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Hockey Haven aims to make ‘undiversified’ sport more accessible

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NEW HAVEN – There have been a lot of falls – and a lot of comebacks – at the Ralph Walker Rink in New Haven recently.

About two dozen children were on the ice learning to play hockey as part of a new co-ed program that aims to make the sport more accessible to underserved communities. Some of the players were almost as tall as their coaches, others half that height.

The brainchild of Aaron Marcel, a medical student at Quinnipiac University, Hockey Haven has 32 students enrolled in its first learn-to-play program, Marcel said. Most are between 5 and 12 years old, he said, and classes are free for families.

“Hockey is an extremely undiversified sport and it’s very expensive to play,” Marcel said.

The Quincy, Mass., native comes from a “great hockey community.” He played Division 1 in high school, he said, and currently plays in a men’s league.

“It taught me a lot about adversity, teamwork and leadership,” said Marcel.

As he pondered how to fulfill Frank’s terms of service. H. Netter MD School of Medicine, Marcel said he wanted to make a “meaningful impact” in an area he was passionate about.

He pitched the idea to classmate Jake Baekey, who immediately jumped on board.

They recruited fellow medical students Zak Foster and Colin Uyeki, as well as Courtney Morgan, a post-baccalaureate student at the University of Connecticut. All are board members of the new non-profit organization.

Like Marcel, Baekey and Morgan have played hockey all their lives, and the sport’s lack of diversity was hard to ignore.

Morgan started playing hockey at age 4, after his parents took him to a Hartford Wolf Pack game.

His parents “had no idea what hockey was,” he said, noting they were from Jamaica. They only went to the game because his mother got free tickets through work.

“I was like, ‘I want to play, I want to play,’ and they didn’t even know how to start,” Morgan said.

His parents took Morgan to a learn-to-skate program in South Windsor, and he “felt in love instantly.”

He played in youth leagues and in high school.

“I was always, always the only black kid on my team growing up,” he said.

Throughout his career, Morgan was blessed with mostly supportive teammates and coaches, he said, but playing on otherwise all-white teams was difficult at times.

“It was definitely hard at times to fit in and fit in…and just hard to relate to the other kids,” he said. “(But) it was also one of the best opportunities I’ve had and I used it as a positive… (to) differentiate myself from everyone and help me stand out.”

He recalled an away game when a member of the opposing team used a racial slur. Morgan was 12 years old. He doesn’t want another child to go through this.

In 2017, Morgan played lacrosse for the Jamaican national team. It was the first time he played with teammates who had “the same background as me, who looked like me”, he said.

The experience “definitely opened my eyes and made me really want to do the same” for other kids, he said.

By contributing to Hockey Haven, Morgan hopes to not only give other children the opportunity to play hockey at an early age, but also help make the game a sport that everyone feels comfortable in, a he declared.

When the team behind the nonprofit began advertising the program, it caught the attention of the New York Rangers, according to Marcel.

The Rangers have agreed to support Hockey Haven by donating all equipment. The professional ice hockey team, which operates a youth hockey league, also launched a program last year to serve children in disadvantaged communities, according to a team statement.

Meanwhile, the founders of Hockey Haven recruited children into the program with the help of local nonprofits, according to Marcel, who said Monk Youth Jazz was a particularly important partner.

Rangers jerseys now fill the Ralph Walker Rink one night a week.

Last Wednesday, shortly after 6 p.m., the participants practiced shooting the net while a coach showed them the best technique for doing so. Near center ice, Baekey carried a struggling boy to the edge of the ice and set him down.

The boy skated a foot or two until he fell. Baekey helped him up so he could try again and again.

The kids wore lots of gear — helmets, knee pads, inflated gloves — as they went through the trial and error of learning to skate. A boy so small his red sweater reached his ankles fell in a heap as soon as he stepped on the ice.

From a nearby bench, New Haven resident Robert Greene watched, smiling, as his son learned to play hockey.

“I think it’s good for the kids,” he said. “He really likes it. He can’t wait to come here.

On the other side of the bench, Alice Opare of Hamden chuckled as she described her own son’s learning curve.

“He likes it. You know, he falls a lot,” she said. “It’s wonderful. It’s great, simply because everything is given to them for free.

Baekey knows that he and his classmates have a lot of work to do if they want the program to be successful in the long term.

For example, Hockey Haven doesn’t want to let kids hang once they’ve learned the basics, Baekey said. They hope to work with local leagues so some of the kids can play there through scholarships, he said.

The nonprofit also hopes to raise enough money to start its own league, according to Baekey.

Marcel also aims to involve children in activities throughout the year. Hockey Haven has purchased tickets to off-season games and is looking to procure street hockey equipment, he said.

There’s another problem: most of the board members are first-year medical students. When they graduate and start their residency in three years, they probably won’t have time to get so involved, Baekey pointed out.

Hockey Haven worked with Quinnipiac faculty to find a way to keep the program going, according to Baekey, who said they were recruiting other college students to get involved.

Ultimately, Marcel hopes Hockey Haven will resemble Ice Hockey in Harlem, which he described as the “prototype” of the program.

It has been in operation for over 30 years.

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