Caleb Williamson didn’t know what hockey was until he watched “The Mighty Ducks” as a kid.
“I saw the movie and asked my parents, ‘what sport is this?'” the youth hockey defenseman said. “They said ‘this is hockey’ and that’s when my parents and I started doing research.”
He said stories like his are common, especially among kids of color who miss trying hockey because they aren’t exposed to it.
“If your parents didn’t grow up as hockey fans, you might not know what hockey is,” Williamson said. “That’s one thing that makes it so difficult to learn the sport at an early age.”
Data provided by the NHL to NY1 showed there were 54 known Black, Indigenous and people of color who had played at least one game this season as of April 20.
Behind the bench, there has only been one black NHL head coach — Dirk Graham of the Chicago Blackhawks — out of 387 coaches in the league’s 104-year history.
Williamson, a recent graduate of Syracuse University College of Law, is one person trying to help increase diversity at the New York rink and ensure hockey is truly for everyone.
As the Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator for the New York State Amateur Hockey Association, he connects local charities with the funding and tools they need to expose young people. disadvantaged in sport. He thinks the government can also help his cause.
“Bringing Hockey In [New York City] parks are so important,” Williamson said. “The City Parks Foundation offers free tennis, golf and baseball programs, but generally no hockey. If there is a very serious effort by lawmakers to develop the sport, that would be amazing.
Williamson said a partnership could start with street hockey, which is played in parking lots, streets, tennis courts or other asphalt surfaces.
“Anywhere you have any kind of asphalt, you can put up a net and sticks and get involved in the sport,” Williamson said. “All forms of hockey were featured in the movie ‘The Mighty Ducks’. It’s something cities and other organizations can embrace.”
Mercedes Narcisse, a councilman representing Brooklyn’s 46th precinct, is a lawmaker with a vested interest in bringing more hockey to New York.
“Diversity is very good for any sport. If we have the opportunity to have more hockey in our district, we will,” said Narcisse. “The 46th District has a hockey rink, but we need to push it more. You never know what sport a child will get attached to.
Narcisse described the benefits children have of playing hockey and sports in general, including less time and energy for violence.
“When kids are busy, they don’t have time to cause trouble,” Narcisse said. “To put it simply, they are getting tired and they have no energy for the gangs.”
Shekar Krishnan, chairman of the New York City Council’s parks and recreation committee, shared a similar sentiment. He said the lack of parks is a “community safety issue” that unfairly affects children of color.
“On average, black and Latino students [in New York City] attending schools with about 10 fewer teams on average compared to white students,” Krishnan said. “It’s a huge inequity that needs to be corrected.”
Krishnan is a city councilman representing the 25th district of Jackson Heights, which he says ranks 50th out of New York’s 51 districts in terms of green space per capita. He is calling for $1 billion in funding for the Parks and Recreation Committee, which “will make sure everyone has access to parks.”
The city’s current budget allocates 0.57% to city parks, less than it did in the 1970s during the height of the Big Apple budget crisis, Krishnan said. With more “crucial” funding, he thinks there can be more hockey in all five boroughs.
Ice Hockey in Harlem is an organization trying to make that happen. It was founded in 1987 when 40 children agreed to attend weekly classroom sessions and skate one night a week. They were taught math, reading and geography, using hockey as a teaching tool.
Three decades later, the group continues to help Harlem’s youth on and off the ice through education and coaching.
Program director Malik Garvin said the organization’s goal “is not to create the next Wayne Gretzky, it’s to create better people.”
“While hockey is part of what we do, there’s more to it,” Garvin said.
Garvin himself was a part of ice hockey in Harlem as a kid, which helped him get equipment, learn the game, and even deal with the racism he faced on the ice.
“The first time I was called the n-word while playing ice hockey, I was 8 years old,” Garvin said. “It’s kind of your worst fear going there.”
Ice hockey in Harlem provided Garvin with a safe place to play hockey in Manhattan – a city of over 1.5 million people, but with only four hockey rinks.
Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers is home to the NYC Cyclones, New York’s premier youth hockey organization. For a long time, Sky Rink was the only fully equipped place to play traveling hockey in Manhattan, Garvin said.
Lasker Rink is a seasonal skating rink located in Central Park. Garvin said it will be “a gravel pit” for the next few years – it was torn down and will return in 2024 as part of the Harlem Meer Center.
Riverbank State Park has an indoor rink for roller skating in the summer and ice skating in the winter. The rink is located in Harlem.
Wollman Rink is a large oval ice rink without glass. Kids can play hockey at the Central Park rink if they’re separated by foam dividers, but that prevents them from lifting the puck – a reason Garvin pointed out that the rink is “not made for the hockey in any way”.
“That’s what makes it so difficult to play hockey in Manhattan: the lack of rinks,” Garvin said. “It’s a limiting factor for ice hockey in New York.”
Krishnan added, “The inaccessibility of rinks and rinks is a big problem. This has a direct impact on who can play sports. You shouldn’t have to go to Chelsea Piers [in Manhattan] to be able to play hockey.
“When we think about diversity in sport, we have to lower the barrier to entry.”
Price is another factor why hockey is difficult to learn. It’s one of the most expensive sports a child can play – equipment and ice time don’t come cheap.
Utah State University and the Aspen Institute reported in 2019 that parents of a child who plays ice hockey spend an average of $2,583 per year. Ice hockey was the most expensive sport among the 21 evaluated.
To combat the lack of rinks and high prices, Ice Hockey in Harlem works with other organizations, sharing resources and information to get as many kids playing as possible.
The 43 OAK Foundation, founded by entrepreneur Sean Grevy, works with players — some from charities like Ice Hockey in Harlem — who want to take their skills to the next level.
“Ice hockey in Harlem brings as many kids as possible onto the ice to see if they like hockey,” Grevy said. “Our goal is to help young people who love hockey. We want to create a bridge, so that children don’t feel stuck. If we don’t exist, that bridge doesn’t exist, and you can’t cross the river without that bridge.
Lance Spencer, for example, learned to skate at Ice Hockey in Harlem. As money became tight, Grevy and the 43 Oak Foundation stepped up, allowing Spencer to pursue his youth hockey career.
Romeo Torain also rose through the ranks quickly, balancing a promising hockey career with colleges. The Washington Heights native now attends Castleton University and played 20 games for the Spartans in his freshman season.
“Ice hockey in Harlem can’t do much. These guys work hard,” Grevy said. “We need to continue to have unity across programs, so that politics and finance don’t end a career.”
UBS, the New York Islanders and UBS Arena are doing their part to ensure Grevy’s impact can continue to grow. They have pledged $1 million over five years to the 43 Oak Foundation, which helps players pursue college and professional hockey careers through scholarships and mentorship programs.
“Our partnership with the Islanders is not only important, but essential,” Grevy said. “They’re not just a brand throwing money at something. They really care. It’s the truth, and I say it from the bottom of my heart.
The 43 Oak Foundation held its second clinic with the Islanders in February at UBS Arena. This doubled attendance at their first clinic – over 40 children from across the country participated, 30 of whom were under the age of 18.
Torain even returned to New York for the clinic, instructing young players looking to replicate his path.
“For the children to have someone like [Torain] as a coach, who is a black hockey player from Harlem playing NCAA hockey and graduating, they’re like, ‘Oh my God,’” Grevy said.
For students who wish to practice sports other than hockey, there are organizations that can also help them.
Youth Sports Partners, for example, supports disadvantaged students through college preparation, career development, financial literacy, and health education.
Oren Wilson, group operations director, other sports are cheaper and easier to get to than hockey.
“I work with a student who plays hockey,” Wilson said. “There are no teams in working-class neighborhoods. Children don’t see people of their color playing there.
Wilson played college football for Michigan State University and the University of Akron, and briefly played for the New York Giants after graduation.
He shared that no matter what sport the kids play, just getting involved can help in different ways.
“Sport, for me, has no color. Sport should be diverse. Sport opened my eyes and showed me different cultures,” Wilson said.