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Columbus Ice Hockey Club Helping Kids Find Hockey Home

05/09/2018, 11:00am MDT
By Greg Bates

Partnership with city’s parks department gives new opportunities for kids to try hockey

Michael Watson got his boys into hockey at a young age.

Spencer and Sam both played up through the ranks of the Columbus Ice Hockey Club (CIHC). Now, Spencer is playing for one of the best prep hockey schools in the country, Culver Academy, and Sam is lacing up his skates for the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets.

The two kids have the central Ohio-based CIHC to thank for their development as players and young men.

“I think the ice hockey club really exposed them to and built the love of the game in them,” said Watson, who is president of the organization. “There’s not many kids of color that play hockey, especially during the time when they started. Diversity is something that has gotten better. But when I look at my two kids specifically, Columbus Ice Hockey Club really bred into them, not only the love of the game, but the importance of respecting the game, honoring the game and really what it means to be a good teammate — what it means to actually step outside of your comfort zone and find success.”

There have been similar success stories for some of the hundreds of kids who have played for CIHC over the years.

In a grassroots effort, John Haferman and Jeff Christian co-founded the club in 1999 and partnered with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department (CRPD) to offer economically disadvantaged boys and girls of all ages in the Columbus area opportunities to play hockey. Roughly 60-65 percent of the kids in the program are either at or below the poverty line.

“I think the best thing about the organization is we are a program that is here to help feed the passions that the kids have to play hockey and once we start feeding that passion, one of the greatest things is we connect the kids,” said Watson, who has been associated with CIHC since 2006. “We show the kids through hockey all the different possibilities that hockey can bring to them.”

CRPD runs street hockey and learn-to-skate programs. CIHC then takes those skaters and allows them to play ice hockey through a learn-to-play program and in-house teams.

“One program couldn’t exist without the other,” Haferman said, who is the executive director of CIHC and director of hockey operations for CRPD.

Over the last 19 years, CIHC has grown to 11 teams: one 4U, one 8U, two 10U, two 12U, two 14U, one 16U, one high school junior varsity and one girls 19U.

“We’re a small group, but I consider us a developmental program for the city of Columbus,” Haferman said.

There are more than 4,000 kids who participate in Columbus’ street hockey and learn-to-skate programs with around 170 kids playing in CIHC, along with another 40-50 kids in the learn-to-play program.

“Hockey is growing in this city and we want to be part of that growth engine,” Watson said. “We want to be a key cog in the engine. And so, the way to do that is to continue to partner, continue to open up doors to schools and rec centers throughout central Ohio.”

The hockey club has a pretty solid retention rate as players who start in the system work their way up.

“Some years you’ll have a kid who goes from our October learn-to-skate to our November learn-to-play to playing games in January,” Haferman said. “It’s a little bit rare, but it happens every year.”

With nearly two decades of players coming through the CIHC program, the organization started an alumni game three years ago to celebrate its history. This year, the game brought back more than 40 former skaters.

“You don’t really know the kind of impact you have on peoples’ lives until years later when they come back and say what an amazing little ride they had and how much they liked it,” Haferman said.

Even more impactful is all but five or six of the nearly 30 coaches who help with the learn-to-skate and the 11 hockey teams played for the CIHC program.

“It’s amazing how kids are now coming back and coaching,” Haferman said. “That’s probably the best story; that we have kids who come back and want to coach after they graduate college.”

Said Watson: “Success is getting those kids to come back into the community and to give back in a meaningful way. We’re starting to see that.”

CIHC isn’t just about hockey; it’s about teaching good academic foundations. The program stresses having the kids do well in school and learn lifelong lessons on and off the rink.

“For us, if the educational component isn’t there, it doesn’t matter how good of a hockey player you are,” Watson said. “It’s your mind that’s going to get you further than anything else.”

When Haferman helped start the CIHC program, he never imagined where it would be nearly two decades later.

