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Hockey Is For Everyone

MLK Challenge about more than hockey

Columbus event celebrates sport's diversity, provides new opportunities, experiences for players

by Craig Merz / NHL.com Correspondent

COLUMBUS -- Goals, assists and wins are just a small part of what is taking place in Columbus this weekend at the 2018 MLK Ohio Expo Center Taft Coliseum Challenge.

The key word is "Challenge."

"I wouldn't call it so much a tournament because there are really no trophies. It's a friendly thing to celebrate diversity," said Chris Hoye, assistant director for Columbus Ice Hockey Club, the host organization.

Several Columbus teams were joined by Ice Hockey in Harlem from New York and the Fort Dupont Hockey Club from Washington for the three-day event, which ends Monday. They are part the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone initiative.

 

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"It was something new. I never had been to Ohio," said Sebastian Taylor, a 14-year-old center for Ice Hockey in Harlem. "Playing against other competition that was just as good or somewhat better than us was a little bit of a challenge."

He's been playing hockey for eight years, although he got off to an inauspicious start.

"I think I fell 100 times at the first practice. I've loved it ever since," he said.

Hockey Is For Everyone affords opportunities for many that they otherwise might not have by providing not only the equipment but the structure and guidance required in athletics. That's why it's so important to Taylor.

"If I wasn't playing hockey right now I'd probably hanging out with friends in New York," he said. "Not only is this more fun, I also toured Ohio State and played other Ohio teams and teams from [Washington] D.C. It's one of the cool aspects about it.

"Also, when I was 9 I toured the [U.S.] Capitol building. I don't think anyone that age has done that through other programs that are in Harlem."

The Fort Dupont club traveled to Columbus for games and memories.

"It's another phase of life they can remember for the rest of their life," club founder Neal Henderson said. "It makes them want to do more, learn more and become better at it."

His organization encouraged parents to make the trip as well.

"It gives them opportunity to live a weekend of hockey," Henderson said. "A lot of them don't get the opportunity to travel with their kids to see exactly what they do when they're away."

Brad Preston, program manager for Ice Hockey In Harlem, said 19 of his 21 players had never been to Ohio before this weekend. On Saturday, the group was given a tour of the Ohio State athletic facilities and academic buildings.

"We had lunch on campus," he said. "For our students, even that's huge -- to go into the student union and see what it's like to be on your own."

The tour was given by one of the Columbus Ice Hockey Club coaches.

"It's such great motivation," Preston said. "To meet a player from a program like ours that's in Columbus who grew up in Columbus Ice Hockey Club and is now attending Ohio State is actually fun and nice, but it shows here's the work you need to put it in to get there."

For 15-year-old defenseman Mariama Aybakar, getting outside of her world in Harlem was an eye-opener.

"I didn't know many girls played here too," she said.

That thought is not surprising, and it's one reason Hockey Is For Everyone is so valuable, Henderson said.

"When they don't have the opportunity to move out of their environment they think they're the only ones doing it," he said. "When they have the opportunity to move out of their environment they find others are doing the same things they're doing."

Hoye said one of the highlights of the weekend for him was Saturday's bantam game between the ice Hockey in Harlem team and Columbus.

"I think they brought six girls and we had seven playing against them, so we had 13 girls playing in a game together," he said. "It's not just diversity of racial, ethnic or economic standpoints, but gender as well. Everybody's playing together."

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