A famous line in sports comes from Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Lemon, who once said: “Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up.”
The NHL lockout has put all of the uglier parts of the business of hockey on display over the last few months. On Dec. 23, in Central Park, a group of New York-area youth-hockey players showed the game's finer points with a sense of morality and charity beyond their years.
While the speaker intended those words for baseball rather than hockey, the NHL seems to have done everything in its power over recent months to make sure those words also apply to hockey.
After all, despite the apparent progress recently made in the league’s CBA negotiations, the damage that the current lockout has done to the sport has been far-reaching. Along with a tremendous squandering of public good will and an opportunity to grow the game, its effects have included the loss of millions of dollars and the cancellation of nearly three months of regular-season games, including what were supposed to be this year’s NHL All-Star Game in Columbus and Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
But in the midst of the calamity of errors and “screw-ups” that have been made by hockey’s “grown-ups” over the past few months, a group of New York-area children recently showcased the sport’s better qualities, proving that sometimes, hockey really is for kids, and sometimes, the only screw-ups that occur really are compliments of the grown-ups.
Let me explain.
When Hurricane Sandy devastated the northeastern United States in late October, millions of Americans were affected, with consequences of the major storm including losses of lives, homes and possessions. While this was happening, an eight-year-old from northern New Jersey named Christopher John—who also plays hockey—noticed and wanted to help.
Young Christopher John’s idea to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy quickly developed into a two-fold plan, too. Because as much as John’s first-hand witnessing of the storm’s affects inspired him to want to get involved with the storm relief efforts, his first-hand witnessing of the current NHL lockout also made him want to get involved with the “hockey problem.”
So, in a stroke of genius and charity beyond his years—John was only one-year-old when the last NHL lockout ended, after all—John thought of a way to combine both of the causes that he cared about, together.
John’s plan: Have his mite team play an outside game this winter to “replace” the NHL’s Winter Classic, using any and all proceeds as donations for Hurricane Sandy victims.
John’s vision became a reality on December 23 on Central Park’s Lasker Rink, when his North Jersey Avalanche took on the mite version of the Long Island Royals, who were already a national-known program because of the NHL Network’s series (The Making Of A Royal) with the Royals’ junior team that’s coached by Hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine and former New York Islander Steve Webb.
OK, so John and his Avalanche teammates didn’t execute their idea without adult assistance. In fact, they got a lot of adult assistance, with hockey-equipment giant CCM pitching in to help transform what was originally a modest idea into an out-and-out extravaganza.
“I read about what the kids wanted to do in the New York Post and wanted to get involved,” CCM CMO Glen Thornborough told hockeyprimetime.com. “It was such a good idea that the kids had that we reached out almost immediately to see how we could get involved and help them make their game happen.”
However, CCM didn’t just “get involved”—it jumped into the game head-first, truly putting its money where its mouth was.
Thornborough started CCM’s involvement with the cause by making a phone call to Avalanche head coach Tom Duhamel, offering to have CCM pay for the kids’ ice time in Central Park. Besides securing one of the country’s most famed outdoor ice rinks as the event’s venue, CCM’s gesture also paved the way for the money that the mite players and their families had already raised to be directly contributed to Hurricane Sandy relief—rather than paying for ice time—and CCM to follow up by offering to match any donations by the players’ families, itself.
Then, to increase the scale of the game, CCM donated new skates and sticks to players and coaches on both teams, while bringing two of its more famous local clients, Ryan McDonagh and Carl Hagelin of the New York Rangers, to the event to meet the youth players.
“When we had the opportunity to see these kids play and say ‘hi’ to them, it was a no-brainer for us,” said Hagelin. “We got to go in the locker room to meet the kids on both the teams. Both teams were really excited to play the game, and they seemed happy to meet us.”
“With things like this, you see the spirit of the young kids in the world that want to help,” added McDonagh. “It only grows on everybody else.”
“We got to drop the first puck in the game and give them high fives when we went off the ice,” remarked Hagelin. “The kids seemed to like that. Sometimes it’s the small things that happen when you’re a kid that you’ll always remember.”
While Hagelin’s remark alluded to McDonagh and his meeting the Avalanche and Royals players as a “small” gesture, there wasn’t any part of the teams’ Central Park “Winter Classic” that was small, though. Between the game’s location in the midst of the hustle of New York City’s pre-holiday bustle, $12,000 raised for Hurricane Sandy relief, hundreds of very warmly attired friends and family members in attendance—the game was played in frigid 26-degree weather—and presence of local TV news cameras and the NHL.com, “small” actually might be the furthest word from the truth of what this game ended up being.
Another part of the day that wasn’t small? Try the score, with the North Jersey Avalanche knocking off the Long Island Royals, 7-4, in a game that started as a low-scoring affair and accelerated into and full-fledged goal fest as the weather warmed all the way up to a balmy 27 degrees by the game’s latter stages.
“Everything was amazing,” said eight-year-old Christopher John, who spoke to hockeyprimetime.com after handling the sort of media scrum that could make an inexperienced professional player blush. “The only thing is that I wish I scored in the game.”
Well, John may not have scored “in” the game, but he certainly scored “with” the game.
Photos by Dan Marrazza