A nonprofit organization started by medical students from Quinnipiac University gives children in New Haven the opportunity to learn and play hockey.
Aaron Marcel is the President of Hockey Garden and co-created the program with some of his classmates to make hockey more accessible to children from all backgrounds. The program was created with the lack of diversity in hockey in mind, from the NHL down to local small leagues.
“The basis behind the hockey garden is that hockey is an extremely non-diverse sport, the NHL is 95% white, and that the lack of diversity extends all the way down to youth hockey,” Marcel said. “For me, when I was growing up, I never had a player color on my team.”
The program, first launched in March, runs once a week for ten weeks and teaches local children the basics of the sport.
“We basically teach the kids the basics of hockey, skating, cane handling, passing all the good,” Marcel said. “And it’s basically for people who would not otherwise be able to play hockey, people with disadvantaged backgrounds, low incomes, minorities who typically do not have access to the game.”
According to Marcel, this discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that hockey is an expensive commitment. Families will typically have to spend more than $ 1,000 on equipment for their child alone.
“The cost is just outrageous, so it’s a sport that really only appeals to white people who come from wealthy backgrounds,” Marcel said. “People are just trying to change that, so we’re just trying to contribute to that mission, and what we hope to do is essentially become an integral part of New Haven and sports for kids in the inner city.”
Marcel promoted the program through social media, which eventually led to the New York Rangers’ involvement in September last year.
“We built it with the help of the New York Rangers, they have other programs like this,” Marcel said. “We’ve been building it with them since September, that was when we were founded as the 501 C-3 and in a way just took it from there.”
Marcel said his inspiration for the program came from playing hockey while growing up, which he says provided valuable experience and skills that could also be used off the ice.
“Hockey for me when I was growing up was a contributing part of the development of myself as a person … it taught me so much about core values and overcoming adversity, leadership, teamwork, all the things that can be translated into success, how to overcome failure, Marcel said. “The relationships you build in hockey are unlike any other thing I know.”
Hockey and the learning experiences that come with it are very important to Marcel, and Hockey Haven is a chance for local children to have the same opportunity.
“I just want to give these opportunities to other children through something that I myself love, especially for those children who otherwise would not have the opportunity to do so,” Marcel said.
The program has already had a positive effect on the children participating, and Marcel said they have even acquired hockey skills very quickly.
“Everyone, like all children and all parents, is just so happy when they get to the rink that they all walk in with the biggest smiles on their lips,” Marcel said. “The first session or two the kids were nervous and scared and they were scared to fall and now they get out there and they fly around, they love it, it’s just so much fun to watch.”
Parents of children participating in the Hockey Haven program appreciate the availability.
“Parents are just so grateful because they really appreciate that it’s free; “When you tell them about the program, their first question is always how much it costs – and you tell them it’s free and their jaws drop,” Marcel said. “It’s like you’re giving these people an opportunity to do something they could never even dream of doing.”
A Hockey Haven player’s parent, Nicole Bradley, said her son Christopher gained more confidence and enthusiasm through Hockey Haven.
“It has brought a side out of my son that I have never seen before in terms of self-confidence in terms of his willingness to actually want to do things,” Bradley said. “Since he is delayed, his self-confidence through this program has plummeted and affected his self-esteem everywhere else.”
Marcel hopes to expand the program in the future to eventually have a league where teams can play against each other. In addition, he envisages implementing an education component to promote the learning experience and even a mentoring program to pair participants with an older player.
“We really want to influence these kids both on and off the ice and become role models in their lives … not just on the ice, but off the ice,” Marcel said. “We were hoping next fall, maybe when the new school year starts up, and we’re getting ready to start our next part of the Learn to Play program, to add an educational aspect to our program.”
These initiatives are expected to further build the community of the program.
“We really want to reach as many people as we can; we have about 35 kids in our program right now and they really love it, ”Marcel said. “We see it as an opportunity that we can keep growing and just become a big part of New Haven and really influence a lot of people.”