|"Hockey In Newark" Has Grown Into Source of Community Pride & Respected Hockey Program|
|October 26, 2010 by Sean Hartnett, JL15.com contributor|
|Founded in 2003, "Hockey In Newark" is a program created by East Side High School coaches Keith Veltre and Dennis Ruppe. Joined by the school's athletic director Elizabeth Aranjo, the initiative began without outside funding but has quickly grown into a successful feeder system for East Side High School Red Raiders.
What began as Dennis and Keith teaching the basics of hockey to six underprivileged youths turned into a labor of love for the former William Patterson University teammates. They were able to instill a passion for hockey into kids who mostly hadn't even previously put on a pair of skates.
Ruppe spoke about the process, "The city was excited by the sport of hockey and the Devils coming to Newark. It was easy to communicate with the kids as they wanted an opportunity and made an effort to learn."
Originally, the program started with minimal resources; the zambonis were old and need to be replaced, the ice surface would melt and the kids had to make due with handed down equipment. Despite the obstacles, the youngsters quickly developed a keen desire for the sport of hockey and were eager to pick up everything their coaches taught them. "Some of the kids would walk for miles in the rain to get to practice. A few would borrow shopping carts to carry their equipment… whatever it would take to make it. They were all so committed," Veltre explained.
Keith and Dennis preached the rewards of hard-work, discipline and the joy of competition to the young athletes but warned that getting their first win would be an uphill battle. Undeterred, the East Side Raiders gave everything they could but lost every game of their opening season. Their second year produced the team's first victory after 36 consecutive losses but the real achievement was that roster had grown into a deep squad of 25. Clearly, hockey was catching on in Newark as boys and girls from the ages of 8-18 were developing a love for the game.
Ruppe and Veltre were given the 2005 Essex County Coaches of the Year award by the Newark Star-Ledger for their tremendous work in developing the wonderful program. This was only the beginning as interest in "Hockey In Newark" continued to grow as East Side High was able to field varsity and junior varsity teams. In a basketball-dominated area, the local kids were switching to hockey as many kind individuals donated their money and time to the project as it soon began to reap great rewards.
In year three, East Side's 3-2 comeback victory over the respected Red Bank Regional was one that would spur on future triumphs. It was a defining moment as little more than a week earlier, Red Bank had beaten the Red Raiders 4-0. Veltre reflected upon the achievement, "We were behind and the kids didn't hang their heads back in the locker room. I was proud of the determination they showed, it was clear they were talented but now they knew what it would take to win. After the game they were shaking my truck in the parking lot and celebrating like they'd won the Stanley Cup."
The Red Raiders had knocked Red Bank out of playoff contention and knew what it would take realize their own ambitions. At the end of the 2006 season, the dreams of many came to fruition as East Side reached the playoffs for first time in ten years.
The National Hockey League and the New Jersey Devils became engaged in the initiative and made significant contributions both in equipment and financially to "Hockey In Newark." Finally, the kids had the resources needed to take their development even further. Devils' co-owners Jeff Vanderbeek and Michael Gilfillan became heavily interested and involved in the program's growth. The Newark Americans traveling team was soon founded and the Devils' practice rink became their home arena.
Veltre spoke of the important role that the Devils' co-owners played, "They were both hands-on from the start. Mike and Jeff were father figures for the program. If we ever need anything, they're always there for the kids."
Gilfillan explained the Devils' dedication to the cause, "We've committed our resources in many areas whether it be providing equipment, making our practice rink available or financially. The Prudential Center facilities are now home to East Side High, the Newark Americans and various summer camps. I'm proud of what the program has emanated into."
The junior school traveling Americans are just one of the many off-springs of "Hockey In Newark." Some talented youngsters have gotten the opportunity to play for the New Jersey Rockets who have been known to produce players who go onto the collegiate level. Even future NHL greats like Jeremy Roenick and Joey Mullen once played for the Rockets. Another tournament team is the New Jersey Rockz who compete every summer and offer development from Mite to Under-20 level.
Jon Sorg is involved at many levels of development as General Manager of Devils' Youth Hockey. "I get the highest satisfaction coaching these kids who haven't had more than two years experience. They push it every minute on the ice, you've got to drag them off. It's great to see their progress as they go on to A & AA levels," he stated. Devils' Alumni members like Bruce Driver have joined Sorg at summer camps to lend their knowledge to the eager campers.
Former Devils' goalies Kevin Weeks and Glenn "Chico" Resch made a lasting impact when they visited the young athletes. "The kids loved Kevin. He was the first pro they met and was wonderful with them. Kevin went above and beyond. I can't say enough nice things about Chico. He strapped on the pads and taught them a lot on-ice. They were having so much fun," Veltre told.
Even the legendary Willie O'Ree who broke the NHL's color line has been a proud partner of the initiative. Gilfillan explained, "It's been great partnering with Willie. He's been back many times to see the kids. He'll even get out there on the ice and join in." For those who don't know O'Ree is 75 but still maintains the passion for hockey he carried while playing for Boston Bruins and various clubs in the WHL.
The inspirational story of "Hockey In Newark" will continue to capture the hearts of the Newark community. It has become a source of local pride as the Red Raiders look to continue to improve season by season. Last winter, East Side qualified for their first NJSIAA Public Schools tournament in 25 years but lost out to the heavily-favored Ramsey High School.
"Making the tournament alone created a buzz throughout the school. Now we've got more kids coming out to play than ever. 40 new players at freshman and sophomore age have joined up and we're able to participate in a JV league," Ruppe told.
Vanderbeek stated his admiration for Ruppe and Veltre's contributions, "I've been to a lot of high school hockey games, and East Side draws a lot of passionate fans. We felt very strongly about hockey in Newark. We didn't want to just parachute into Newark and not give back to the community. We helped start the youth program in Newark and it has over 200 players now. Keith and Dennis have tremendous passion for the game and it is very gratifying that the East Side hockey players are getting respect on the ice and in the school. Success breeds success."
Judging by effort and commitment shown by coaches and boys enrolled in "Hockey In Newark," there will definitely be more achievements for the community to be proud of for years to come. Newark hockey's stock continues to rise as the program continues to gain both admirers and respect amongst followers of New Jersey hockey.
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