Not far from the shadow of Mile High Stadium, the home of the Denver Broncos, Daihaunon Brooks-Jones resembles a newborn colt as he steps onto the pristine ice of Magness Arena for the first time.
With knees buckling and feet wobbling, the 9-year-old Denver native lets out a loud whoa as he glides across the ice on an early Monday morning. Seconds after the journey begins his shouts and progress come to an abrupt halt as he tumbles on top of the center ice logo of the University of Denver Pioneers. After a small struggle, Daihaunon is back on his skates and slowly making his way around the rink.
Over at the bench, Gary and Leslie Howard briefly stop snapping helmet straps to look up and laugh. They know that by the end of a weeklong camp, most of the kids like Daihaunon will be cruising around the ice like champs.
For the founders of the Miracles on Ice hockey camp, their hope is that these will be the first strides that will carry these disadvantaged youngsters down a path toward a brighter future.
“Our focus here isn’t just to make these kids love hockey. It’s giving them a chance to make the right decisions early in life,” says Gary Howard, who founded the camp four years ago.
“We’ll tell them, ‘Remember when you couldn’t stand up on skates? Now you are playing hockey.’ The same thing holds true with other facets of their lives. It’s a matter of working hard and focusing.”
For the Howards and the small army of dedicated volunteers who made sure the camp went off without a hitch, the hope is that the seeds planted here this week will stay with them for years to come.
It’s a tall order, especially when 9- to 11-year-old kids tell stories about life at home and on the mean streets of Denver, where drugs, gangs and other negative influences are facts of life.
But for one week, they trade in the asphalt jungle surrounding one of the Mile High City’s government assisted housing projects for the plush green fields of a college campus.
“It was important for us to do this camp in a college setting because most of these kids have never been to a college campus,” Howard says. “Most of their family members have never been to a college campus. So we wanted to plant that seed early.”
The Howards started their family foundation in 2001 to provide college scholarships for needy students. To date they have helped 30 students enroll in Colorado colleges. Still, they felt there was more they could do. They knew that they needed to reach into the grassroots and help promote kids at a younger age to make the right choices that would benefit them later on.
Working with the Bridge Project, a DU program designed to help inner-city kids become self-sufficient when they grow older, the Howards created Miracles on Ice.
The Howards chose hockey as the central theme for the weeklong camp because, as Gary put it, the ice can be a great equalizer, humbling even the most dexterous of athletes who have never slipped on a pair of skates.
“I didn’t want to be on a basketball court where the boys could dominate the girls,” he says. “When you put kids on the ice for the first time, everybody is equal.”
But the week is not just about hockey. In fact the on-ice component is only a fraction of the weeklong curriculum. Teachers give up a week of their summer vacations to teach math and reading. Motivational speakers include ex-convicts who talk about the dangers of gang life. And Rob Blue, an Army sergeant, instills a bit of military discipline during his daily dryland training sessions.
But no matter how many speakers they bring in front of these kids, Howard knows the odds are still stacked against them.
“As much as I’d like to change the world, I know I can’t do that,” Howard says. “But if we can change some of the thought processes of these young boys and girls so that instead of getting pregnant at 15 or 16 or joining a gang, they remember that they listened to someone at a hockey camp who told them about life in a gang or life in jail than it’s all worth it.”
But it’s on the ice where the biggest strides are made.
“By Friday you can’t believe this is the same group that staggered on to the ice on Monday morning,” says NHL star turned broadcaster Peter McNab, who spends the entire week with the kids. “They’re passing the puck, skating and having fun.”
The week concludes in triumphant fashion with a full-ice scrimmage, complete with pregame introductions, the playing of the National Anthem and kids’ faces splashed upon the Jumbotron.
As the camp draws to a close, the Howards and their team are already thinking about what they can do to make the week even better for the kids. Better doesn’t necessarily mean bigger, although the Howards do wish that similar camps could take root in every NHL city around the country.
“I think this is a program that could take place in every big city,” Howard says. “There’s no shortage of kids in need and there is a whole host of people who could help set this up. It’s not rocket science. You need people with passion to get this off the ground.”
With USA Hockey’s help, Howard would love to see the program branch out across the country, especially in cities that host an NHL franchise.
“One day I would love to see there be a Miracles on Ice in Chicago or Dallas or Los Angeles. The name rings from the Olympic heritage, so let’s broaden the umbrella.”