With the Penguins coming within one win of their third consecutive conference finals appearance, a thrilling high school season which saw two Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League teams capture state titles and five local products suiting up for the United States National Development Team, it’s safe to say that hockey continued to thrive in western Pennsylvania at all levels from the NHL down to the amateur ranks in 2010.
|The Pittsburgh ICE took on the Ed Snider Youth Program in the first annual Commonwealth Classic on March 20, 2010 in State College, Pa. Credit - Pittsburgh ICE |
Included in this success is the Pittsburgh ICE program – formerly known as Hockey in the ‘Hood – which just concluded its 11th year of operation.
Participants in the Pittsburgh ICE program have come from communities all over the Pittsburgh region including Homewood, East Liberty, Penn Hills, Brighton Heights and Carnegie as the numbers continue to increase.
Once the players join the Pittsburgh ICE, they follow a three-step path which eventually results in playing scrimmage games against teams from the PIHL and Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League.
Level one is a Learn-to-Skate session on Friday nights where players are fit from head-to-toe with equipment and taught how to skate. After they learn the basics of skating, the players then graduate to the second level – Learn-to-Play – where they are taught basic skills and game situations. The final level is participating in the exhibition games.
At the end of each season all of the players are usually rewarded with a trip to Detroit for the annual NHL Diversity Tournament where they face off against other NHL Hockey is for Everyone Programs.
However, this season Smith and Benson wanted to do something even more special for their players.
Smith’s son, Chris, a sophomore at Penn State University and a graduate of the Pittsburgh ICE program, broached the idea of inviting the Ed Snider Youth Foundation to State College to play the Pittsburgh ICE. The younger Smith had been looking for a way to get his former teammates up to see the campus, and he thought what better way than in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Flyer’s diversity program.
“Chris came up through our program from the time he was a pretty young guy,” Benson said. “For the last 11 years he has helped us as a player, coach and now an organizer of this event. He deserves a lot of the credit.
“Given the rivalry at the NHL level between the Penguins and Flyers – we couldn’t think of anything better than to get our two programs together in the center of the state at Penn State. The other great opportunity with doing it up there was getting to take some of these kids who may have never been outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and show them another side of the state – in particular a great university.”
The inaugural Commonwealth Classic was played on Saturday, March 20 in State College thanks to the help of Penn State head coach Joe Battista and assistant coach Bill Downey, along with Jim Britt – the father of the Penguins video coordinator of the same name and the director of the Ed Snider Program.
In addition to the game, players and their parents from both squads were given a tour of the State College campus thanks to Alyson Rotz and the PSU Lion Ambassadors.
“We had a great weekend up at State College with the kids getting a tour of the campus,” Smith said. “It was a great weekend of education and hockey.”
For those who are not aware, the Pittsburgh ICE is a program founded in 2000 by Cliff Benson and Howard Smith in conjunction with the Penguins as a way for underprivileged youth to learn to play hockey. Until this past December the program was known as Hockey in the ‘Hood, but thanks to Kim Wood, executive assistant to Penguins president David Morehouse, it is now called Pittsburgh ICE – Inclusion Creates Equality.
“For the first nine or so years of the program it was called Hockey in the ‘Hood,” said Smith, who is the only head coach the program has known. “Originally it was going to be called Hockey in the Hill and we were going to target kids in the Hill District but we thought it better include everybody we should call it Hockey in the ‘Hood. The whole premise was to get neighborhood kids in the city of Pittsburgh interested in hockey.
“We wanted to change the name of the program because some people – when they hear the name Hockey in the ‘Hood – may get the impression that it’s inner city kids or it has that stereotypical connotation. As time went on we realized that maybe a name change would sound just a little bit better than Hockey in the ‘Hood. We don’t want to single out kids because they live in the hood. As soon as I heard Pittsburgh ICE I said it was perfect. You can actually take those three letters and change them around to say ‘Integrity Creates Excitement’ or something like that.”
While teaching young players the finer points of the game of hockey is the main premise of the Pittsburgh ICE, Benson knows that most – if not all – of the program’s participants will never play in the NHL, so giving these young men opportunities to succeed outside of the rink that they might not have otherwise received is just as critical as the on-ice skills they are taught.
“We do have a number of kids who are playing – some at Carrick (in the city league) and a couple playing at the club level in college,” Benson said. “We look at those as success stories but what we are really trying to do with these kids more so than create a hockey future for them is to have them see that there is a future and to dream about going to college and playing high school hockey. We want them to look at their future in a way that they can accomplish something as opposed to thinking that may not be available.”