It's that time of year again: Hockey Weekend Across America, the annual celebration of the sport in arenas around the continent. But for more than 50 youngsters who will descend on western New York, it signifies something much more important -- a chance to grow as hockey players and individuals.
The Buffalo Sabres
organization, in cooperation with Hasek's Heroes, will host the 2012 Willie O'Ree
Skills Weekend, bringing youth hockey standouts from organizations throughout North America together to test their skills, make new friends and prove once again that hockey is for everyone.
The players -- who will be recognized for their achievements on the ice, in the classroom and in the community -- include Kaseir Archie, who at 15 has been playing hockey for three years. The Philadelphia resident told NHL.com he "signed up for fun" at the prodding of a coach at local recreation center, but has since grown to love the game.
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"At first I didn't understand the game of hockey, but as I kept playing I fell in love with it," said Archie, a winger and Claude Giroux
fan. "Hockey has helped me stay focused in school. It has helped me get up early – every practice is so early in the morning that you have to learn how to get up early."
He'll be joined by friend and fellow Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation participant CJ Diaz, a Camden, N.J., resident who was persuaded by a cousin to try hockey two years ago. Diaz said he was "all-around" excited for the weekend festivities.
"I'm excited about being there with a friend and just meeting new people," the 16-year-old said. "The most exciting thing for me is going on a plane. It'll probably be a little scary at first, but it'll probably be pretty fun at the same time."
Once the plane lands, a full weekend of activities awaits Archie, Diaz and the others. The skaters will hone their skills through on-ice skills clinics led by Sabres alumni and demonstrations from USA Hockey and NCAA Division I representatives. They will also have a chance to show off during a skills showcase.
But John Marshall – son of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and hockey aficionado Thurgood Marshall – cautioned that the weekend was, first and foremost, about helping mold participants into strong, intelligent individuals. Marshall, whose love of the game began as a boy in Washington, D.C., will address the youngsters during the weekend.
"Certainly hockey is a great game, but No. 1, there's a focus on education," said Marshall, who is a volunteer coach with the President's Club, a Hockey is for Everyone affiliate in the nation's capital. "And a lot of what you learn in hockey obviously helps you in that – the hard work, dedication – but ultimately the focus has to be on education. That's the key to unlocking their dreams."
Buffalo mayor Byron Brown and Rep. Brian Higgins – the Congressional Hockey Caucus co-chair – will also address the participants. Also floating around will be official Hockey is for Everyone ambassador Willie O'Ree
, for whom the weekend is named.
O'Ree, who became the first black player to take part in an NHL game in 1958, told NHL.com that these events are invaluable for youngsters both on and off the ice.
"We're going to treat these boys and girls just like NHL hockey players," O'Ree said. "They're going to have some of the finest coaches in the world on the ice with him. And not only are they going to learn hockey skills, they're going to learn life skills as well."