, , , , , , ,

When the founders of the Kingsbridge National Ice Center achieve their goal and build the world’s largest ice skating facility in the Bronx section of New York City, add an assist to a seemingly unlikely line mate from Philadelphia.

While the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers duke it out of the ice in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a group comprised of New York hockey enthusiasts – including iconic former Rangers captain Mark Messier – and officials from the Philadelphia’s Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, established by the Flyers’ founder and patriarch, are working together in helping transform the massive vacant Kingsbridge Armory into a $320 million state-of-the-art ice hockey, skating, and ice sport palace that serves its surrounding community and the city by 2017.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center rendering.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center rendering.

There’s a lot of hockey hate between New York and Philadelphia. Rangers fans haven’t forgotten the pounding and hair-pulling helpless defenseman Dale Rolfe endured courtesy of Broad Street Bully heavyweight forward Dave Schultz during the 1974 playoffs or the sick feeling from being eliminated from playoff contention on the last day of the 2010 season by the Flyers in a shootout.

Flyers faithful always remember their team being looked down on as unworthy hockey heathens by their more gentlemanly Original Six neighbor up I-95 and vividly recall the heartache of watching the 1982 team get unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs by a third-string Rangers goalie named Eddie Mio, who somehow managed to channel his inner Eddie Giacomin.

But when it comes to the KNIC project, there are no cat-calls about Rangers’ Ron Duguay’s flowing curly locks and disco-era fondness for Sassoon jeans or chants that pugilistic former Flyers goalie Ron Hextall sucks! Just cooperation, and lots of it.

“They’re hockey people,” John R. Nolan, KNIC project co-founder, Boston College alum, and long-time Rangers season ticket-holder said of his new-found friends from Philly. “We’ve talked about this. Hockey is a religion and if you’re under the tent, you’re under the tent and everyone wants to help. There’s always room for good-natured ribbing and rivalry but that has never gotten in the way.”

In fact, the close working relationship has taken some of the edge off for Nolan.

“As a life-long Rangers fan who grew up hating the Flyers, in some respects I’m mad at the guys at Snider because they’ve taken that away from me,” Nolan told me recently. “I don’t have the same level of distaste for Philadelphia that I used to. I’ve had to shift that to New Jersey.”

Scott Tharp, the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation’s president, said two things are the ties that bind his program and the KNIC project: hockey and kids.

Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds gives tips to a Snider Hockey participant. The program's ice and educational activities helped sell Bronx leaders on the KNIC project.

Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds gives tips to a Snider Hockey participant. The program’s ice and educational activities helped sell Bronx leaders on the KNIC project.

“It’s not unusual for non-profits with common missions to share information and help each other. Our interest is in helping kids,” Tharp told me recently. “What the Flyers and Rangers do on the ice is kind of separate from what Snider Hockey and the Kingsbridge Armory folks do.”

What the KNIC folks plan to do is turn the 750,000-square-foot armory located just below West 195th and adjacent to the Number 4 Express subway line into the mother of all iceplexes with nine rinks – including a 5,000-seat arena that they hope will attract a minor league hockey team- locker rooms, office space, a health and wellness facility, community center and office space.

The project’s brain trust says that the mega facility will help solve a severe rink shortage in New York, a city of 8.2 million people and only seven indoor year-round ice sheets.

The New York City Council approved the KNIC project last December, enticed by the prospect of the facility becoming a lynchpin for the Bronx’s revitalization efforts and lured by the prospect of it creating at least 260 permanent jobs, 890 construction jobs and boosting the fortunes of nearby businesses.

When completed, Kingsbridge will eclipse the eight-sheet, 300,000-square-foot Schwan Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota, as the largest ice arena complex in the world.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center rendering.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center rendering.

Winning New York City Council approval was one thing. Winning over skeptical Bronx political and community leaders who questioned the wisdom of putting a giant ice facility in a borough that’s 53.5 percent Hispanic and 30.8 percent non-Hispanic black was another. Several critics dismissively asked “If you build it, who will come?”

“I have to be quite honest with you, that was my initial reaction as well,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., told me recently. “And then I started to notice that those individuals who would make those comments – which, by the way I believe are borderline racist, I’m going to use that word – are blacks and Latinos. I think what happens is you get people who are, for so long, put in this mental box that they start to accept as if it were reality that this is something that their kids don’t want to do or cannot do.”

Messier, Kingsbridge’s CEO and the hockey face of the project, told NHL.com that the project had to stress the benefits of a partnership between the mega rink and the community.

“We had to sell them on that fact,” Messier told NHL.com. “The only way to do that is to get to know each other and gain the trust. We know it’s not our armory. It’s theirs. We have to be respectful of that.”

