Clark Park's hockey program builds kids' confidence on and off the ice

The week before Christmas, Detroiters will stand in #shoplocal lines, meet friends at the latest restaurant hot spot, and take in the brilliant 60-foot tall Norway Spruce in Campus Martius. In Midtown and downtown, art lovers will celebrate in grand style, with Friday Night Live! at the DIA, Detroit Robolights at MOCAD, and the Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker at Fox Theatre.

 

But in Southwest Detroit, residents celebrate a different kind of holiday tradition in late December, something that can’t be bought in the holiday hustle, and won’t be found where tourists gather. At the 30-acre Clark Park, a town square to its community, it’s ice skating time.

 

In the early hours, on Dec. 19, volunteers and park staff will begin the annual construction of Metro Detroit’s only outdoor hockey arena. Nearly 30 participants are needed to pull it off. If Mother Nature agrees, there’ll be ice for Christmas but it’s never a sure thing when you’re at the mercy of the elements, says Clark Park Coalition director Anthony Benavides.

 

“If it’s too windy, too sunny, or too rainy, you can’t get the rink ready. It’s a major process, and we’re always looking for new volunteers. I’ve got to retire one day,” he laughs, “I’ve got to share the knowledge, got to pass it on.”

 

Benavides grew up ice skating and playing hockey at the park. When he attended Western International High School, one of the three Detroit Public Schools that sit on the park’s border, 50 cents would get you on the ice in skates. “So if your mom gave you a buck to go,” he recalls, “you had your skates and a cup of chocolate that day. Those were good times, a lot of fun. And this place was packed with kids from the neighborhood.”

 

Now he’s thinking about what it’ll take to make ice for the neighborhood kids this winter. The process: hiring a professional to paint the concrete slab with white Jet Ice, which will keep it cold and bright, and then red and blue lines, goalie creases, and logos. This takes many hours with park staff and volunteers holding the paint’s “fire hose” above the ice surface. That’s all before you get to adding water, which is put down little by little, a gentle mist turning to spray.

 

“The first five layers you have to be really cautious and careful,” Benavides says. Volunteers may stay as late as midnight on day one, rotating to warm up, eat something, and let the ice harden. If weather is an issue or volunteers are slim, the process can take several days.

The Clark Park rink awaits its annual icing.

 

“It’s definitely cold no doubt, but it’s a lot of fun,” says Rory Lincoln, hockey coach and board member of the Clark Park Coalition. “Most people who are doing it now know what they’re getting into and dress up super warm. Kids that have aged out of the program come out and help, volunteer coaches are there, and we’ve had parents.”

 

Tammy Alfaro-Koehler, who owns the nearby Honey Bee Market with husband Ken Koehler, is glad to help feed the ice crew. The couple provide fresh food for kids and volunteers at the park throughout the year. “Whatever they ask for, we help them out,” she says.

 

As a third-generation business owner, Alfaro-Koehler recalls skating at the rink with her parents and younger brother Alex Jr. who passed away decades ago. “He got on that rink and just took off. That’s one of my favorite memories,” she says. The store owners value the coalition’s work in the community. They provide sports yes, Alfaro-Koehler says, but also avenues for kids to study and hang out together in a positive way.

 

The Clark Park Coalition was born in 1991 to provide neighborhood kids a space in which to thrive. The grassroots group formed by Benavides and other concerned neighbors was a response to the city’s closure of the park due to budget cuts. Leading up to that point, Benavides says, “No one was coming anymore. There were drugs, gangs, it wasn’t a pleasant place to walk around. There was no investment from the city at all.”

 

The group received support from former Detroit Tiger Hank Aguirre and partnered with the Detroit Recreation Department to reopen the park. Coalition volunteers now serve more than 1,200 youth by coaching sports: hockey, soccer, basketball, baseball, softball, and tennis. Others mentor youth with homework assistance, computer and writing skills, craft projects, gardening, nutrition, and photography, as well as offer storytime.

 

All programming, including summer lunches, is free to kids under 18, with the exception of a once-a-year $51 fee for participants of the hockey program, which partners with USA Hockey and the NHL.

 

With a median household income ranging from just over $29,000 to $32,000, according to Data Driven Detroit, the neighborhood isn’t a place you’d expect to find a thriving hockey community, a sport that has one of the highest costs due to its equipment and ice time prices. But at Clark Park, thanks to dedicated partners and volunteers, anyone can play.