“I’m ecstatic,” Haferman said. “I don’t think there was ever any way we thought it would get to where it is now and we’re continuing to evaluate every year with things that are going right, things that we could do to improve and try to get one thing added every single year.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc

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Christine Osika started losing her sight as a teenager. She will always have her peripheral vision, but she’ll continue to lose her central vision. 

Osika is blind. She’s also a hockey player. 

A hockey lover all-around, Osika didn’t want to give up her favorite game due to disability. In the fall of 2014 she co-founded Courage USA to give herself and others like her across the United States the chance to play hockey. 

Osika and her Courage USA teammates debuted blind hockey at the 2015 USA Hockey Disabled Festival in Buffalo, New York. With 71 teams and 147 games from April 9-12, the new discipline drew the largest audience. It was simply another case of the human spirit conquering adversity.

“That was really nice,” Osika said of the full house cheering on her team at the festival. “That was probably the biggest crowd any of us have played in front of, let alone for blind hockey. That was really cool.”

Blind hockey players have to have 90 percent sight loss. They play with a larger puck that has noisemakers in it so the players can hear where it is on the ice. They also have one particular rule in that when the puck enters the zone, they have to make a pass before than can shoot it on net. When that pass is made, a ref blows a high-pitched whistle to let the goaltender know the puck can now be shot on net. 

Despite these specific rules and modifications to their game, the players are working at full speed, using their senses to make their way across the ice.

“I saw it quite a few times, in amazement, a player skating down the ice and feeling the presence of another skater coming in to check them, and moving away from that player,” Norm Page said, who helped organize this year’s festival. “It was incredible. It was amazing to see the human spirit. It was powerful.”

While it was the first year blind hockey was a part of the USA Hockey Disabled Festival, it was the 11th installment of the event itself. What started as a small gathering of a few programs has grown exponentially over the years.

Page noted that this year’s event needed two arenas with six different ice sheets. With sled hockey, special hockey, deaf/hard-of-hearing hockey, standing/amputee hockey, and now blind hockey, the festival celebrates these athletes who dedicate just as much time to their game as standup, sighted hockey players do. 

“It’s just incredible to see the growth,” Page said. “I think that we can relate that to so many different things, but a lot of it is the support of USA Hockey. It’s a huge piece of that. Being able to go out do things like clinics and talks with different programs, helping to teach the education piece in all aspects of hockey, and helping folks develop their own disabled programs, helping them support their own programs in the long run. I think really speaks volumes about the education process that we’ve been able to do.”

With that ongoing education and an annual spectacle of the sport, constant awareness is brought to the different disciplines of the game. Thanks to the help of USA Hockey Foundation donor dollars – which puts $25,000 toward the festival each year – the cost of the weekend is decreased, while the exposure of disabled hockey is increased. Simply because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they aren’t a hockey player.

“I’ve been doing disabled hockey for 18 years now and I don’t think we’ve ever seen — be it standup or disabled hockey — I don’t think we’ve ever seen the popularity like we are now,” Page said, who’s own son, Adam, is a Paralympic sled hockey player. “It’s things like this, getting people to see different types of hockey and understand that anybody can play the sport. 

“When we talk about USA Hockey and that hockey is for everyone, that’s really what it’s all about. We believe it and live and breathe it every day.”

The Festival and disabled hockey itself would not be possible without the efforts of everyone involved in the game. Without the help of the USA Hockey Foundation and its donors, the coaches, volunteers, and the family and friends that get the players to the ice, the sport wouldn’t be anything near what it is today.

“Without your support system, you can’t make it happen; you can’t get to the rink,” Osika said. “My husband has to bring me, or my father, or friends of mine. We can’t do it without them.”

“It’s everybody,” Page added. “It really is a complete community, starting right from the top with USA Hockey and the USA Hockey Foundation and their huge commitment to disabled hockey. It starts there and works its way right down the rinks.”

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