Harlem Slapshot

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01/19/2002

W 109th St & Central Park W, New York, NY 10025

Neighborhood: Harlem

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1. Lasker Rink: Central Park at 108th St.

"I can shoot better than you," this six-year-old boy is taunting as we're slapping pucks against the boards. He's referring to the wrist shot technique I'm trying to demonstrate which apparently he finds unimpressive, and I have to admit I don't blame him, though the sting of his jab is lessened by the fact that his hockey pants are nearly around his knees as he says this.

"Hell, my grandmother can shoot better than you," he says, now having graduated to full blown heckling.

I laugh and proceed to trip him with my stick and he falls but its ok since he's wearing full pads and he's only a few feet from the ground anyway. He gets up and smiles and then we're on to something new.

I'm not a good hockey player, but I don't think that matters a great deal, because the aims of the Ice Hockey in Harlem program are a bit more delicate and complicated than trying to turn Harlem kids into NHL players. This is the 15th season of IHIH, and tonight there's about 30 kids on the ice, ranging in age from 4-8 years old, and 5 volunteer coaches, myself included.

The motto of Ice Hockey in Harlem is "Education is the Goal," which you'll see on their logo, and hear frequently from the program's directors. "Hockey is the hook", is one of their other frequently quoted assertions. A hook to a lot of different things, among them: to get kids involved in extra-curricular activity, to get them engaged in their lives, to get them off the street maybe? In addition to the ice time, participants are required to attend a one-hour classroom tutoring session for every hour they skate per week, and volunteer teachers use hockey facts and statistics to teach kids basic math, geography, and reading skills. The program is sponsored by private donors and organizations including the NHL, and the City Parks Department, and these funds cover the costs of equipment, which is provided free to the kids, as well as trips to tournaments, ice time, and scholarships to high school and college.

Before I started Ice Hockey in Harlem, I was a little afraid of kids. And IHIH's pre-season recruitment meeting did nothing to assuage my fears. After we were given a gruesome briefing in hockey first aid (like what to do if a skate blade sliced off someone's finger) we were reminded what an important role we would be playing in these kids' lives. We were told that we (the coaches) had the potential to make a huge impact on them, and how the one hour per week that they spent with us was what they lived for during the rest of the week. And then they talked about how many of them would come from a chaotic home life, and that they would come depend on our presence, reliability, and encouragement since those things were absent from all other aspects of their lives.

'Could I have an impact on a child's life?' I thought to myself.

'Should I?' was the better question.

At the rink, the ice at Lasker is weathered and worn, and it's not the most picturesque place. As far as ice in the city goes, Lasker is a far cry from the perfectly conditioned, indoor, climate-controlled theme park that is the Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers. And though Lasker is in the park, there's no mistaking it for Wollman Rink on the southside, with its tree-lined perimeter and Plaza views. But Lasker has personality. It has ridges and bumps, and sometimes, on especially cold nights like tonight, the ice cries when you skate across it.

Some of the kids are pretty great though: the ones you can tell are just so excited to be out here. There's a goalie named Joel who is always asking me if I'll come out on other nights to give him extra help. He thanks me after every practice, for coming out and donating my time and he calls me Miss. Then there's Malik, a quick and cocky skater who is one of the strongest players in the program. His mother accompanies him every week, cheering him on with a serious intensity. And there's a couple of girls too, some tough, some quiet, who have opted against skating in the all girls league which just started this year.

At times like tonight, when it all seems to be coming together, and everyone has their equipment on correctly and no one is sulking and no one is hurt and the kids with attitude have spunk and the girls just scored a goal and the lights of Harlem stretch out on a blanket before us, this program is amazing.

2. Ice Hockey in Harlem offices: E.111th St., Trilogy Bar and Grill: 2nd Ave. at 73rd. St.

And then there's the Marc Verdejo story. Marc joined IHIH as a player when he was 12, and now he's a little over 20. Born and raised in East Harlem, Marc's progress through the program was touted as one of IHIH's greatest success stories. As the IHIH literature describes, Marc earned his G.E.D. after his years as a player, and was then offered a full time position with the program as the Assistant On-Ice Coordinator. He was promoted to On-Ice Comissioner, and was then made the Operations and Events Manager and served in that role this past season.

Press made sure to interview Marc in profiles of the program, and in a recent New York Times piece, Marc is quoted as saying, ''My mom would give me $5 and send me out the door. Growing up in Harlem, there's not too many avenues open to us. It gave me the tutoring and homework assistance that helped give me the extra push I needed to get through school.'' Since then, Marc has made the decision to leave the program to pursue his higher education. Or so maintains www.icehockeyinharlem.org.

Marc had always been a friendly face in the locker room and at coaches meetings during my time in the program, and when I didn't see him at our final volunteer reception last month, I asked Executive Director Dee Reiber where he was. Her face instantly assumed the expression of someone who had just tasted something unspeakably sour, and she replied that it was a sad story that she'd rather not get into at the moment.

"What happened?" I said, more than a little confused.

