Kids beat Erickson to the buzzer for a 50/50 raffle prize at a Blackhawks vs. Jets game in Winnipeg. Photo credit Anthony Nguyen.

Ice Breakers

A West Side hockey program encourages kids to overcome barriers on and off the ice

On Tuesday afternoons, at the MB Ice Arena on the Near West Side, eleven-year-old Zariah Castleberry adjusts the straps on her hockey helmet, pads, and skates before hobbling over to the ice. She joins ten kids between the ages of seven and seventeen for ninety minutes of skating and stick-handling drills. Zariah comes back to the locker room tired but happy. This is her fourth year playing hockey.

The ice hockey practice Zariah attends look like a typical session in a youth program, except most of the kids there are Black or Latinx and come from low-income families on the West Side. Inner-City Education (ICE), the program that organizes the practices, also provides tutoring sessions and academic scholarships. By keeping costs low and welcoming children from neighborhoods like Austin, North Lawndale, Garfield Park and Humboldt Park, ICE is slowly making ice hockey, a predominantly white and wealthy sport, more and more accessible to Chicago’s low-income communities of color. Moreover, graduates and supporters of the program say it provides a wide range of benefits for the kids involved, including improving their confidence, grades and athletic ability, all while combating racism and segregation in ice hockey culture.

More than any other major sport in the country, ice hockey has resisted the kind of racial and economic integration seen in sports like football and basketball. In 2015, more than ninety percent of NHL players were white. Only five percent were Black, and two percent were Latinx; that’s compared to sixty-seven percent in the NFL or seventy-seven in the NBA who were Black. That segregation extends to the fans as well. In 2013, ninety-two percent of NHL viewers were white.

Sociologists who study sports, as well as hockey enthusiasts looking into the issue, explain the stark contrast by pointing to two main factors: cost and culture. Hockey equipment is expensive. The costs for forwards and defensemen range between $400 and $600, while for goalies it climbs up to $700 and $1,000. A pair of good new ice skates can go for $900.

Meanwhile, fees for joining an ice hockey program are even higher. Recreational hockey season fees usually cost between $500 and $1,000, while competitive youth league amateur teams may ask for $3,000 and $6,000, which includes travel, jerseys, socks, hockey bags, team photos, trophies, and more. Top-tier hockey programs can cost between $10,000 and $20,000.  

Ice hockey culture in the U.S. is also notoriously racist. The few Black hockey players in this country face discrimination from players and fans alike. Just last year, four Blackhawks fans were banned for chanting “basketball” at Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who is Black. Evan Moore, a reporter at the Sun-Times, wrote in the Reader about his experiences playing hockey and noted that such reminders of its racist culture and the sport’s overwhelming whiteness push away potential Black players.

ICE could be changing that. Founded in 2003, ICE provides ice hockey classes to mostly Black and Latinx kids from low-income communities of color. Brad Erickson, co-founder and executive director, coached its first program with ten kids who had never played hockey. Erickson played intramural ice hockey at Bowling Green State University before moving to Chicago in 1996, where he began his youth and amateur ice hockey coaching career. He’s coached for the Chicago Jets, Winnetka Warriors, and Wilmette Tribe, all youth hockey teams. Erickson came up with the idea for ICE after a pick-up game of in-line roller hockey at North Avenue Beach in the late 1990s.

“During that pick-up game, I ran into a guy named Greg, who was kind of a new player. And he was a white guy who had a dozen young Black kids with him,” Erickson said in an interview with the Weekly. “So, we started talking after the game, and he knew that I had been playing hockey all of my life. He wanted to put his kids into hockey. He didn’t have a background in hockey, so he asked me if I wanted to help out. And I said yes, I’d love to.”

During ICE’s second year, the organization recruited sixty kids from a pair of West Side schools. The program moved to the Bobby Hull Community ice rink in Cicero, where they found more potential skaters from ages nine through seventeen. Now, ICE hosts clinics at Riis Park Ice Arena, MB Financial Ice Arena, and Bobby Hull Community Rink on the West Side. Every season begins in September and lasts through June.

