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Newark’s groundbreaking new hockey team has a gold-medal inspiration | Politi

NJ.com logo NJ.com 5/24/2022 Steve Politi, nj.com
Zach Wilson has progressed since last season. It's not much, but it is something. © Seth Wenig, AP Zach Wilson has progressed since last season. It's not much, but it is something.

The first time Keith Veltre watched Newark’s newest hockey players take the ice, he worried. Just lowering themselves into the narrow bucket on their sleds, after all, looked like such a challenge for the young athletes.

What if they couldn’t figure out how to use their short sticks to power themselves? What if they toppled onto their side and couldn’t get upright?

Then, within a few seconds, that fear melted into another emotion entirely — joy. Veltre, the co-founder of the Hockey in New Jersey program, felt a lump in his throat as he watched his newest hockey recruits begin zipping around the ice like they were born for this.

“It’s not easy. If I put you in a sled, you’d be like, ‘holy cow!’” Veltre said. “But they feel like they’re free out there. I think the kids in our city are so talented and so special, if we give our kids an opportunity in any sport, they’ll excel at it.

“So why not sled hockey?”

The question why not, for Veltre and fellow co-founder Dennis Ruppe, quickly became how. With the help of Dan Brennan, the general manager of Team USA’s Paralympics Sled Hockey team, they were able to secure 10 sleds — which cost $500 or more — and recruited 10 students from a pair of Newark special education high schools.

Then they recruited an inspiration. Franklin Lakes native Jack Wallace, a two-time Paralympian on Team USA’s dominant sled team, has attended a pair of practices to offer advice, pep talks and — if they need evidence of how far this sport can take them — a chance to hold the gold medals he won in Pyeongchang and Beijing.

“Getting these kids access to sled hockey and access to ice time is so special,” said Wallace, who also hopes to compete in kayaking at the 2024 Paralympics in Paris. “You never know when you’re going to find the next Paralympian, the next guy who is going to lead the team to gold in 10, 20 years. Having a program like this is so important.”

Wallace knows how hard it is to find opportunities. He thought his hockey career had ended in 2008 when he lost most of his right leg in a water-skiing accident. He was just 10 years old and struggling with depression when he discovered sled hockey at a summer camp in Maine, and when he returned home, he joined the Woodbridge Warriors program.

Sled hockey, the now 23-year-old Wallace said, is “just as physical, just as fast, just as intense.” When one of the Newark players asks him if hitting is allowed, the Paralympian — who looks like a young Christopher Reeve when he smiles — raises both of his hands in mock surprise and answers, “Of course. It’s hockey!”

This is a good place to pause and recognize the miracle that is Hockey in Newark. Veltre jokes that he and Ruppe, who coach the varsity team at Newark Eastside High, have “the losingest record for high school coaches ever,” but the important victories are measured in something other than numbers on the scoreboard.

What started in 2003 as Hockey in Newark with five players and a long list of doubters now has 1,300 spread through six New Jersey cities — and, with support from the Devils, none of them pay a dime to participate in one of the most cost-prohibitive youth sports. Eastside added a girls team a eight years ago and now has 38 players, but Veltre and Ruppe wanted a program that offered opportunities to every kid in the city.

Jack Wallace, a two-time gold medalist in sled hockey from Franklin Lakes, poses for a photo with his medals and ChengHai Cordle, a sled hockey player from Princeton. © Steve Politi/nj.com/TNS Jack Wallace, a two-time gold medalist in sled hockey from Franklin Lakes, poses for a photo with his medals and ChengHai Cordle, a sled hockey player from Princeton.

Their sled hockey program is believed to be the first inner-city school-based team in the country. They aren’t satisfied with just getting them onto the ice at the recently renovated Ironbound Recreation Center rink once a week, either.

“I want any child in Newark who wants to try sled hockey to know we have a program and they have an opportunity,” Veltre said. “But we also want to compete and so do these kids. We are going to have a sled hockey team.”

That day isn’t far off. With Wallace watching from a spot in front of the bench and former Devils defenseman Colin White helping on the ice, the new Newark players zip through speed drills and practice the quick turns that are necessary to compete.

You’d never guess that they are just months removed from lowering themselves on their sleds for the first time. You’d never know that the co-founder of their program had a lump in his throat watching them zip around the ice.

“Shame on me for having that little bit of doubt,” Veltre said. “These kids know how to overcome challenges. They’re inspiring.”

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Steve Politi may be reached at spoliti@njadvancemedia.com.

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