The Devils have made a commitment to New Jersey since the time they arrived back in 1982. That goes beyond bringing on-ice glory (such as Stanley Cups) to the Garden State and into the realm of community outreach. The Devils players and staff have been busy in the local communities of New Jersey lately and that has led to some inspiration to young fans.
An article recently posted to the Devils official website by Gordy Stillman chronicles the Devils helping to bring hockey to Newark public schools. Stillman’s article noted that the program brings kids in Newark a chance to try hockey as an after school activity. The program tries to do more than just develop new Devils fans although Stillman does say that that would be “icing on the cake.” What the program is really offering is a chance for kids who may not get the opportunity to develop an interest in the game. Stillman notes that the program is a partnership between the Devils and Newark’s Mayor, Ras Baraka, and his office. It is an aspect of the Mayor Baraka’s “seasonal ‘Fun in the City’ initiative” according to Stillman. The program was created by Devils senior vice president of community investment, Jim Leonard and is run by Leonard and volunteers.
While the after-school program is for street hockey and learning the basics of hockey, there is the “Hockey in Newark” program, which helps to get kids and teens in the Newark area on the ice and learning how to play the game in a more organized way. Recently, Hockey in Newark goaltender Austin Verissimo was announced as a recipient of the NHL/Thurgood Marshall College Fund scholarship. According to an article on the Devils website also written by Gordy Stillman, Verissimo is the first player from New Jersey to win this award since it was created in 2012. Verissimo has already been accepted to Boston College, Villanova and UCLA. Stillman also noted that he could end up going to Ivy League school Cornell. No matter where he ends up attending college, he told Stillman that he will continue to play hockey at the club level, much like former Hockey in Newark goalie Kevin Lopez, who now plays for the club team at Princeton University.
One of the amazing things about Austin Verissimo’s achievement is that, while he did learn how to skate as a child, he did not play hockey as a young kid. He grew up playing soccer (where he is a goalie as well) and heard that Hockey in Newark was looking for a goalie, which led to his hockey career, according to Stillman.
In addition to that, some of the Devils players recently appeared at a public school in Jersey City to help promote reading. The event was documented by the MSG+ TV cameras in a package prior to the Devils game against Washington on March 26th. Among the players who appeared were Jordin Tootoo, Jon Merrill and Andy Greene as well as mascot NJ Devil (who is always a hit with the kids). The players read books by Dr. Seuss and other children’s favorites to a first grade class. All of the players stressed the importance of reading, and Tootoo mentioned that it really hits home for him, as he was an avid reader as a kid and now has his own autobiography in print. The kids also received Devils hats from the players, helping to make a connection for life. As the students’ teacher remarked in the piece, some of the kids grow up wanting to be professional athletes, so when an actual professional athlete comes in and tells them how rewarding reading is, they listen and take it to heart.
Part of the reason for the Devils’ community outreach is, of course, to help create new fans for the team. It is also to give back to the community, though. Through Hockey in Newark, we could be seeing future NHL players in action. Kids who might not otherwise get the chance to play or even have interest in the sport, now get to play at a competitive level and the program could end up producing NHL-caliber players down the road.
More importantly than that, the Devils are promoting learning and education through this and helping to give kids a chance to go to college and have a good career in something other than professional hockey. No matter what, though, the Devils are helping some great kids reach their full potential through these programs.