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Hockey in the Hood becomes a tradition

by Stephanie Geosits

This year's event featured 400 inner-city kids spanning 22 teams and 10 cities.
A weekend hockey tournament in Detroit generally doesn’t attract a second glance – it is, after all, Hockeytown, USA. But when the participants in Hockey in the Hood IV took the ice over President’s Day Weekend, people took notice, and for good reason.

For the fourth year in a row, the Detroit Hockey Association hosted NHL Diversity programs from around the country in this ever-expanding tournament. This year, 400 inner-city kids from 22 teams and 10 cities competed. Hockey in the Hood also named its championship trophy the Willie O Cup, to mark the 50th anniversary of Willie O’Ree becoming the first black man to play in the NHL.

The program participants benefited from the efforts and experience of O’Ree, the NHL’s Director of Diversity.

Willie O'Ree is the ‘Grandfather of Ice Hockey’ as far as us in the diversity hockey world are concerned,” said Jay Cohen, Chicago’s Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois (AHAI) Diversity Program Director. “Willie has visited our program on a few occasions, leaving our athletes not only in awe of this wonderful man, but all fired up to some day be like Willie O'Ree. I'm certain that Willie has been to visit all of the programs represented at HITH IV, so it seems to be the natural thing to do in naming the championship trophy after him.

“Mount Vernon (N.Y.) was actually the first diversity program that Willie visited when he started with the NHL. Now the championship trophy for Hockey in the Hood bears his name, the Willie O Cup. He’s probably as proud of that as he is of (anything),” Jackman said.

In addition to the host Detroit Hockey Association Dragons, teams from SCORE Boston, Hasek’s Heroes (Buffalo), AHAI Diversity (Chicago), Columbus Ice Hockey Club, Mount Vernon (N.Y.), Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation (Philadelphia), Hockey in the Hood (Pittsburgh), Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club (Washington D.C.), Wasilla (Alaska) Outdoor Youth Hockey Club and Detroit’s Clark Park Coalition took part in the event.

What the success of the tournament represents is the stronghold that hockey has gained in many urban communities. It once was considered a far-flung dream to show that hockey is for everyone.

“(The growth of the HITH Tournament) says a lot for the various NHL Diversity programs that have grown over the last 10 years,” Howard Smith, Chief Program Director of Hockey in the Hood Pittsburgh, said. “For Team Pittsburgh, our program is eight years old (and is playing in HITH for its third year). We have given kids in the inner-city of Pittsburgh the opportunity to learn and play a great sport. This has generated a huge interest in hockey in the inner-city area of Pittsburgh and also in the local public schools, as well.”

“This is a great testament to the tournament organizers in Detroit and the tremendous efforts through the years by the volunteers and team managers from around the country,” Jim Britt, Executive Director of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation in Philadelphia, said. His group is one of the newest NHL Diversity programs, having joined in 2005. This past weekend marked its first trip to HITH.

Even more valuable than getting competitive experience on the ice, many program participants will be traveling for the first time and meeting kids from other diversity programs.

“Some of our athletes have never traveled, let alone to a hockey tournament, so this event is without a doubt the highlight of the year for them, and for some it will be the most memorable time of their life,” said Cohen. “That alone is all of the incentive I need to organize this trip and staff our program with the most amazing volunteers.” AHAI made its second trip to HITH in three years.

“This is our 10th season, and other than individuals traveling, this is the first time we’ve taken a full team out of the tri-state area (New York/New Jersey/Connecticut),” said Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Ice Hockey Club Director Paul Jackman.

The trip to the tournament provides motivation for participants to stay in the programs and keep working on developing skills off the ice, as well.

“This trip is a huge learning experience for our athletes in that they get a chance to see others from similar situations as them and understand they are not alone in their desires to learn to play ice hockey,” Cohen said. “Included is the fact that if they do not commit to this program during the year and do not cut it in the classroom and at home, this privilege will be taken away. In addition, all of our athletes fully understand the respect that is expected from each of them for not only each other, but for our competitors and the facilities that will house us for two nights.”

The incentive the tournament provides program participants was echoed by the other program directors.

“I think the main benefit the kids get is the experience of going to different places with their peers and having common experiences that will link them forever,” Columbus Ice Hockey Club’s John Haferman said. “Traveling and what you experience while doing that is an invaluable learning experience. Even more important is that these kids get to share this experience with their teammates, family, friends, and coaches. It is an opportunity that as they grow older they will appreciate and come to remember fondly. One of the coaches commented that through NHL Diversity the kids get to have experiences that many people dream of having. Think about it, that is a powerful statement.”

And then there is the experience of playing hockey.

In the Pee Wee-Bantam division, the Detroit Dragons narrowly defeated Wasilla in the second shootout overtime, 4-3, to retain their championship title. In the Bantam-Midget Division, the Dragons won 4-3 over the Columbus Hockey Club.

“We remained champions for the fourth year, and the weekend was unbelievable,” Detroit Hockey Association Program Director Will McCants said. “The quality of the games, you couldn’t have asked for anything better. The skill level was very high and we had 600 people at our game.”

Participants had the opportunity to play on the Detroit Dragons home ice, Jack Adams Arena, as well as the University of Michigan–Dearborn’s Ice Arena. The championship games were played at Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings.

Developing players to be able to compete in a tournament like Hockey In The Hood is an achievement for many of the programs.

“It says a lot about our staying power,” Jackman said after Mount Vernon’s tight 1-0 loss to Wasilla on the opening day of the tournament. “We’re thrilled that we’re competitive.”

“We see the progress each year,” McCants said of the teams that come to the tournament. “The teams are working toward the tournament, really. We’ve won it, but each year it’s gotten tougher. It’s a challenge for the kids.”

Former Sabre Dominik Hasek has supported a local Buffalo program called "Hasek's Heroes" for many years.

McCants emphasized that the tournament could not be possible without the support of the Detroit Red Wings Foundation, the NHL, the Howard Baker Foundation, the Detroit Recreation Foundation and the volunteers of the Detroit Hockey Association.

The program directors all echoed how vital the role of their sponsors is to the success of these programs, whether it is the Ed Snider Foundation in Philadelphia, the support of Dominik Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres, or city school districts and parks and recreation departments.

One program had the opportunity to play in front of its main supporter.

“Our program is unbelievably excited to have an opportunity to play against other programs and showcase our kids,” Sean Green, Executive Director of Hasek’s Heroes, said. “The scores are secondary to the experience of going there.

“Dominik (Hasek) will be there for us to showcase his kids. We want to make him proud.”

The support that Hasek and others provide the NHL Diversity programs is essential to their existence.

“Hockey is truly becoming accessible to everyone. In the past the ability to participate in hockey was tightly linked to socio-economics. However, with the partnership between the NHL and urban communities we have made a significant impact in making hockey available to all types of individuals regardless of race, economics, or location,” said Haferman.

This year Columbus sent four teams to HITH in its third year of participation in the tournament. The Columbus program partners with the City of Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, NHL Diversity and the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation.

What all of these programs represent is a testament to the fact that hockey is for everyone and Hockey in the Hood will continue to grow. Just wait until next year.


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