Sitting on a folding metal chair in the cramped corner of a makeshift dressing room, Scott Gomez peels off his Broadway blue hockey jersey and unlaces his skates. It is a far cry from the creature comforts of the New York Rangers’ locker room in Madison Square Garden, but Gomez looks at home, just as he does on the ice with a group of kids from Ice Hockey in Harlem.
The highest-paid member of the Rangers hasn’t forgotten his roots, no matter how many zeroes are on his paycheck. And he hasn’t forgotten how to have fun.
The joy the Anchorage native exhibits burying the game winner against his former team, the New Jersey Devils, is the same enthusiasm he brings to his new post as honorary captain of the Ice Hockey in Harlem program.
It’s all hockey, and that doesn’t change regardless of where the puck is dropped.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Gomez was in South Florida where his Rangers lost in a shootout to the Florida Panthers. A red-eye flight home and a few hours of sleep removed from a stinging loss and Gomez is back on the ice leading 40 kids through practice paces on the Wollman Ice Rink at the southern fringes of Central Park in New York City.
"Seeing kids on the ice who are new to the game, using our equipment is very gratifying."
“To come out here is worth it. It doesn’t matter if I got two hours of sleep, to help these kids out and to give back to the community is great,” says Gomez.
More than just signing autographs or posing for photos (both of which he patiently does), Gomez is an active member of the coaching staff. He explains each drill, demonstrates a few skills and generally jokes with the kids. It’s hard to tell who’s having the most fun on the ice, but the smart money is on the 29-year-old kid with the million-dollar smile.
“The last time I ran a practice was about four years ago,” says Gomez, who operated a hockey school in his native Alaska during the NHL lockout. “It’s not the easiest job in the world, especially when there are that many kids out there. I give coaches a lot of credit. But it was a way of giving back, and I was glad I did it.”
New York District Director Joe Eppolito watches kids work on their skating skills during a free Learn to Play demonstration at Wollman Rink in Central Park.
The New York Rangers’ “Winter Hockey Fest” is more than just a chance to give back to the game. It’s an opportunity to celebrate all things hockey as part of Hockey Weekend Across America. Teaming up with the NHL, USA?Hockey and the New York State Amateur Hockey Association, the Rangers created an afternoon of fun on the biggest stage around.
For the 100 kids who took part in the Learn to Play portion of the program, it was a chance to try something that they had only seen on TV. Thanks to the efforts of USA Hockey representatives, kids were loaned equipment and sticks to get on the ice.
“Seeing kids on the ice who are new to the game, using our equipment is very gratifying. It makes this event even more memorable for everyone involved,” says Paul Lloyd, a vice president of the NYSAHA who began working on the program back in August.
Hockey Weekend Across America features a day to honor hockey heroes in every community across the country. On this brisk but beautiful New York City afternoon, there is no shortage of heroes who have done so much for so many.
Joe Eppolito left his house in Clayton, N.Y., at 3 a.m., driving 350 miles while towing a trailer full of OneGoal equipment for the kids to use during their on-ice session. Slipping into his skates and donning his helmet, Eppolito spends the next hour teaching a few basic skills to first-time skaters.
On a day designed to show that hockey truly is for everybody, the Rangers sled team takes a spin around the ice, capturing the attention of those public skating on the other end of the rink and passers by alike. The skill, the speed and the spirit that these disabled athletes display are traits that even the most jaded New Yorker cannot help but admire.
“This is about inclusion,” says Dave Tempkin, coach-in-chief for the New York District. “This is about getting city dwellers on the ice and to see that hockey is real and not just something they see on cable.”
Normally, the kids from Ice Hockey in Harlem skate at Lasker Rink in the north end of the park. Today a select few have been asked to bring their act across town.
There are currently 150 kids registered in a program that relies on donations and numerous fund-raising efforts throughout the year to stay afloat. Kids don’t pay a dime, but they are heavily invested in the program. Not only are they required to show up for practices and games, they must also attend weekly off-ice sessions where they learn about the history and culture of the game.
According to Rob Schoenbach, a New York City schoolteacher who is one of many who volunteer their time with the diversity program, the children learn much more than just hockey skills.
“We are not only introducing these kids to a new sport, we are teaching them about working together to achieve a common goal, and we’re teaching them about commitment, about learning how to accept responsibility and how to meet a schedule,” Schoenbach says.
The program provides important structure for players like Jeffrey Ramirez, a fourth grader from the Washington Heights section of New York. In only his first year with the program, Ramirez has developed the passion to stick with a sport that provides him an avenue to succeed away from the tough city streets.
And having a player such as Scott Gomez, one of the first Hispanic players in the NHL, provides the kids a role model to help them succeed.
That’s why the Rangers have long supported the program, and why as long as he is wearing Broadway blue, Gomez will be there, too.
“The Rangers and Hockey in Harlem, what can you say? It’s incredible what they’re doing. Just to have my name a part of it and to be associated with it is an honor,” said Gomez.
“It doesn’t get any better than this. You think about moments like this, to see those kids out on the ice in the greatest city in the world, skating in Central Park, the Rangers and Hockey in Harlem, they know how to do it first class.”