Oakland Tech hockey team trains with NHL’s San Jose Sharks
on March 9, 2011
Thud! Thud! Thud! Hockey puck after hockey puck hits the already scuffed boards encircling the ice Oakland Ice Center rink. A skater chasing after one of the many black pucks flying across the ice wipes out; his feet fly up from underneath him. An “Oooooo,” erupts from the crowd, as people wince in pain.
It’s Monday afternoon, and most of Oakland Technical High School’s ice hockey team—in full pads and bright purple and yellow uniforms bearing their Bulldogs logo—have hit the ice for a special skills clinic led by Justin Braun and Andrew Desjardins, players for the San Jose Sharks. The clinic also included the Oakland Bears junior hockey team, geared toward elementary school-aged players. One of the Sharks’ players works with each team, set up on opposite sides of the rink. The Bears players spend most of their time weaving through lines of cones while trying to keep the puck in control. The Bulldogs practice shooting goals and get tips as they scrimmage with each other.
The clinic was part of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative. The program was started in 1991 to help bring ice hockey to more players, especially those in areas where ice hockey is not seen as option for most young athletes. Currently, Hockey is for Everyone supports 30 non-profit youth ice-hockey programs across the United States and Canada, bringing hockey to over 300,000 kids each year. One of their supported programs is Sharks Ice Oakland and the Oakland Ice Center; it’s not just the only program supported in California, but the only program supported in the Western half of the country.
Every year, former NHL player Willie O’Ree, the Hockey is for Everyone ambassador, visits the Bay Area and this Monday he started off his tour by talking to kids at the Oakland Ice Center. O’Ree is the NHL’s director of youth development.
O’Ree gave a talk to the athletes, and also hung out to chat with a couple of young players afterwards as they sat on a bench in the Ice Center’s front room. “I played nine different sports growing up,” O’Ree said. “I had to make a choice of baseball or hockey and in 1956 I choose hockey because I was obsessed with playing the sport. There was just something about it.”
O’Ree, now 75 years old, started skating on the pond in his backyard in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada at the age of two. By age 5, O’Ree was playing organized ice hockey and at age 21, after a stint playing for a couple of Canadian minor league teams, O’Ree was invited to the NHL’s Boston Bruins’ training camp. On January 18, 1958, O’Ree became the NHL’s first black player when he played for the Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadiens.
But O’Ree almost didn’t make it to the NHL. While playing for the Kitchener Canucks during the 1955-56 season, O’Ree was hit in the eye by a hockey puck. “I lost 97 percent vision in my right eye,” O’Ree said. “The doctor told me the puck did so much damage that I would never play hockey again.”
But O’Ree got right back on the ice and adjusted his game, keeping his loss of sight a secret. At that time, according to O’Ree, each player was required to have a certain amount of vision in each eye to play professional hockey. O’Ree continued to play hockey for another 23 years. He spent two seasons in the NHL, 1995-56 and 1960-61, playing right wing for the Boston Bruins.
“I told myself that this is a sport that I think every boy and girl should have the opportunity to play,” O’Ree said. “And once I get these boys and girls on the ice, I’ve not had one boy or girl come up to me and say, ‘Mr. O’Ree I don’t like this.’ I got a good record going.”
Now in its third year, Oakland Tech’s ice hockey team is continuing to grow with help from O’Ree and Hockey is For Everyone. On Monday, the team’s two coaches, Oakland Tech physical education teacher Kelley Haskins and Oakland firefighter James Halpin, both sported black jackets with a large team logo on the front. The jackets, given to them by O’Ree, had “Hockey is For Everyone” was written on one sleeve and “Sharks Ice” was written on the other.
Ice hockey may not be a familiar sport to most youth from sunny California, but Haskins, who hails from the East Coast, said she missed the “rink rat” days of her childhood. So when the manager of the Oakland Ice Center came knocking at her door, looking for kids to come use their rink, she was happy to help. “It being Oakland, people [were] not really into hockey or skating or anything,” Haskins said. The Oakland Ice Center manager “was really having a hard time finding people interested in developing a program.”
With the support of Oakland Tech’s principal, Haskins was able to start the first on-ice physical education class in the area offering not only ice hockey, but a learn to skate program, figure skating, curling, and broomball as well.
Unsure of its success, Haskins said, “I took as many kids as I could get” that first year. “I was freaking out.” But after the first few weeks, the 7 am class still had about 112 kids showing up every morning. Recruiting help from the Oakland Fire and Police Department Hockey League, Haskins found a partner in Halpin. This year, about 72 students are enrolled in the “A” period class, which has now become the feeder program for the school’s ice hockey team.
Oakland Tech is the first public high school in California with a competing ice hockey team, Haskins said. “The popularity was unreal and it just stuck,” Haskins said. “It’s a hit. It’s super successful.”
But ice hockey is not a cheap sport—it requires tons of equipment and padding, as well as time on the ice. “Hockey is a very unique sport,” O’Ree said. “It’s not like how anywhere you can dribble a basketball, bat a tennis ball, kick a soccer ball, throw a baseball, throw a softball. In order to play ice hockey you need to be out there.” He turned around and pointed to the ice rink behind him. “You need to get on the ice.”
Oakland Tech’s on-ice physical education program, along with its ice hockey team, relies on outside help to cover the costs associated with the sport. When she started the program, Haskins received a $13,000 grant from the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame to buy about 70 sets of hockey gear. Fundraising efforts by Halpin have helped to purchase the remaining gear needed. All the school and team’s ice time is donated by the San Jose Sharks, who sponsor the Oakland Tech ice hockey team.
When it hits 5 pm on Monday, the clinics wind down, and Shark players Braun and Desjardins take their seats behind a long folding table just off the ice. They are ready to sign autographs for the clinic participants. Kamrin Lewis, a 17-year-old senior on the Oakland Tech ice hockey team, is all smiles as he gets his Hockey is For Everyone bumper sticker signed. Lewis has been playing on the team since its inception three years previous. “I like hockey because it’s different,” Lewis said. “Not too many African-American kids play it. It’s a difficult sport, but it’s actually really fun.”
Lewis, who was recently accepted at San Jose State University, is hoping he can walk on to his new college’s hockey team so he can continue to play the sport. “I want to go to San Jose State and play hockey,” Lewis said. “Or, anywhere that I can [play hockey].”
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