 

The coalition is one of 30-plus member clubs in the U.S. that participate in the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative. It provides support and special programming to nonprofit youth hockey organizations across North America that strive to offer kids of all backgrounds opportunities to play the game.

 

“I grew up in a pretty white, affluent area outside of Detroit,” Lincoln says. After coaching several years, he says it’s been rewarding to see a change in the way hockey looks. “It’s really refreshing to go out and see Mexican kids, white kids, and Black kids. It’s just like, that's Clark Park hockey. That should have always been normal,” he adds, “but it just doesn't happen that way in certain areas.”

 

Hockey is best set up for ages 14 and younger, at the park, as older kids generally don’t stay competitive with the outdoor rink’s limited season. Some, who have chosen to age out of the program stay involved by assisting coaches with younger players, says Lincoln. Youth games are generally intramural, but also by invitation to house recreational leagues in the area: Taylor, Livonia, Ann Arbor, Grosse Pointe. Like-minded nonprofit organizations like Ice Dreams out of Adams Butzel Recreation Center in Northwest Detroit and Columbus Ice Hockey Club also play at the park.

 

Equipment is donated through the NHL by groups that have outgrown it, explains Clark Park girls’ hockey coach Robert Ayala. A retired Detroit Police Sergeant, Ayala, 72, fondly known as “Sarge,” runs the girls hockey division, coaching the 12U Sharks, a team on which his three granddaughters have all played. This season, there’s also a girls 8U team. Mixed boys and girls teams range from 8U to 16U. The coalition also runs a learn-to-skate program.

Miranda Alcala and teammate Monica Ayala receive summer hockey training at Jim Quigley's Lakeshore Hockey School in Lakeshore, Ontario.
Ayala is preparing to take his four strongest players to Boston Jan. 3-5 for the Willie O-Ree Weekend sponsored by the NHL. O’Ree, a Canadian former professional ice hockey player, broke the color barrier in 1957 as a winger for the Boston Bruins. The team is one of 17 attending from the Hockey is for Everyone program. Each year, four players are selected to attend. This is the first year the coalition is sending an all-girls team.

 

Miranda Alcala, 10, who attends Holy Redeemer Grade School near the park, plays defense for the Sharks and is excited about going to Boston. She’s hoping to meet Brad Marchand on the trip, who plays left wing for the Bruins. Whether that happens or not, the invited teams will play on the famed ice at TD Garden following the Bruins vs. Oilers game on Jan. 4.

 

Miranda says likes playing because she gets to see her friends and have fun on the ice. “I’ve learned to skate backwards really well, and keep the puck out of our zone,” she adds.
 

Joe Alcala says playing hockey has been “character building” for Miranda. “Her confidence on the ice has expanded to her confidence in herself as a person, as a young lady,” he says.

 

On Jan. 5 teams will have a round-robin 3 v 3 tournament at Agganis Arena at Boston University and attend a banquet in their honor, where they’ll be welcomed by former USA Team Member and Gold Medalist AJ Mleczko.

 

“I’m looking forward to them playing in an out-of-town showcase,” says Ayala. They haven’t had a chance to play together as a team outside the park. He’s also excited for them to see Boston University, and hopes it will encourage them to keep up their grades and consider college. He wants his girls to catch a vision of something great for themselves and discourage them for “settling” in any way.

 

Benavides also believes these programs make a difference in the community and in a young person’s life. “I enjoy seeing kids get the opportunity to play hockey,” he says. “It was given to me, you know, when I was young. My kids came through here and now they’re gone. We’re all just trying to make the park and the environment around us a better one.”

 

The coalition seeks to put youth first at the Clark Park ice rink, giving hockey teams ice at least three times a week. Rental time from local adult rec, college and corporation teams helps raise much-needed funds for the program. Open skate, which will hopefully start up by the end of the month, is held for families at no-cost to Clark Park members. All others are $5 for adults, $4 for students, and a $2 skate rental feel.

 

Any volunteers interested in helping build the ice at Clark Park on Dec. 19 should contact the Coalition at 313-841-8534. Hockey and skating info can be found at clarkparkhockey.sportngin.com.


 
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