Home Grown

The N.Y. Rangers Reach Down To The Grassroots To Cultivate The Next Generation Of Players And Fans

Tucked off of 49th Street in the Hell's Kitchen section of New York City sits a subterranean playground next to the New York School of Printing. From a nearby apartment window Joe and Brian Mullen could look down into the schoolyard and see fellow neighborhood kids organizing another spirited game of roller hockey. 

It was these marathon games that instilled a lifelong passion for the game that launched the hockey dreams of two unlikely American icons of the game.

"Anytime I would see anybody over there I would put on my skates and run down five flights of stairs and go across the street and play," Brian Mullen recalled. "There was no coaching. We would just choose up sides and play."

That passion has never left the 56-year-old former NHLer, who is now making it his mission to help his fellow New Yorkers, along with those from neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut, discover the same love that he has for the game.

Twenty-five years after playing his final game, Mullen still proudly sports the Broadway blue in his role as an alumni ambassador for the Rangers, working with the organization's Learn to Play program.

It's part of the NHL's initiative to open up to new generations of fans by putting sticks in their hands and skates on their tiny feet. 

While all its member clubs are working hard to bring new players and fans into the game as part of these leaguewide growth initiatives, the Rangers have created the gold standard with its Junior Rangers Rookie Series, which has spread to more than 20 rinks around the Tri-State area. 

When it comes to planting that seed in the local community, the Rangers have some pretty fertile ground to work with. Few teams have as loyal a fan base as the Original Six franchise. It's a love that is passed down from fathers to sons and daughters and eventually onto grandsons and granddaughters.

During a Friday night Learn to Play session at the Long Beach Arena, Mullen takes his leave from the ice and sets up behind a table to sign autographs and pose for cell phone photos. It's hard to tell who's having more fun, the hockey neophytes and their families or the big kid with 832 NHL games to his credit.

"This is the best program I've ever been involved with," Mullen said. "You could be having a worse day of your life and you get on the ice with these kids and they just put a smile on your face. They're out there trying as hard as they can."

While it's a different time and a different arena, seeing the smiles on these youngsters faces takes Mullen back to the playground and the Peanut Roller Hockey league where he and his brother, along with hundreds of other talented hockey players, got their start.

"We want them to love the game as much as we do and we want to put a smile on their face every time they step on the ice," Mullen said. "It's not always about skills and being the best player. It's about having fun with your buddies and enjoying the game."

Close by Kerri Viverito and Mary Schneidling, two hockey moms from Franklin Square, N.Y., stand at ice level watching their sons run through the various stations set up around the rink. They love being here seeing their sons having fun and learning the game from Rangers alumni who their fathers and husbands grew up cheering for.

The price is right and with more than 20 rinks to choose from the time commitment caters to even the busiest families. 

With the support of the NHL's Industry Growth Fund, the cost of getting in the game is not a barrier. The Learn to Play program costs $185, which includes a full set of equipment, including skates, and 10 one-hour sessions. After Learn to Play comes the Rookie League, which costs $325 and includes 10 cross-ice games, a Junior Rangers jersey and a season-ending jamboree at either the team's practice facility or at Madison Square Garden. 

Being a member of the Junior Rangers creates an even tighter bond between families that bleed Broadway Blue and the big club.

"My son tells people, 'You know, I'm a Junior Ranger' and it makes him feel like he's part of the team," Viverito said. "When he and his friend Thomas go to the Garden, they think everyone should be like, 'oh, the Junior Rangers are here.'"

To illustrate that, she pulls out a cell phone photo of her son, Michael, and Schneidling's son, Tommy. They are dressed up in suits and ties, with headphones on their ears and holding coffee cups as they enter Madison Square Garden, where they are about to skate on the same ice as their NHL heroes. 

"I don't know who was more excited, my husband to watch him or my son to be out there," Schneidling added. "He loves the sport. He's loved it from before he could walk. That's all he talks about, how he just wants to keep playing hockey."

And that's what the NHL and the NHL Players Association was looking to create when it started the Industry Growth Fund during the last collective bargaining agreement in 2013. And while the league is proud to point to successes with each of its 31 clubs, the Rangers have set the bar high.

"The Rangers have done a great job in connecting their programs and connecting their fans back to their team," said Matt Herr, who is the youth hockey regional director for the NHL.

"It may not be for them going to games right away, but they might turn on the TV and say, Oh, 'I met Brian Mullen, who played for the Rangers,' or 'I saw Henrik Lundqvist at a practice that the Rangers invited me to.' It's a great way for the Rangers to connect up to the next generation of fans."

Herr was quick to add that what works for the Rangers may look a little different in another market, like Arizona or Florida. But so far, the people at the league office along with their partners at the Players Association believe they're heading in the right direction.

"Since we started the program it's really taken off and we've built some very positive momentum in the last 18 to 24 months," said Rob Zepp, the manager of special projects for the NHLPA. 

"There's always things that you're looking to continually improve upon, but overall I would say that we are absolutely pleased with the efforts to date and we're constantly looking to evolve, improve and innovate our efforts."

Last year more than 22,000 kids participated in the NHL/NHLPA hosted Learn to Play programs across the United States.

USA Hockey partners with every American-based NHL club to not only share best practices when it comes to running introductory programs and other growth initiatives, but to help create a pathway to a lifetime in the game.

Back in Long Beach, a brisk autumn wind blows in off the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday afternoon as hundreds of kids and their parents and grandparents stream through the doors of the Long Beach Ice Arena for an afternoon of fun. 

As Rookie League players hit the ice to show how far they've come in such a short amount of time during cross-ice games, the next wave of eager young hockey players line up to get fitted for equipment during a Try Hockey for Free session. With more than 200 kids signed up to give it a go, the sessions are split in two groups. 

"The Rangers marketing power helps out quite a bit. Once they get the word out and get the kids to try hockey, we take it from there," said rink manager Matt Angst, who greets players and their families as friends and neighbors more than just potential customers. 

The rink is a source of civic pride for everyone in this seaside community that was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It was the Rangers practice facility for many years until the 1970s. But even after the team left, it never forgot its ties to the community. After the storm the rink became a staging area where locals came to pick up donated food supplies and clothing as they looked to rebuild their lives. With disaster relief earmarked for more essential services like repairing damaged infrastructure, the Rangers stepped up with its corporate partner Chase Bank to help get the rink back up and running. 

Angst grew up playing hockey in Long Beach and is helping the next generation of homegrown players by coaching several teams. He sees his mission as not developing the next Charlie McAvoy, the Boston Bruins defenseman who grew up skating here, but to create the next generation of adult league hockey players.

"If I can do that," he said, "then I've done my job."

 

Issue: 
2018-12

Poll

Best college hockey rivalry?: