Ray Harding (Jeannette, PA) just wanted his son to be able to play a sport. In fact, he and his wife had not even thought it was possible. Zachary Harding, 18, was born with Spina Bifida, a birth defect that involves the incomplete development of the spinal cord or its coverings, and requires him to use a wheelchair. But feel sympathetic for Zach and his parents Ray and Tammy, and they will be the first to point out your mistake.
“We knew there were worse things that could happen to him. We saw it every time we went into the hospital. We’re thankful it wasn’t anything worse,” said Ray.
With such a positive outlook, it was only a matter of time before Zach found something he could compete in. So, in 2000, when the Harding’s first witnessed an eight-player sled hockey team at the Harmarville Bladerunners called the “Mighty Penguins”, they were blown away.
“It gave me and my wife the chills.”
Started in 1998 by volunteers from Shriners Hospital in Erie, the Mighty Penguins are a sled hockey team in which cognitive and physically handicapped individuals sit in a sled fitted with blades, propelled by shortened hockey sticks with metal teeth on the end to dig into and push off the ice.
It did not take long for Ray to become more than a bystander. Despite having no hockey or coaching background, living roughly 45 minutes away from the Harmarville rink and having to leave straight from afternoon practices to work the night shift at UPS, Ray jumped right in for his son and the program.
“To be able to provide him and the other kids with something they love and cherish doing two or three times a week is an amazing feeling that you just can’t get anywhere else. Just because a child has a disability doesn’t meant they can’t achieve success and their dreams,” added Ray.
Be it therapeutic or competitive, Ray recognized how much of a positive effect something like this could have on the kids. To become more knowledgeable about the game of hockey, Ray was joined by experienced coaches Mark McCoy and Jason Grey, as well as renowned hockey instructor Bob Gergerich, who Ray credits as taking him under his wing and teaching him the finer points of coaching.
Thirteen years later, the Mighty Penguins consists of four teams: novice, junior, intermediate and senior. Ray is now the head coach of the senior team, as he has followed his son through the ranks. While he still makes the lengthy drive to this day, Coach Ray’s commitment to his Mighty Penguins has not wavered.
“The mission is still the same. The ultimate goal is to teach the players the game of hockey, as long as they have fun doing it. If a player makes a mistake, we try to teach them to realize the mistake and learn from it.”
When asked how the organization has grown off the ice, Ray was quick to point out the major steps the program has taken since his earlier years.
“We went from a $5,000 per season budget to around $100,000 now. People are just more aware of us these days. We are very recognizable, in part because so many amateur and high school teams are willing to volunteer and play against us. We have had some great help through the years.”
Because of hard work from volunteers such as Ray and assistant coaches McCoy and Grey, the organization boasts numerous accomplishments. The senior team is a regular competitor in tournaments spanning North America, and has previously finished second in the nation. The oldest squad also includes 18-year-old Dan McCoy (Cheswick, PA), who became the youngest player on the U.S. National Sled Hockey team in 2011 and is on pace to compete in the Sochi 2014 Winter Paralympics.
“Coach Ray has been with me from the beginning. He not only coaches us on how to be better hockey players, but also how to be better individuals on and off the ice,” said McCoy.
“This is all something that I am just happy and honored to be a part of. I was thrown off guard when the Penguins informed me I was receiving this award, because I didn’t think I deserved it. I am just a small part of this organization. There are so many people and so much that goes into it,” said a gracious Ray.
When asked what’s next, the coach was steadfast in his response.
“We want to win a national championship. We have come close, but we want to be able to hoist that national championship banner,” declared Harding.
“We have just come so far as an organization. It has been tremendous. When a player gets on the ice for the first time, seeing their reaction, seeing the parent’s reaction, it never gets old. It gives them a freedom they may not have had before. It makes me feel blessed to be a part of. In reality, they have been the ones teaching me.”
Before a certain number 87 was drafted by the Penguins, only two eras of Pittsburgh hockey existed: “Before Mario” and” After Mario”. Long before Penguins owner Mario Lemieux took the ice for the Penguins and started the explosion that became youth hockey in Western Pennsylvania, Howard Smith was already playing street hockey, emulating players like Phil Esposito and Paul Henderson, whom he watched play for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union. He attended his first Penguins game later that year (November 22, 1972 to be exact). This was the sport for him.
For the last thirteen years, Smith has been a major part of Pittsburgh ICE. Pittsburgh ICE (Inclusion Creates Equality) was created in 2000 and was originally known as “Hockey in the Hood”. The program’s mission is to provide socially and economically disadvantaged boys and girls in the Greater Pittsburgh area the opportunity to learn to play the game of ice hockey. There are little to no fees to participate in the program. With the help of the Pittsburgh Penguins Alumni and the National Hockey League Diversity Task Force, Smith and the other founders were able to jumpstart the program and build it to where it is today.