"It's a sad, sad story," she repeated again, and then turned to walk away. It was a little after Easter at that point, and Dee was wearing a huge, lavender, Mad Hatter type hat and I watched it retreat through the crowd away from me.»

When someone finally did tell me what had happened, I was surprised to learn that Marc had been fired on account of rumors that he had been stealing equipment. Apparently, Marc hadn't been qualified for the original position he had been given in the program. Rather than train him to better handle that position, or fire him at that point, IHIH decided to "promote" him to a new position they created just for him: one that naturally kept him at a distance from the challenges of his original role. When he was unable to fulfill his responsibilities in that position, he was again "promoted" one last time to Operations and Events Manager, a role which essentially required him to monitor the buses that brought the children to and from the rink, and to oversee the locker room before practices. It was at this point that Marc was accused of stealing equipment, and was finally asked to leave the program.

By the end of this story, I think I had probably sloshed most of my drink onto the floor on account of my mounting frustration listening to this ridiculous reverse Peter Principle debacle. Rather than try to truly counteract the pitfalls of Marc's disadvantaged background, the program instead chose to ignore the problem in favor of keeping him on salary as a figurehead, until, that is, his presence resulted in a true financial loss to them (the stolen equipment).

I kept hearing the phrases, "responsibility to the community," and "job training" coming out of my mouth, and the phrases, "he couldn't handle it" and "G.E.D." coming out of theirs until it simply became this maddening, futile loop. Now I'm not saying that Marc isn't responsible for his own actions, it just seems a curious paradox that this program which prides itself on preparing young minds for higher education and social service, had to reject one of its own when he was put to the test, only to spit him back out into the same hostile environment from whence he came.

But perhaps it was a case of a sort of tradeoff for the greater good. Keeping Marc on as an example of the program's success helped them to get more sponsors to help a greater number of kids and therefore could be seen to partly justify what was essentially a lie. But what now?

3. Apollo Theatre, 125th St. at Frederick Douglas Blvd.

The fabric of the curtain on stage is what strikes me first. The color is inarguably red, but the texture is this strange amalgam of iridescent and shimmering and I can't really tell if it's moving or not because the light is perpetually catching all its sparkles and making it appear to be moving. I have a lot of time to stare at the curtain since I'm sitting in a rather isolated side section of the theatre while the entire middle section is filled with excited and antsy kids, ranging in ages from 6-16 years old. I'm at the Apollo Theatre for the first time for the graduation ceremony of the 2000-2001 season of the Ice Hockey in Harlem program, and I'm a little overwhelmed.

On stage off to the corner in front of that mesmerizing curtain is a 5-piece band, playing for the approximately 20 minutes it takes for everyone to get through the door and into their seats. The band is dressed entirely in hockey garb, minus the pants and skates, although the lead singer and the bass player are wearing helmets. Their sound is an aggressively upbeat rhythm, almost approaching a polka, combined with the quirky punning lyrics and character voices common to children's music. The kids are stiff in their shirts and ties and dresses, and I think they're a little perplexed by the band and anxious for everything to start. They're sitting in sections divided by school: PS 192, PS 72, PS 101 and right now some of them are climbing over seats trying to get to other rows.

When everyone is settled, there's a couple of speakers before the award presentation starts. Among them is Kevin Weekes, a goalie for Tampa Bay Lightning, and one of the tiny minority of black NHL players. He tells the kids, rather nervously, "I'm an example that it's a possibility to have a dream, and to pursue that dream." Only his point seems to be slightly diminished when we learn later that Weekes was brought up in Toronto.

But graduations are like this, right? Days like today are for the statistical smoothings, not the unflinching truth.

I'm reminded of my first practice with the program three seasons ago---how I was confounded by the weight of my own significance to these kids and the fact that at any moment, one of them could get hit in the mouth by a slapshot---but then I got out there and realized it was ok, we were just playing. Sure, the rest of that stuff---the worst possible scenarios, the emotional urgency of it all---was still in the air, but it was just subtext. If you didn't squint your eyes and concentrate, you could forget it was there altogether.

Then there's Manny Delacruz, one of the real poster boys for the organization. Manny started with the program in one of its first seasons, and through work with the volunteer teachers and mentors, earned a scholarship to Trinity Pawling Prep school, and then graduated from Skidmore College. He's a smart looking, well put together guy, and his speech, to me, is the sincerest of the evening, free of all the glossy boostering of the rest of this event. He speaks to the crowd in a confident, compassionate tone, saying, "I lived in Harlem, it was all about surviving, and being cool and knowing the slang...and they (IHIH) pulled me aside and said, y'know that's not what its about---I ask you guys, look at what you have." People clap and parents nod and the starched investors sitting in front of me seem to shift in their seats a bit.

And then a diminutive man named Billy Mitchell speaks, who, we learn, has worked at the Apollo Theatre since he was a teenager. "Who would've ever thought that hockey would've been brought to Harlem?" he says enthusiastically to the cheers of the crowd, "We've got basketball, a little baseball---but hockey?" he pauses, "Well I think that's great."

And for tonight, on a balmy Thursday evening in early May, it most certainly is.

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