidence of someone being less than honest with another person, we take 10 minutes to get the kids together and deliver a life-skills lesson."
The foundation began as a partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Education and has grown as new needs have been identified.
"The organization has really evolved over the years," Tharp said. "We saw that so many schools were cutting their (physical education) and intramural programs and we felt that we could provide a service that those kids were sorely missing. So we started as a school-day program where kids could elect the sport of hockey as their PE. So we bused kids in during the school day at the Flyers Skate Zone (in Northeast Philadelphia) and we bought some ice time at some of the commercial rinks during the daytime hours when they weren't being used that heavily.
"We brought probably 600 kids in that first year. As the organization grew, Mr. Snider and the board decided there was a need for more structure and they recruited me. We made the decision that although the school-day program was a great introduction to hockey and we piqued the interest of many kids, in some cases we might be guilty of more harm than good. We'd bring kids in for a six-week PE session, really get them fired up about the sport, and at the end of the six weeks, we'd say, 'Thanks, maybe we'll see you again next year.'
"We felt that we needed to evolve and really focus on serving these kids in the out-of-school and after-school hours when they're really the most vulnerable to undesirable influences. We grew our program to start providing after-school services that also involved homework help and assistance, and we made education a priority."
Tharp was asked if an earlier program's failure was the genesis for the Flyers' founder to start the ESYHF.
"The definition of the true visionary is someone who sees the need or a void and has the plan and capabilities to fill it. That's exactly what Ed did," Tharp said. "When he founded the organization, initially his idea was to provide an opportunity to urban children, particularly those who otherwise could never think of affording such opportunities with the ability to learn how to skate and learn what he believes is the greatest game ever invented."
Snider is just as complimentary of Tharp.
"He's terrific and he knows what to do," Snider said. "We are very fortunate to have him, to have a guy with his experience."
Tharp joined in May 2007 after serving as the Executive Director of Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education in New York City. That organization grew dramatically under Tharp's leadership, and the ESYHF is doing the same. They recently took over operations at three Philadelphia hockey rinks that were slated to close due to budget restrictions.
"This year was a milestone event for us," Tharp said. "We had heard that the City of Philadelphia was in such dire economic consequences and heard that the mayor had targeted several of the city-owned ice rinks for closure. We just felt that we couldn't let this happen. We worked very hard to establish a partnership with the recreation department. We took over the management and the operation of those rinks so we could acquire more ice time and keep our programs growing.
"We developed nationally acclaimed life-skills curriculum that we incorporate into our daily programming. Our program has grown to where it's incredible, where we have inter-rink competition among the city sites and kids love competition. That really gives them incentive to come out. Each playground rink has developed a team. They've elected captains, come up with their own names, designed their own logos. It's just really neat to see how it's evolved."
Tharp brought in the concept that all instructors be certified in their fields. All coaches have been certified by USA Hockey and all the teachers and tutors are certified teachers. Among enrolled students, attendance has increased 78 percent. Students performing below average have decreased by 49 percent, while those performing above average have increased 62 percent. Unsatisfactory behavior declined 54 percent and satisfactory behavior increased 76 percent.
"We wanted to do whatever we could to become what we'd like to call a national model for youth-empowerment organizations," Tharp said. "I was executive director of the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis in Education and we have used a lot of the programs that we had in place there as our models. One of our criteria or requisites there was that we would have certified tennis pros, and it makes a difference. So we did the same thing.
"My current vice president and COO of Hockey Operations, Jim Britt, is very much entrenched in the USA Hockey and programs. He was formerly the coach at Holy Ghost (in Bensalem, Pa.), and we felt that we wanted to maintain the highest standards that we possibly could. The majority of our staff are former collegiate players at significant hockey schools and we felt it imperative that we develop a coaches' manual and a formalized training program.
"One of our credos is train, train, train. We want to make sure that both the on-ice and the classroom delivery of our programs are consistent from one rink to the other. That's not only hockey coaches. That includes our classroom tutors and teachers -- all certified teachers."
Tharp is thrilled with the positive impact the ESYHF has made with the enrolled students, who are growing mentally, emotionally and socially. Two of the biggest by-products of the program are confidence and maturity.
"We don't take our responsibility lightly," said Tharp. "The good people in these neighborhoods where we run our program are turning over their most valuable commodity, which is their children, to us. We would be doing a disservice if we were to give them anything less than our best. It's very important to us that our coaches learn the right language. When our kids come to the rinks each day, it's always, 'Hey, how are you doing? How was school today or that test?' Hockey's important and it's really what defines us, but we realize that it will only ever be, maybe a big part, but it will only be a part of these kids' lives and they have to learn to balance their school work and their social lives as well."
Tharp was reminded that PUCKS: Positive Upliftment for Chicago's Kids, another NHL Diversity partner, has produced Gerald Coleman
, the former Tampa Bay Lightning
goalie now playing for the ECHL's Trenton Devils.
"It might be a far-reaching goal or aspiration, but we would someday like to develop an NHL player, a Flyer from our organization," Tharp said. "But more important to us than the kids that might go on to earn even a college scholarship for playing hockey are the thousands of kids who have learned the importance of just staying in school and staying out of trouble with the law and turn out to be productive citizens who learn to give back to the community.
"I think one of our most proud accomplishments, because we rigorously track the kids through report-card data, is the fact that over 96 percent of the kids in our program matriculate from grade to grade and stay squarely on track for on-time graduation. These are kids who come from neighborhoods and schools where that rate barely reaches 45 percent. That's something that we can hang our hat on."
The board of directors of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Association includes Snider; his wife, Christine Snider; Pat Ferrill, VP Rink Development and Management, Comcast-Spectacor; Sandy Lipstein, Executive VP and CFO, Comcast-Spectacor (retired); Peter Luukko, President and COO, Comcast-Spectacor; Chris McElwee, President/CEO, Fastrack Construction; Ike Richman, Vice President, Comcast-Spectacor; Mary Ann Saleski, Senior VP, Comcast-Spectacor Foundation; Fred Shabel, Vice Chairman, Comcast-Spectacor; Gerry Shreiber, Chairman/CEO, J & J Snack Foods; Honorable Susan Slawson, Commissioner, Philadelphia Department of Recreation (ex-officio); Jim Sutow, President, Chapel Steel (retired); Scott Tharp, President, Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation; Phil Weinberg, Executive VP and General Counsel, Comcast-Spectacor; and Bill Whitmore, Chairman/CEO, Allied Barton Securities.