Hartford PAL Brings Ice Hockey To City Youth

HARTFORD — Until a few months ago, 12-year-old Imanol Gomez had played only basketball and baseball, the least-expensive team sports in a city that tries to stretch every dollar.

Then an opportunity emerged for Gomez and others in the Hartford Police Athletic League.

Want to try ice hockey? For free?

Gomez, a sixth-grader at Global Communications Academy, recalled holding onto the railing when he first tried skating on ice last year. Fast-forward to last Wednesday at the XL Center, where Gomez felt "butterflies in my stomach" as he joined about 30 other city children in their donated skates, jerseys and gear for an exhibition game against each other during the intermission of a Hartford Wolf Pack game.

Most kids had gone from slipping and sliding to attacking the puck over the course of a dozen ice sessions, said John Wenz, head of the new Hartford PAL ice hockey program. "We're really amazed at how well they've done."

Bringing youth hockey to Hartford has been a personal project for two leaders of Hartford PAL's new board, which formed in 2013 to help expand the decades-old organization that has been known for offering boxing, basketball, football and after-school programs.

Board Chairman Dave Jorgensen and President Mike Clifford, a general contractor in Hartford, said they each played ice hockey growing up, but knew the sport has been out of reach — at least financially — for most children in the capital city, despite Hartford being the former home of an NHL franchise.

"A lot of these kids in their wildest dreams wouldn't think of playing hockey," said Jorgensen, a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley. "We want to get our kids exposed to as many opportunities in life and open their eyes and open doors."

Hartford PAL teamed up last fall with Wenz, a coach certified by USA Hockey, who also had hopes of starting an inner-city hockey program. "The state of Connecticut has probably 15,000 kids playing youth hockey, and there's kind of a donut around the city of Hartford," Wenz said. "They don't have the opportunity to play the game we love."

At first, Wenz said, some Hartford police officers were open to the idea of PAL hockey, but were also a bit skeptical.

"I was like, OK, we'll try," Officer Rafael Mena said.

Dozens of children showed up at PAL's first "Try Hockey For Free" event on Nov. 2, a clinic hosted at Loomis Chaffee School's ice rink in Windsor. The hockey program officially began in December, Wenz said, with volunteers and supporters that include USA Hockey and West Hartford Youth Hockey Association.

Since then, the program has secured weekend ice time at rinks such as Newington Arena and Trinity College's Koeppel Community Sports Center on New Britain Avenue. The Wolf Pack sponsored an equipment drive, Aetna also provided gear and jerseys, and Connecticut Children's Medical Center donated 50 new helmets, Jorgensen said.

The ultimate goal is to have an inter-city youth hockey program, Clifford said. Street hockey will be played during the warmer months of the year.

"I grew up in the North End of Hartford; we didn't have this," said Mena, overseeing a loose game of floor hockey in one of the PAL gymnasiums last week. Hockey is "something new to them. They're used to basketball ... We bring softball, we bring baseball to them. They like it. But hockey, they love it, especially on Sundays when they get on the ice."

Sgt. Karla Medina, a former street cop who says she is "always looking for what's going to make a difference," has been leading Hartford PAL since 2011. She supervises Mena and three other full-time officers in the PAL unit, all of whom graduated from Hartford schools and know the challenges facing children — from poverty and hunger to feeling like they "don't belong anywhere," leaving them vulnerable to gangs, Medina said.

A major point of PAL is stirring their potential and providing the feeling of a second family, she said. "There's always hope, and I think that's what we're offering."

Jorgensen estimated that the annual cost for a permanent hockey program would be about $100,000, including ice time, equipment and transportation. At PAL's website, http://www.hartfordpal.org, people can donate to support hockey and other activities that are free for the children, including field trips and golf in the spring. Up to 1,500 youngsters a year participate in Hartford PAL, according to organizers.

After school last Thursday, Gomez played floor hockey with about 20 children and a few adult volunteers in PAL headquarters on Williams Street.

A flurry of boys and girls with hockey sticks tried cornering a plastic ball that soon ricocheted out of the gymnasium. Jamal Spence, 7, a second-grader at Simpson-Waverly School, chased the "puck" into the hallway and returned, victorious, shouting "We got it!"

Gomez said he enjoys "skating fast and making goals," although he added, half-joking, "I'm kind of scared because every [pro hockey] player I see has broken teeth."

Judemis Salgado, Gomez's mother, said she supports his newfound love for the sport: "At least they're not bored."

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