In Newark, a Youth Hockey Explosion on the Ice

There are more than 130 participants from age 6 to 18. Forty are girls, up from 15 last year. The program started in 2003 with five boys. On Feb. 21, East Side High School, the city’s only public school that offers hockey as a boys’ varsity sport, will field a girls’ team for an exhibition game against a local travel club.

Veltre, Ruppe, Mike Liu and Danielle Deresky run Hockey in Newark’s programs and coach at East Side, with Deresky coaching the girls in the exhibition game. Students at other public high schools can play for East Side, because their schools do not offer the sport. All the players on East Side’s teams, boys and girls, have been involved with Hockey in Newark, which was started as a feeder program for the school.

Hockey was once largely inaccessible to a majority of Newark youth because the gear was expensive and the city had only one ice rink, at the Ironbound Recreation Center, that was not adequately maintained. Yet youngsters have shown a commitment to the game, although other sports are more accepted locally, especially for girls, and the outside competition is superior.

“We try just as hard as the guys do,” Ashley Monteiro, 13, said. “Sooner or later, they’ll accept that girls play hockey. Maybe we can show we’re better than them.”

Laura Lima, who plays for East Side’s boys’ varsity team, said that just as much as girls in Newark wanted to prove that they belonged on the ice, they yearned to show that their city did as well.

Lima, who is Brazilian-American and lives in the Ironbound neighborhood, has participated in softball and volleyball for most of her life.

“They definitely don’t have a lot of the backgrounds of the typical hockey player,” said Deresky, who leads the girls’ program for Hockey in Newark. Among the girls, there are Portuguese and Latin American players, as well as African-Americans, Chinese-Americans and Pakistani-Americans. Like Lima, a majority of the players had no hockey experience. Almost no one knew how to ice skate.

Ruppe and Veltre tie academic performance to participation in the program. But many students from lower-income backgrounds face other problems at home or at school.

Before an East Side game last week, one of Deresky’s players came up to her crying. In Newark, teaching hockey is often a secondary duty.

“They’ll call us at night if they get in trouble,” Veltre said. “Some come from great families, some don’t. It’s an urban thing. You know what it is here. We look at these kids like they’re our own.”

When Veltre was named coach at East Side in 2003, opposing players occasionally hurled racial slurs at his players.

“We’ve heard some terrible things said to our kids from other teams,” Veltre said. “At times, they felt out of place. In the beginning, we were looked at as Newark kids trying to play hockey. They’re looked at now as a hockey team who happens to be from the city of Newark.”

While acceptance has slowly come, the East Side team is still often overmatched.

Before its January game against Governor Livingston High School at AmeriHealth Pavilion, the Devils’ practice rink at Prudential Center, St. Peter’s Preparatory School, a perennial state power, conducted a practice. East Side’s boys pressed against the glass in awe of the St. Peter’s Prep players, who on average appeared to be four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier and seamlessly skated through drills.

East Side’s boys team (2-6-2) tied Governor Livingston, 1-1, midway through the second period but ultimately lost, 5-1.

Veltre was not deterred.

“I think we’re far away, but not too far away,” he said. “We have such great athletes here. We’re starting at the age of 5. In three, four, five years, if it stays as is, I think we can make a run in state.”

Among the players the staff may count on is Gabriella Fagundo, 8.

At a recent practice, she wore an oversize blue uniform with pink gloves and skated gracefully as many of the boys in her age group struggled to stand on the ice, some using metal chairs for balance. Gabriella said she wanted to play for the Devils.

“I was scared because she’s a girl,” her mother, Michelle Narciso, said. “But hey, if she wants to do it, why not?”

Like most of the players, Gabriella practices in donated equipment, including jerseys from the Bridgewater Bears Hockey Club and Princeton’s hockey team. Since 2008, the Devils have helped sponsor equipment drives and allowed East Side to play at their practice rink at no cost.

Forward David Clarkson volunteered with Hockey in Newark when he played for the Devils from 2006 to 2013.

“They kept asking lots of questions,” Clarkson, now with Toronto, said of the young players.

“I actually brought them to a couple of games here,” he said, referring to Prudential Center, where the Maple Leafs played on Wednesday. “It was something I really held close to my heart.”

Despite the support from the Devils, Hockey in Newark still has financial obstacles. All of the coaches are volunteers, and their practice rink, the recreation and aquatic center in the Ironbound, is substandard compared with the AmeriHealth Pavilion.

“We don’t want the ZIP code to determine whether you play hockey or not,” Veltre said.

During recent pickup games at the center, a broken piece of plexiglass that was held up by duct tape was jarred loose. Between periods, parents and coaches repaired it with the base of a Nok Hockey board and cardboard before they found a replacement sheet of plexiglass.

Afterward, the parents went back to watching from the stands, some snacking on Portuguese pastries. The game was still an anomaly for many spectators, who could be heard shouting, “Shoot the ball!”

Though largely unfamiliar with the sport, the soft-spoken Ashley Monteiro said, her mother thought the game would help her express herself.

Monteiro’s friend Raichel Echeverria said she did not socialize much with her peers. She was drawn to the game for other reasons. “I like the way that somehow they look free,” Echeverria, 14, said.

Jasmine Thomas, who is barely five feet tall, has played with East Side’s junior varsity. She said people are surprised that she plays, but she said hockey could one day become the area’s predominant sport.

Veltre said, “It wouldn’t shock us if our girls’ hockey team in a couple years would be more competitive and better than our boys’ hockey team.”

Maryum Bhatti, 15, said the adversity the players faced was creating a stronger foundation.

“The more you fall, the better it is,” Bhatti said. “We are a hockey community.”

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