The Hockey in the Hood Badgers, Pittsburgh’s NHL affiliated diversity hockey program, is heading to Detroit on Friday for the fifth annual NHL Hockey is for Everyone Tournament. This will be Pittsburgh’s fourth year at the tournament and the Badgers will field two teams to compete in the tournament.
According to Hockey in the Hood’s official website, the mission of the program is to bring the sport of hockey to disadvantaged inner-city youths in order to teach and nurture the life principles of work ethic, discipline, and teamwork.
“We want to teach kids in the city of Pittsburgh how to play one of the greatest games in the world,” program director and head coach Howard Smith said.
The team was named the Badgers in honor of former Penguins head coach, “Badger” Bob Johnson. The Hockey in the Hood program, which has over 100 children registered, provides children ages 4-16 with head-to-toe equipment, ice-time two days a week and coaching. The National Hockey League Players Association is one of many groups that helps make the program possible and even outfitted the Pittsburgh group with 50 sets of equipment after the Penguins played in the Winter Classic in 2008.
“Oh there’s no way in the world we could afford to play,” said Damina Ross, who’s three boys DaQuan, 12, Dauminique, 10, and Demon, 7, are registered in the program. “I have three of them in the program so that would be near impossible, just for equipment and everything else.”
The Ross family joined Hockey in the Hood in 2007 after the boys picked up a flyer at school. Damina attended an informational meeting and coach Smith encouraged her to enroll her children.
I kept asking my mom to sign me up for hockey at school. It’s fun to make scores and to skate on the ice. - Demon Ross, 7
“I kept asking my mom to sign me up for hockey at school,” Demon said. “It’s fun to make scores and to skate on the ice.”
In just two years on the ice, Demon and Dauminique have quickly picked up the fundamentals of hockey. At the Badgers Tuesday afternoon practice at the RMU Sports Center on Neville Island, Dauminique showed of his skating finesse, including his backward skating and stopping skills.
The Badgers’ annual trip to Detroit for the tournament is a highlight for the kids who go. Damina and her three boys went last year for the first time. For most of the kids, the games at the tournament are their first competitive hockey games. At last year’s tournament Damina enjoyed watching her boys compete for the first time ever. They also had their picture taken with the Stanley Cup, which was on hand for the festivities.
“We all had a really good time,” Damina said. “They enjoyed playing against the other teams. The other kids were a lot bigger, but they held their own and they did pretty good up there. That was really nice to see their practice pay off.”
The Hockey in the Hood program is more of a learn-to-skate, learn-to-play program. There are 40 Diversity Hockey programs nationwide and 12 Diversity Hockey programs travel to Detroit for this tournament - some from as far as Alaska. The tournament first started five-years ago when Detroit’s diversity program invited Washington D.C.’s Du Ponte Ice Hockey Club to come up for a friendly competition. The tournament soon morphed into what it is today.
“You can’t put a dollar amount on the smiles these kids had and the time and the joy they had that entire weekend,” Smith said.
|Demon Ross, Hockey in the Hood participant |
Hockey in the Hood was first started in Pittsburgh back in 2000 and was largely the brainchild of Cliff Benson, a partner at the Deloitte Touche Consulting firm and longtime friend of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Former Penguins Joe Mullen and Mario Lemieux were instrumental in their support of the program early on.
But Hockey in the Hood would not be possible if it were not for the dedication of coach Smith and the other volunteer coaches. Smith has been a crucial part of the program since day one.
“Finding Howard was the key to executing the program because you can have great ideas, but unless there’s a person to execute it, a lot of ideas don’t come to fruition,” Penguins Vice President of Communications Tom McMillan said. “Howard was the perfect guy. He has been absolutely key in executing the program and bringing it to the level that it’s at.
“He deserves more credit. It couldn’t have happened without the team’s support, but even without all that stuff, if you don’t have a guy like Howard to pull it off, it doesn’t happen.”
Hockey is Howard’s life. On top of being a single father, working full time at Veterans Memorial Hospital and coaching and managing Hockey in the Hood, he also coaches high school hockey at Carrick High School.
Smith first started playing hockey in the 1970s with the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League. He played JV hockey for South High School his senior year.
“Black kids in the 70s weren’t playing hockey; it just wasn’t around,” Smith said. “I was the only kid with a big afro playing hockey, and they were like, ‘You play hockey?’
I was the only kid at an inner-city school in the 1970s going to Penguins’ games and playing ice hockey. I got picked on, I got teased, but at the end of the day they were like, ‘Don’t mess with him because he’s a hockey player.' - Head Coach Howard Smith
"I was the only kid at an inner-city school in the 1970s going to Penguins’ games and playing ice hockey. I got picked on, I got teased, but at the end of the day they were like, ‘Don’t mess with him because he’s a hockey player.’”
Much like Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL, coach Smith has paved the way for Diversity Hockey in Pittsburgh by running Hockey in the Hood.
The Badgers proudly display the Pittsburgh Penguins logo on their jerseys. They are the only diversity program that wears the logo of their local NHL club.
“Since day one the Pittsburgh Penguins have been stellar with their support of this program,” Smith said. “Having the kids out on the Mellon Arena ice and having Penguins players come out to various clinics, it’s been fantastic what the Penguins have done.”
It’s true that the program wouldn’t exist without the support of the Penguins, but the heart of the program is its core of dedicated volunteers. Volunteers like Danielle Rupert who started coaching Hockey in the Hood almost as soon as she moved to Pittsburgh two years ago. Volunteers like Brad Sherry and his son Parker, 12, who are in their fourth year of helping. Tyler Hunter, 17, has put in over 40 hours of volunteer time with the team as part of his senior project. Rich Sigler started volunteering with the team two years ago when his son Sam, 9, wanted to try hockey out.
“I would never be able to afford for him to play hockey, but the fact that (Sam) gets to be around such a diverse group of kids is the best thing about it,” Sigler said. “Just to see kids like the Ross’ and see how they have developed, especially Dauminique, and to watch not just the kids, but their mother, what she has to go through to get three kids dressed, it’s a huge commitment.
“This is really what hockey is about, it’s about kids getting together and having fun.”