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This All-Girl Hockey Team In Harlem Is Changing The Game

The program combines education, life-skills, and true grit.

Cross 110th Street on a frigid Friday night, when bitter winds blowing off the surface of Harlem Meer have driven most New Yorkers indoors, and you might think you had Central Park to yourself. But Lasker Rink, the sturdy double skating rink located just inside the park, is rocking.

In one rink, tiny figure skaters inch in the direction of their instructor, tiptoeing almost on their toe picks. In the hockey rink, players are perfecting their snapshots, whipping pucks against the boards. They shoot and pass, practicing classic hockey stops that sheer ice off the surface. Fast and accurate, they skate in practice jerseys with Ice Hockey in Harlem stitched on the front. Only when you spot long hair pulled back under some of their helmets do you realize you’re watching teenage girls. Lady Harlem is in the house.

Christmarie Salcedo, 17, plays right wing and center for Lady Harlem. A high school senior, she started skating nine years ago after Ice Hockey in Harlem showed up at her elementary school to recruit neighborhood kids for hockey and to promote the life skills and team-building that come with playing the game. “Basketball and soccer were my main sports,” Salcedo says, “then I tried hockey. The competition, the feeling you get when you’re on the ice, that for me is so fun. And it’s rare to see someone playing hockey. I liked that.”

When Ice Hockey in Harlem formed in 1987, getting local parents to enroll their kids was a hard sell. That hasn’t totally changed. Access to public courts and diamonds help drive the popularity of basketball and baseball, but hockey requires a rink and notoriously expensive gear. A new hockey uniform — stick, helmet, skates, padded pants, shoulder pads, shin guards, elbow pads, gloves, mouth guard, and neck guard— can run between $700 and $1,000. Add in transportation, and the costs become prohibitive for many families.

Still, Ice Hockey in Harlem’s founders believed every kid deserves a chance to play. Making hockey just one component of the program, they tied participation in the game to mandatory weekly classes in math and geography. They launched with a small group of neighborhood children, one that quickly doubled in size. A clinic by hockey great Wayne Gretzky changed everything. Now closely connected to the New York Rangers and increasingly to the National Women’s Hockey League and its Metropolitan Riveters, Ice Hockey in Harlem currently trains 240 kids, and 76 of them are girls.

Lady Harlem was born when coaches noticed that some teenage girls no longer wanted to play on the boys’ teams. “We also had a really gung-ho group of girls who were 10,” says program director Brad Preston. “Even though they would have been fine playing with boys at 11 and 12 and maybe later, we thought, let’s get them their own team and see if that works for them.” This season, Lady Harlem hosted teams at Lasker and traveled north to play. “It’s really fun to play hockey, and it’s always a little bit more fun when you win,” says head coach Amanda Adams.

Adams played at Yale and coached Division I hockey. “One thing you want to teach girls is to be competitive,” she says. “And that going after each other is a good thing and not a boy trait. That’s a huge life skill. This year I noticed that the more you get into the nitty-gritty of skill details and the details of the game, the more the girls are focused and driven to get better every day. We want people to have fun and to have a positive experience. But we also want them to get real, hard skill development.”

Photo courtesy of Ice Hockey in Harlem.

Marwa Soussi, like her teammate Salcedo, played on the boys’ teams before joining Lady Harlem. “When I started, I couldn’t even catch the puck because I was too scared I’d be knocked unconscious,” she recalls. “I knew I’d have to become a better player when the girls and the boys were playing better than me. I really brought myself out.” Headed for college in the fall, Marwa credits hockey with focusing her academic life. “Education is the goal in Ice Hockey in Harlem, so I always think about my education first. And then hockey. It’s an amazing program to be in.”

Hockey is one of the fastest growing sports among teenage girls in the country, according to USA Hockey, the sport’s national body. In 2016-17 the total number of girls ages 13-19 playing hockey was 18,185 — an increase of 11% over a 10-season span. Only Canada has higher numbers of women and girls playing the sport. Considering the glacial pace of progress elsewhere — more than 70 years elapsed between the first men’s Olympic ice hockey competition and the first women’s (the 1998 Winter Games) — it’s great news.

Ice Hockey in Harlem might also be a perfect example of what the NHL is attempting to do for the sport with its #HockeyIsForEveryone campaign. “The team is really diverse,” Marwa says. “Myself, I’m actually Arab; my parents are from North Africa. We have Mexican players, players from Venezuela. It’s amazing.” Just 60 years ago, Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s current diversity ambassador, broke the league’s color barrier, blazing a trail for the black players following him. These include forward Jordan Greenway, the first black hockey player in Olympic history to play for Team USA hockey.

“I met Willie O’Ree,” Salcedo says. “He told us that not even his parents knew he was blind in one eye when he first played. His story inspired me a lot.” On repping Harlem in hockey, Salcedo laughs, “I have curly hair, so some girls will look at me and say, ‘Oh, she plays hockey?’ It feels really good because it’s unexpected.”

In March 2018, Lady Harlem and the Ice Hockey in Harlem girls got their hands on a rare prize when they met Amanda Kessel of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey team. Kessel brought along her gold medal from Pyeongchang. Marwa says legendary forward Hilary Knight, who was also on the championship team, is her hockey role model. “She told me about her education path, how she played through high school, in college, and went on to be a professional. I want to be like her.”

Photo courtesy of Ice Hockey In Harlem.

One professional player who’s taken notice of the girls on Lasker Rink is Miye D’Oench, who plays for the Metropolitan Riveters, a founding team in the National Women's Hockey League. She lauds Ice Hockey in Harlem’s mission: to sell this fast, gritty and competitive sport to New Yorkers who might not ordinarily play.

“We’re talking about one kind of glass ceiling, which is the gender one, and Ice Hockey in Harlem is tackling three or four at a time: geographic, socioeconomic, racial,” D’Oench said. “Aside from building confidence, they’re breaking through these traditional stereotypes of hockey being a male, white, straight, affluent sport. For the sport itself, it’s phenomenal. And what better than to give somebody the opportunity to play hockey?”

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