ICE does a few things to make hockey more accessible. It offers hockey equipment practically for free, asking only for a $50 deposit at the beginning of the season for kids who make a full commitment to attend every practice. For every missed practice, $10 is taken away from the deposit.

ICE also offers academic scholarships to students who attend every clinic and maintain at least a 3.5 grade point average in school. These scholarships help hockey parents who need assistance in paying for their child’s tuition at private school. To support this goal, the program  provides mandatory one-hour tutoring sessions before clinics on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings.

In ICE’s first year, the program gave out nine academic scholarships. In 2004, ICE gave twenty-one academic scholarships to applicants, and awarded twenty-nine last year. ICE will achieve another milestone by giving out thirty-four academic scholarships this year, their fifteenth anniversary.

The location of the program makes a difference too. Many of the city’s hockey programs take place at ice rinks on the Far South Side or the Far North Side and surrounding suburbs. By housing the program in an ice rink on the West Side, ICE is accessible for many of its kids’ parents.

In order to help raise money for the program, Erickson hosts local Chicago Blackhawks charity events. Former and current Blackhawks players volunteer by playing in pick-up games that help get their loyal fans involved. One of the main fundraising events is an annual bowling fundraiser hosted by Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook. The event has raised over $200,000 in the last two years for academic scholarships.

Many parents are glad to have a well-structured and educational program. Zariah’s mother, Karen Castleberry, spoke about how the program not only gave her daughter the opportunity to improve her academics and ice hockey skills, but also opened up the possibility of her daughter pursuing ice hockey in college.

“Black or white, I [don’t] know anyone who played organized hockey, but we’re going to try this,” said Karen. “Since she previously played soccer and did ballet, I figured she can incorporate all of the things she has already been a part of to be successful on the ice.”

Karen adopted Zariah when she was a few months old, at a time when her daughter’s health was in jeopardy. Zariah needed a liver, intestine, and pancreas transplant. She eventually underwent a successful triple-organ surgery. But, as her daughter got older, Karen felt that Zariah would be physically capable of playing sports. She believed that if Zariah could overcome tough obstacles with her health, she wouldn’t have an issue with playing hockey.

“I love skating and playing with friends, I like everyone at ICE and they’re always nice to me,” Zariah said. “I like Patrick Kane. I don’t think I would continue to play hockey when I get older, but I enjoy playing hockey now.”

The idea that ICE can help kids not only play hockey but succeed in other areas runs deep throughout the organization. Former scholar and current ICE Board Director Darius Mack, the first ever scholarship recipient from the program in 2003, reflected on his experience with the organization. During his time with ICE, Mack played for the Chicago Jets youth hockey club.

“Working with ICE has been great; there is definitely a feeling of the program going full circle for me,” Mack said. “I gained a lot from the program, and it feels awesome to give back to kids similar to myself when I was a kid.”

“I can relate to the everyday struggles,” Mack continued. “Being from a low-income family, these kids and parents know I was there at one point, and can see where I am now. They know about my hockey career, and see that this program could really help them be successful. They get to meet people and have experiences that most might not have on their own. These children display a huge sense of confidence in school, behavior, and overall pride due to this program.”

ICE hockey instructor Dave Temkin is starting to see some improvement and adjustment with the hockey scholars. “We have a couple of our kids from ICE who tried out for the Chicago Stallions ice hockey team last spring,” Temkin said. The Chicago Stallions are one of the most well-known youth league teams in the city.  “So we’re making a little progress on moving kids up to play in a competitive ice hockey season this year.”

“It’s all about growing, and helping more kids,” Erickson said. “The one thing that I love doing every year is calling families and [telling] them that their child has been awarded a scholarship.”

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Isi is a former African-American Chicagoland ice hockey player and current sports journalist. This is his first piece for the Weekly.

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