In mid-February, as Hockey Weekend Across America descended on the New York metropolitan area, the region’s three NHL teams once again found themselves locked in a battle for Big Apple bragging rights.
On the morning of Feb. 17, as fans chose their favorite sweaters for “Wear Your Jersey to Work Day,” the New York Rangers sat atop the Eastern Conference standings, with the New Jersey Devils in the thick of the playoff race and the New York Islanders still within striking distance of a playoff berth.
However, while the Rangers, Islanders and Devils are mortal foes on the ice, they’re all teammates when it comes to growing the sport of hockey in the area. A trip through the region on Hockey Weekend Across America showed that all three teams are committed to the sport’s next generation, even if they’re not on the same page anywhere else.
It’s just after 8 o’clock on Friday night, and the Prudential Center crowd is roaring as Devils rookie Adam Henrique scores to put the Devils up, 1-0, on the Anaheim Ducks in a crucial February game. However, the Devils and Ducks aren’t the only teams doing battle in Newark tonight.
If you were to walk across the floor in the Devils’ Acela Club and look down into the team’s practice rink at AmeriHealth Pavilion, you’d see the team from Newark’s Eastside High School on the ice, preparing to take on Dayton High. When the game is over, the result will be posted on the Devils’ website. The Devils are the first NHL team to post high school and youth hockey scores on its site.
“Most people don’t realize all the work that goes on behind the scenes, and the tremendous support the Devils give all the leagues in New Jersey,” said Gene Palecco, commissioner of the Atlantic Youth Hockey League. “They’re a great partner. We work well with them, and they work well with us.”
Of course, you don’t have to visit the Devils’ practice rink or go online to see evidence of the Devils’ commitment to growing the sport in New Jersey. Team jerseys from every high school hockey program in the Garden State decorate the main concourse at the Prudential Center, with the sweaters of the state champions occupying a place of honor on a central column.
On the upper concourse, jerseys hang representing the state’s youth programs. The effect is similar to that of the Minnesota Wild’s home at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, sending the message that the Devils’ home is a hockey arena, and not just an arena where hockey is played.
That message resonates with the youth and high school players who attend Devils games, and that’s just as the team wants it.
“They feel at home,” said Devils CEO Lou Lamoriello. “They feel there’s an association, there’s an identification, and they feel comfortable when they see a high school recognized.”
At tonight’s game, the Devils made an extra effort to make youth hockey players feel at home at the rink, sending Devils alumni out into the crowd to honor local youth teams with an assortment of Devils paraphernalia. One of those alumni, former New Jersey center Jim Dowd, was only too happy to get involved.
A native of Brick, N.J., Dowd lived the dream of many of New Jersey’s youth hockey players. He was drafted by the Devils in 1987 and went on to play more than 700 games in the NHL, including 11 playoff games during the Devils’ run for the Stanley Cup in 1995.
On a night when another Garden State product – Cherry Hill native Bobby Ryan – was in town with the Ducks, Dowd couldn’t help but be proud of the way the Devils support hockey at all levels in his home state.
“It’s great,” he said. “To be not only born and raised in Brick, but drafted by the Devils out of Brick High School, and now to be a part of this however many years later, it’s amazing.”
New York City
A large, inflatable New York Rangers mascot looks down on 8-year-old Farrah Haskins as she skates laps around Wollman Rink in Central Park. She’s not the only one.
The young figure skater is flanked by the Ferraro brothers, Chris and Paul, a pair of former New York Rangers who are in Central Park to participate in a special “Try Hockey For Free” event sponsored by the team. While the Ferraros, who grew up in the Long Island town of Port Jefferson, are used to a very different kind of skating than Farrah, they’re able to find common ground pretty easily.
“It was fun,” Farrah said. “I do a little bit of hockey skating because I can skate really fast.”
While Farrah and the Ferraros are taking their laps, former Rangers like Ron Greschner, Nick Fotiu and Brian Mullen are helping lead a series of drills for the aspiring hockey players who have turned out, emphasizing proper technique in skating, puck-handling and passing.
As a native New Yorker who went on to play 832 games in the NHL, including four seasons with the Rangers from 1987 to 1991, Mullen can certainly appreciate what it means for the team to be actively involved in growing the game in New York.
“It’s fantastic,” Mullen said of the Try Hockey event. “It’s something near and dear to my heart because growing up in New York, there weren’t many programs, and to see all these programs popping up with USA Hockey and the Rangers, we’re getting inner-city kids involved, and it’s a great event.”
For Ralph Scannapieco, president of the East section of USA Hockey’s New York District, the involvement of the Rangers is key to the success of programs that aspire to grow hockey in the metropolitan area.
“When we have events, we have a good turnout of kids,” Scannapieco said, “but when they hear the Rangers are hosting, you really get them to come out in droves because it is the Rangers.”
That effect is exaggerated in a year like this one, as the Rangers have stormed to the top of the Eastern Conference, highlighted by a win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 2 in the NHL Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
“I think what emerges from this team, doing all the winning that they have, they’ve built up this attitude where they hate to lose,” said Rangers color commentator Joe Micheletti.
“I think that through that, you see the growth of some of these young players, like [Derek] Stepan, and [Michael] Del Zotto at 21, and [Ryan] McDonagh at 21. I think that as a young player, you see that these guys worked at college or played Junior hockey. For young kids that are watching, it sends a message. Everything has been so positive that it’s had a trickle-down effect on everybody else.”
For Stepan, who grew up in Hastings, Minn., the idea of needing to grow the game of hockey can be a little foreign, but he’s happy to help build enthusiasm around the Rangers and the sport wherever he can.
“It’s great for the game,” said Stepan, who hosted an autograph signing as part of the Rangers’ Hockey Weekend Across America activities. “Being in Minnesota, we were always surrounded with hockey, but to be able to spread that out a little, it’s great for the state of New York to get more involved in hockey.”
And if Stepan and his Rangers teammates can continue their remarkable season with a deep playoff run this spring, the growth of the sport will only increase.
There are plenty of youth hockey players in the crowd at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum when Kyle Okposo scores to put the Islanders ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes. However, if you want to see the Islanders’ efforts to grow hockey on Long Island, you’d be best off looking some 500 miles north of the team’s home in Uniondale.
While Okposo and his teammates are battling the Hurricanes, the Junior Islanders are at the prestigious Quebec Peewee Tournament. Coached by former Islanders winger Benoit Hogue, the team is a regular participant in the “World Championship of Pee-Wee Hockey,” and although the Junior Islanders are young, there are great things in their future. Just ask Patrick McNally.
A native of Glen Head, N.Y., McNally is in his freshman season at Harvard University, where he scored five goals and assisted on 21 more during the regular season. A fourth-round selection of the
Vancouver Canucks in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, McNally is also a product of the Junior Islanders, and remembers the experience being very influential on his development as a player.
“That was an amazing experience,” McNally said of his own Quebec Peewee Tournament. “It was one of the greatest weeks of my life, and it helped me love hockey even more than I already did.”
Encouraged by his time as a Junior Islander, McNally’s love of hockey has brought him to one of America’s most prestigious universities, with a promising pro hockey career ahead of him.
All over the New York metropolitan area, the Rangers, Islanders and Devils are working to forge new hockey dreams. Whether it's for a weekend, a season or a lifetime, who knows where those dreams might one day lead?