“People always ask me, ‘Hockey? How’d you get into that?’ ”
Jasmine Thomas, a 21-year-old Black woman who lives in Newark, New Jersey, proudly answers this question any chance she gets. She’s a big advocate for kids playing a sport that most Americans still consider to be only for kids from wealthy white families.
For Thomas, the answer was Hockey in New Jersey, a nonprofit based in Newark that was founded in 2003.
“I used to play soccer when I was younger,” Thomas said. “My mom took me to East Side High School to sign up for soccer. I met coach (Dennis) Ruppe and he actually asked if I wanted to play hockey? I tried it and I loved it. I became the goalie and that helped us be able to have a team.
“A lot of people go after basketball, but hockey is different. And I like being different.”
Ruppe is also the co-founder of Hockey in New Jersey. The 45-year-old Phillipsburg, New Jersey, native started the nonprofit with his former college roommate and hockey teammate Keith Veltre, who is also 45. Their goal was for it to be a feeder program for East Side High School. Almost 20 years later, it has become much more.
“Keith and I never expected the program to grow as much as it has,” Ruppe said. “These kids were mostly used to soccer, but they just needed the opportunity, and then they had passion for the sport. We fell in love with the kids, and it kept growing.”
Originally named Hockey in Newark, the program was based in the city’s Ironbound neighborhood, which is populated with immigrants. Within this community was an asset most urban neighborhoods in America lack: an ice rink.
“The Ironbound Rec Center rink had been around since 1970, but when we started Hockey in Newark, there was nothing going on there,” Ruppe recalled. “We started programming, hitting the streets and asking people if they wanted to play. We got up to 130 kids.”
Financial donations and recycled equipment from kids who played travel hockey provided the rest of what the Ironbound community needed to make hockey possible.
The New Jersey Devils of the NHL played at Brendan Byrne Arena in The Meadowlands, in suburban Bergen County, when Hockey in Newark started. But in a great twist of fate for Ruppe and Veltre, the Devils moved to downtown Newark in 2007. “The Devils owner, when they moved, was Jeff Vanderbeek, and he really supported what we were doing,” Ruppe said.
A few years later, the program expanded into another urban community with an underutilized rink: Jersey City. They changed the name to Hockey in New Jersey to reflect the growth and have since expanded further into Englewood, Montclair and Belleville.
Both Newark and Jersey City are incredibly diverse. You will see kids of all ethnicities and hear a mix of English, Spanish and Portuguese spoken at every game played through Hockey in New Jersey. It is a picture of what the NHL dreams of as it seeks to expand its audience.
Kimberly Davis is in her fourth year as the Senior Executive Vice President of Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs for the National Hockey League. She’s partnered with youth hockey programs across the country and has been impressed with the impact Hockey in New Jersey has on local communities. The available rinks are an important piece of making the sport accessible to all.
“The biggest piece of this is accessibility,” Davis said. “Where is ice? What do you do when there isn’t ice? The cost of the sport, access to the ice, transportation-wise, the makeup of families when two parents are working and ice time is early in the morning. There are many barriers of entry.”
As the NHL has expanded into warm-weather states, teams have gotten creative. The Vegas Golden Knights franchise has used ball hockey, also called street hockey, as an on-ramp to ice hockey. But in order to complete the transition to ice hockey, the investment to build rinks must follow.
“That is one of the ways we can mitigate access,” Davis said. “Then you have equipment and cost — but there are solutions. We’ve gotten better with equipment partners at sanitizing and repurposing equipment. Our Learn to Play programs have provided 50,000 kids with subsidized costs.”
Davis also acknowledged that with hockey, the issues are not entirely socioeconomic. “There are affluent multicultural families that are not into hockey,” she said. “We need the sport to be culturally accessible.”
This means the NHL is trying to address the following questions: How do we better showcase players and fans on and off the ice? How do we express the sport of hockey in ways that younger generations want to see and participate in? The NHL is hopeful that the right solutions will lead to more diverse kids and families embracing the sport.
“There’s social media, food, music. It’s a complex web. We want to see kids not just playing the sport, but seeing themselves in coaching and front offices,” Davis added. “Hockey is an inclusive home for people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and nationalities.”
For the first time in NHL history, the league and players association will celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May 2021 as part of the annual Hockey Is For Everyone campaign. The celebration will highlight past and present NHL stars of Asian descent.
The NHL and other hockey enthusiasts are hopeful that Newark and the Hockey in New Jersey program can continue to be a role model at the youth level for other communities. That old, rundown Ironbound Recreation Center has been fully renovated and was ready for hockey right when Covid-19 started spreading throughout the U.S. in March 2020. By now, the Hockey in New Jersey staff and players are more than ready to break it in.
“Newark and the state did a phenomenal job with the rink. Same building, but the rink, the boards, everything is brand new,” Veltre said. “Newark shut down all their recreation facilities because it was hit pretty hard by Covid. But we’re hoping to re-open soon for some clinics this spring, and then be ready to start a full Hockey in New Jersey season in October. To say we’re excited about the new building is a big understatement.”
Thomas, who is one class away from completing her associate degree at Essex County College in Newark, is enthusiastic as well. Now a volunteer for the program, she saw the growth of Hockey in New Jersey before the pandemic and hopes it can pick back up. “Hopefully kids didn’t change their minds about playing hockey. I know I’d be upset if I couldn’t play a sport when I was younger,” she said.
Thomas hopes the love that she has for hockey will lead to a long career in the sport. Upon graduation, she wants a job as a coach and plans to host clinics for goalies, the position that got her into the sport as a teenager.
“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with my career path,” Thomas said, “but I know hockey is gonna be part of it.”
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