The NHL has contributed to the growth of Mahoning Valley ice hockey.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
BOARDMAN -- Thanks to a $10,000 grant from the National Hockey League, Mahoning Valley children who otherwise would probably never lace up skates are getting firsthand experience with sticks, pucks and nets.
With the help of Mahoning County Commissioners, the Youngstown Borderhawks youth hockey club applied for and received one of 10 grants the NHL distributed last fall.
"In looking at our application, the NHL determined that we're in an economically-depressed area, which is what they were looking for with this program," said Tim Shannon of the Borderhawks.
The Borderhawks provide traveling youth hockey teams for players ages 4-14. As members of the Cleveland Suburban Hockey League, most of their games are played in the Cleveland area.
The organization draws players from Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties in Ohio and Mercer and Lawrence counties in Pennsylvania. Their home rink for practice is the Ice Zone on McClurg Road.
As ice hockey parents know, the sport isn't cheap. Equipment -- pads, sweaters, pants, sticks, ice skates -- costs hundreds of dollars and much of it needs replaced every two years.
Ice time also costs hockey teams plenty and players are asked to contribute their fair share.
Despite the economic obstacles, Shannon says, "Ice hockey is growing by leaps and bounds across the country.
"What the NHL wants to do with this program is to try and appeal to people who ordinarily wouldn't participate," Shannon said. "The goal is to make hockey a little more diverse."
Shannon said the Borderhawks divided the NHL grant in half. First, the club spent $5,000 for 20 sets of hockey uniforms that are available to be rented for as low as $25 per season. Normal rental price is $400.
The rest of the money was used to create two-year scholarships for those interested in playing hockey but unable to afford the expense. Some are full scholarships; others are partial.
The next step was to find children willing to give ice hockey a try.
With the help of the Ice Zone and the Mahoning Valley Phantom Rockets Junior A team of the Continental Elite Hockey League, the Borderhawks set up a "Try Hockey for Free" program where children were invited to skate for free and receive lessons.
The Ice Zone donated four hours of ice time, and about 60 children took part when the program kicked off.
"We had children come from Struthers, Lowellville, Campbell and the West Side, kids that otherwise would have never gotten involved with hockey," Shannon said.
Of them, 35 signed up to take weekly classes offered for an hour on Mondays.
Two children who have become active in the program are 12-year-old Najid Aquino and his 10-year-old sister Janiece. Students at New Hope Academy, they are the children of Ruben and Mayra Aquino of Youngstown.
Mrs. Aquino works with OCCHA (Organizaccion Cultural y Civica Hispanamericana) and found out about the program when Shannon made a promotional visit.
"My daughter had a little skating experience, but my son had none," Aquino said. "Now, they can skate pretty well. They picked it up pretty quickly. Their favorite player is Scott Gomez of the New Jersey Devils."
Aquino said the first half of the weekly sessions are lessons taught by the Phantom Rockets.
"Then during the last part, they scrimmage," Aquino said. "They look forward to it. It's something good for them to do in winter time."
Aquino admitted he was skeptical.
"Hockey is not very popular with Hispanics, so I had my doubts," Aquino said. "But after attending a few sessions and seeing some games, I feel more comfortable about it."
Shannon's hope is that the new players continue to improve to where they can join the travel teams.
"Our intent is to eventually blend them in with the rest of the kids in our program," Shannon said. "To do so, it means they will have to make practices and keep up with the standards required of Borderhawks."