Since its inception, Ice Hockey in Harlem has done what many folks considered impossible.
It’s taken at-risk black and Latino kids from one of the city’s more impoverished areas and not only hooked them on playing hockey, but used the sport to expose them to a world beyond their neighborhood and to the world of possibilities if they stay in school and pursue life’s positive path.
The group’s presence helped revive a down-and-out outdoor rink in a part of New York where few white people dared to venture, making it a welcoming, family-friendly destination – a lynchpin in an evolving Harlem where people of all colors now live, shop, and dine.
“Hey, if Wayne Gretzky can go near 110th Street to hang with the kids at the Lasker Rink in the 1980s, why can’t I go skating there now” has become the mantra. Like Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the Lasker Rink is a place where everyone wants to play.
The Philadelphia Flyers practiced there in 2012, so did the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011 and the Ottawa Senators in 2010. Boston University worked out with the IHIH there last year, ditto Union College in 2012.
But Ice Hockey in Harlem has been Lasker’s longest-running act, calling the rink on the north end of Central Park home since the organization’s creation in 1987. That run was interrupted over the weekend when the New York’s parks department suddenly announced that it was shutting down for the 2014-15 season to make major repairs to the facility’s refrigeration plant.
The shutdown sent Ice Hockey in Harlem, one of the nation’s oldest minority-oriented youth hockey programs, scrambling to find a place for over 240 kids to practice and play.
“We’re working on an emergency plan,” John Sanful, IHIH’s executive director told me. “I don’t have details yet, but suffice to say we’re committed to making the season happen.”
Sanful called the shutdown “a setback” but added that Ice Hockey in Harlem will do what it’s always done: overcome.
“It’s a minor setback, as with any situation beyond your control,” he said. “Ice Hockey in Harlem is stronger than it’s ever been. We will continue on and the future is very bright and very strong for Ice Hockey in Harlem.”
Still, there are no easy or ideal solutions for IHIH’s current predicament. New York is a city of 8.2 million people, but there are only seven indoor year-round ice sheets in the area.
Developers of the Kingsbridge National Ice Center are hoping to build the world’s largest ice skating facility in the New York City borough of the Bronx, a short subway ride from Harlem. But the mega rink in a massive renovated armory is years away.
Looking to solve their here-and-now dilemma, Ice Hockey in Harlem officials sent its squirts and Lady Harlem hockey team to practice Saturday in Brewster, N.Y., nearly 60 miles from New York City.
Whatever IHIH does for the rest of the season will likely cost the nonprofit some money. Ice Hockey in Harlem depends on the hockey community and donations for funding.
The organization, founded by Dave Wilk, Todd Levy, and former New York Rangers player Pat Hickey, is part of the National Hockey League’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative which provides support and unique programming to more than 30 non-profit youth hockey organizations across North America.
Programs affiliated with”Hockey is For Everyone” help lower the biggest barrier that keeps many minority and poor kids from playing the game: The expense. Organizations like IHIH, Philadelphia’s Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, and Washington’s Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, provide free equipment, ice time, and instruction.
In return, kids in the programs must stay in school, be in good academic standing, and be respectful people. Most of the programs provide academic assistance – tutoring, computer access, college counseling – and mentoring.
While the NHL assistance is beneficial, IHIH is almost always in fund-raising mode. They host an annual “Benefit on the Green” golf tournament that attracts current and former NHL players along with corporate and private sponsors.
People inside and outside IHIH stress that its goal isn’t about building good hockey players. It’s about building good people. Levy’s voice filled with pride recently when he talked about Malik Garvin, who he use to coach on cold Harlem nights at Lasker.
Saturday, Garvin scored his first goal on his first shot for Western New England University, an NCAA Division III school. The Golden Bears lost to Suffolk University 3-1, but Levy said Garvin, a 22-year-old senior, was still a winner.
“He epitomizes what we want for all our kids…not the goal he scored but the fact that he is a double major – finance and accounting – and has used his love for hockey to propel him in life,” Levy. a member of the IHIH board, told me. “The sad irony is that with our rink closing this year, I fear that the next Malik will be prohibited from this kind of life success.”