When the teams took the ice at Warinanco Ice Skating Center in Roselle, it looked like just another hockey game – one of more than a dozen that take place every weekend at the rink.
But this was no ordinary game. It wasn’t just that these two teams were public high school girls hockey teams – unusual enough in New Jersey – but that one of the teams was from Newark, New Jersey.
That Newark has a team at all is testament to the grit and determination of the players, the dedication of two coaches and a program designed to expose children from minority and low-income communities to hockey.
The girls from Newark and the opposing team, Westfield, live no more than 15 miles from each other, but their world’s are vastly different.
Westfield is one of the wealthiest communities in the state with a population that’s mostly white and where youth hockey is deeply woven into the fabric of the community. Newark is one of the poorest and mostly minority, where youth hockey is an afterthought, if it’s even thought of at all.
Yet when the puck was dropped on January 29 at Warinanco, none of that mattered. Both teams were looking for their first win of the season and they played as if they were in the finals of the Stanley Cup.
The girls from Newark, mostly from East Side High School in the Ironbound, have numerous disadvantages compared to their suburban counterparts, but that has only infused them with a desire to succeed, said one of their coaches, Sara Chroman.
“What’s innately hard about hockey is that you have to start when you are young,” Chroman said. “Its not like soccer of softball where you learn the rules and you can kind of pick it up. Skating takes time and consistency and practice.”
None of the girls on the Newark team played hockey as youngsters nor do they play on travel teams, where extra ice time can improve skating skills, game technique and boost confidence, said Chroman, who started skating when she was four, started playing hockey on travel teams at 6 and played on the boys varsity team at Livingston High School before playing in college.
Youth travel hockey is traditionally a sport played by children of wealthier families because of the financial commitment that includes tuition that can run $3,000 a season or more, equipment that can cost as much as $1,000 as well as travel to tournaments around the northeast, summer camps and private lessons.
In New Jersey, public schools in wealthier districts have had longstanding high school hockey programs for boys. In recent years, some of those towns have launched programs for girls, including Princeton, Summit, Chatham-Madison and Randolph.
Recognizing that hockey was out of reach for many children in Newark, Dennis Ruppe and Keith Veltre launched a program known as Hockey in Newark in 2003. Ruppe and Veltre, who work for Newark Public Schools, now coach the East Side High School boys hockey team.
Within a few years, the program grew and became of a part of the National Hockey League’s Hockey is for Everyone Initiative. The New Jersey Devils then partnered with Hockey in Newark to help bring hockey to new cities as well.
Hockey in Newark, which has since been renamed Hockey in New Jersey, now has some 500 kids in Newark, Jersey City and Englewood involved in ice hockey. About four years ago, the program sought to increase participation by girls as well.
Danielle Deresky, who knew Ruppe and Veltre through her own involvement in the sport, was asked if she wanted to help get more girls involved in the program.
“At the time, it was just to help out, but now I’m completely invested in it,” said Deresky, an English teacher at East Side High School who coaches the team along with Chroman.
As a teacher with NPS, Deresky receives a small stipend to coach the team, but volunteers her time for Hockey in New Jersey. Chroman, who works full time at Prudential Financial and who is also pursing a part-time MBA, volunteers for the high school team and Hockey in New Jersey.
Like Chroman, Deresky started playing competitive hockey when she was 9 years old, though she started skating at 3 years old. She played travel hockey on a girls team with the Devils Youth Program and played in a 19 and older women’s hockey league.
“A lot of our kids attend East Side, so I get to check up their grades because a requirement of being part of Hockey in New Jersey is that they have to maintain grades, behavior, and GPA. Every quarter, all participants have to hand in their report cards,” Deresky said.
At first, recruiting girls to play a sport that many of them were unfamiliar with proved to be difficult.
“With Hockey in New Jersey, everything is free, so that makes it easier for them to try,” Deresky said. “We’ve promoted the program and it’s become such a big thing now. It’s more acceptable for kids in Newark to try hockey, whereas if this program didn’t exists, I don’t think these kids would have given hockey a second thought.”
As the program grows in popularity, girls from other schools have joined the team, including West Side and University high schools.
“It’s become easier to recruit girls in the last four years since some of the girls started as freshman and their friends wanted to give it a try,” Deresky said. “The hardest part is getting them here and sticking with it.”
Another difficulty the team faces is getting ice time to practice. The ice rink at the Ironbound Recreational Center has been out of commission for the last two years. The Devils provide ice at their practice rink next to the Prudential Center, but it’s at 6:30 a.m.
“Early morning practices have been difficult but it’s better than not having anything at all,” Deresky said. “We’ve made it work, but it has definitely not been ideal. The girls are are usually half asleep when they get there. Once they are on the ice they definitely wake up.”
The fact that the girls show up at all that early in the morning, Deresky said, demonstrates a love for hockey.
“They definitely love the sport,” Deresky said. “They love to get out on the ice and play. To us, that’s why we got involved to begin with. To make these girls love hockey and give them something that we loved growing up. I think in that area we have definitely succeeded.”
While the team lost to Westfield 5-3 and has yet to win a game, that’s almost besides the point. Deresky said playing hockey will open doors for the girls that might not otherwise been available.
“Even if they aren’t going to college to play hockey, they now know of options of why college is so important and they are motivated to go to the next level, whether it’s hockey involved or just going to college in general,” Deresky said. “They get a lot of educational guidance and some pushing from us that they normally wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Disclosure: The author's daughter plays on the Westfield High School team.