That’s where Snider Hockey came in. By coincidence, Kevin Parker – hockey dad, founder of KNIC Partners LLC, die-hard Rangers fan, and former Deutsche Bank asset management director – met and dined with T. Quinn Spitzer, Jr. – partner and chairman of McHugh Consulting, die-hard Flyers fan, and a Snider Hockey board member – during a European business trip in 2011.

“These two Americans sit down at a table in somewhere Europe and quickly discover they both have a passion for hockey: one’s a Flyers fan, one’s a Rangers fan,” Nolan recalled. “As the conversation progresses, Kevin shares what he wants to do in New York City and the concerns he has in how he can get a rink or rinks into areas where you would need community acceptance. I think we knew early on that the community angle was not just something we were interested in, but something we needed in order to succeed.”

“Kevin kind of shared ‘These are our challenges,'” Nolan continued. “Quinn said ‘Let me tell you about Snider Hockey.'”

Created in 2005, the Snider Hockey program exposes 3,000 Philadelphia-area children to the game of hockey by providing them with free equipment, ice time, and instruction at five skating rinks. The hockey serves as a hook for participating children to stay in school and improve both academically and as people.

The program works closely with the School District of Philadelphia and Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation to offer a cutting edge program that blends hockey with a rigorous off-ice life skills curriculum and additional educational services.

“We’re trying to impart skills that help the children grow up to be productive citizens,” Tharp told me in 2011. “Communication skills, the simple things that are taken for granted: the ability to introduce yourself; to look a person in the eye; give a firm handshake; the ability to carry on an open-ended conversation rather than a closed conversation.”

When Snider Hockey began, about 70 percent of its personnel were dedicated to hockey, Tharp told NHL.com. Today, academic aides and tutors outnumber hockey personnel 4-to-1, Tharp said. Over the last three years, 100 percent of the program’s participants have graduated. About 83 percent of the kids moved on to post-secondary education, with a handful of them playing hockey in college.

The program grew so large in size and stature that it struggled to find enough ice time for its kids. In 2010, Snider’s foundation kicked in $6.5 million, which was matched by state funds, to renovate four run-down public ice rinks. Today, those rinks are all enclosed and have National Hockey League-caliber boards, lighting, glass, and community space.

The conversation between Parker and Spitzer in Europe swiftly led to meetings between the KNIC founders and Snider Hockey officials back in the United States. Nolan said he and Stephan Butler, another founding Kingsbridge partner, hopped an Amtrak train to Philadelphia to check out the Snider program and returned to New York  “blown away” by what they saw.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center rendering.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center rendering.

“Everything about Snider in terms of how their organization was put together, what their values were, in terms of how they practiced, the kind of kids they were turning out, literally every aspect of their program was impressive,” Nolan told me. “We kind of took that message back and started selling it in the Bronx in answer to the question ‘Why are our kids going to play hockey?’ There was a huge jump, leap of faith, necessary from the community that minority kids, be they black or Hispanic, would really take to hockey. When confronted with the question our answer was ‘Snider. Take a look at Snider, Snider’s got thousands of kids.’ Snider became an answer to the question.”

So much so that Bronx elected officials and community leaders wanted to see the program themselves. So about 65 of them climbed aboard a chartered bus outside the armory and took it the Scanlon ice rink, one of the renovated facilities, in Philadelphia’s Kensington section.

“What I saw was amazing,” Diaz told me. “To see 75 black and Latino kids in one of the centers enthusiastic about coming in right after school; to see them with their big duffel bags full of equipment that, by the way, was donated and readily-available to them free of charge; to see them getting academic instruction in math and reading; and to see these kids get on the ice as if it were second nature. You look at all of the numbers from the program and we see that school attendance has gone up, we see that bad behavior has gone down. That’s exactly what I want for my Bronx kids.”

The Scanlon tour has been followed up by several telephone conversations between Diaz and Snider.

“I think Ed told him of his vision, told him that we would be willing to support their efforts as consultants, and basically convinced Ruben that hockey was a great vehicle, to help children, to help kids stay the course,” Tharp said.

Diaz said the Philadelphia visit and talks with Snider have set a high bar for the KNIC group in their Bronx community outreach efforts.

“I have a joke with Kevin Parker and Mark Messier. I say ‘You guys messed up’ and they ask me ‘Why?’ And I say ‘Because you allowed me to come to Philly and see the Ed Snider program,'” Diaz said. “And so that’s the standard I’m going to hold for them right here in the Bronx.”

And that’s just fine with Nolan.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he told me. “Our intent is to build a program just like theirs. I don’t know if there’s much to improve on, but we’re going to try. They’ve given us the playbook and we’re going to execute.”