When Smith first joined Pittsburgh ICE as a coach, there were around 25 kids. Currently, the program consists of over 100 players, from the ages 5 to 17. Smith, now presiding as President of the organization, has been an essential asset to the program, devoting his time and relentless work ethic to the novice players for over a decade. It is easy for Smith to connect and relate to these kids, ultimately, because he was in their shoes (or skates) growing up.
As a young boy, Smith taught himself how to roller skate. When he and his neighborhood friends played street hockey, they constructed their own nets and equipment out of anything they could find, much like the stories of young baseball players in the Dominican Republic who used milk cartons for gloves. It was not until three years later at the age of 14 that Smith would finally have the means to take to the ice.
Getting on the ice was difficult for Smith, and when he did, the trials did not stop there. For one, he had to take two city busses to get to the rink located in the South Side where he played for the South High School Junior Varsity team. These were not the luxury busses that NHL or college teams travel in today, where the bags and equipment could be stashed underneath. Smith walked to the bus stop, boarded one bus, transferred to a different bus and walked to the rink all while carrying his irritatingly bulky hockey bag.
The struggles did not stop when he hit the ice, however. Being the only African-American player in the league, the insults and badgering flew his direction.
“During the 70's, not many African Americans were playing hockey. I was the only African American in my area playing ice hockey so I endured the name calling and stereotyping but never let that bother me. My love of hockey has spanned over 40 years as a player, coach and fan. The speed, physicality and mental toughness one has to have to play hockey has been one of the reasons I enjoy playing this great game and teaching it as well,” said Smith.
That same drive and determination of Smith and the rest of the Pittsburgh ICE has led the organization to places they never thought possible. One of those places was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. On September 10, 2009, 10 Pittsburgh ICE players and several members of the coaching staff (including Smith) attended the Stanley Cup ceremony at the White house with the Penguins. Smith, a retired veteran of the United States Navy, served his country for 23 years, including combat action during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. The ceremony was special, to say the least.
“For me it was personal because it was my very first time ever inside the White House and as a retired United States Navy Veteran, I have served under five U.S. Presidents. This was the first time I actually got to see the President of the United States up close. We were honored,” added Smith.
The accomplishments of Pittsburgh ICE have been made possible through people like Smith, even though he quickly deflects attention to others; the main person being Cliff Benson, currently the Chief Development Officer of the Buffalo Sabres. Benson is originally from Pittsburgh however, and was a partner at Deloitte and Touche when he helped get a diversity ice hockey program going in Pittsburgh with the help of former Penguin, Joe Mullen. Cliff is considered by Smith to be instrumental in the development of Hockey in the Hood and Pittsburgh ICE.
“When I met Mr. Benson in the fall of 2000 and he told me about the program and his dream of helping inner city kids play hockey, this was something that I wanted to be a part of. I grew up in the inner city and programs like Pittsburgh ICE were not around in the 1970's. Cliff and I worked together to make this program a success and I cannot thank him enough for all that he has done for me and youth hockey in Pittsburgh,” said Smith.
When asked what Smith has meant to Pittsburgh ICE, Cliff’s answer was simple.
“Howard is Pittsburgh ICE. He’s the face, he’s the heart of it, he has made it what it is today,” said Benson.
“When I was starting the program, I got a phone call from this guy I didn’t know. At first I was skeptical. Then he came to the meeting in his Navy whites. I couldn’t think to pray for something this good. His energy, enthusiasm and dedication are perfect for what we try to accomplish. Being African American and from the inner city like the kids he teaches, there isn’t one kid who can look at him and say ‘you don’t understand.’ He is a great role model and sets a great example,” added Benson.
While Smith has been in this game a long time and received numerous accolades, he will tell you that he is most proud when seeing Pittsburgh kids participate in the game he loves. It is why he continues to do what he does, whether it is administrative or coaching duties (Smith is also a head coach in the South Hills Hockey Association). It is also the reason that he never relents in his commitment to the game and to the organization he helps run.
“We are always getting new and innovative ideas that come from the people that give their time and energy to help get these kids who just want to play on the ice. My focus at the end of each season is how can we improve for next season, for the next wave of kids?”
When under-privileged youth in and around Greater Pittsburgh see superstars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin take the ice to 18,000 screaming fans at their back, they might begin to dream of being the next 87 and 71. Howard Smith wants to tell them something. He wants them to know, at one time, Sidney and Evgeni were young kids who did not know how to skate either. He wants them to know that you do not need a million dollars or fancy equipment to play ice hockey and that Pittsburgh ICE is for everybody.
He wants them to never stop dreaming.