By Ross Forman
Hockey On Your Block has expanded almost 20 times what it started at during the summer of 2011, after hockey buddies Ray Lilja and Mike Quigley saw that Chicago could use more local hockey programs dedicated to kids who do not otherwise have the opportunity to learn and play the sport.
AHAI was one of the first USA Hockey Affiliates in the country to have a Diversity Program, now called Hockey is For Everyone (HIFE). HIFE has served all of Chicagoland, including the city of Chicago for over 25 years. The addition of Hockey On Your Block adds more programming and opportunities for those young athletes from socio and economically diverse backgrounds.
Hockey On Your Block launched as a free youth hockey summer camp for 25 kids in the neighborhood surrounding the United Center. The kids immediately loved it, so organizers formed an alliance with the Blackhawks, the NHL and USA Hockey to build a year-round youth hockey program designed specifically for Chicago’s low-income communities.
“It was a huge success, but we realized that in order to create lasting impact, we needed to expand the scope of our investment, involve the families and communities, and incorporate educational enrichment, youth leadership programs, and social-emotional curriculums,” said Lilja, 61, who lives in suburban Hinsdale and is a retired Hedge Fund Manager at Alpha Capital and the co-founder of Hockey On Your Block.
Hockey On Your Block, a program of the First Goal Foundation, is now a community development organization engaging more than 400 participants, focusing specifically on athletics, literacy, mentoring, education and neighborhood engagement. “As a grassroots organization, we continue to grow organically,” Lilja said. “We are excited about the future of Hockey On Your Block – a place where our kids are cared for and known by name, our teens are graduating and ready for what comes next, and our families are strong and deeply connected…all under the banner of collaboration and partnership.”
Quigley, who is the U.S. Representative for Illinois’ 5th congressional district, which includes most of Chicago’s North Side, as well as several western suburbs, is co-founder of Hockey On Your Block, along with Lilja. The organization’s leadership also includes Pete Giangreco, Rob Johnson, Dave Garside, David Temkin, Rebecca Steurer and Blake Sorensen.
“The goal of Hockey On Your Block is to break down the financial and logistical barriers to playing hockey, offering children a chance to play the fastest sport on earth. Our mission is to improve the social, emotional and academic well-being of youth in the Greater Chicago community through hockey,” Lilja said.
Hockey On Your Block provides ice time, equipment and coaching, helping kids learn essential life skills and the core values of hockey: commitment, perseverance, and teamwork.
Sessions are held at McFetridge Sports Center on the north side and Morgan Park Sports Center on the south side. In late-2017, Hockey On Your Block will begin classes at the new Blackhawks training facility as well.
“Ice hockey is very different than anything (some of) the kids have tried before,” Lilja said. “We keep it fun while progressing slowly – from learning how to skate, to how to play, and then finally to playing on Team Chicago where they compete against kids from other youth hockey programs. Our program serves as an ideal platform to teach low-income youth to lead healthy lives, be engaged students, and develop confidence and character so they may thrive.”
Other youth programs throughout the Chicago area have donated used equipment, which is used by Hockey On Your Block. Plus, numerous organizations donate new equipment, including the Chicago Blackhawks, the NHL/NHLPA, Bauer, Good Sports, Pro Skate LLC and Pro Stock Hockey.
There is no cost to the kids or their families.
“Congressman Quigley agrees with (the late tennis great) Arthur Ashe that all kids should have access to all sports,” Lilja said. “He helped form the first-ever Congressional Hockey Caucus, a group of lawmakers in Washington who focus on the positive impact community-based youth hockey programs have on the development of essential life skills, character and academic success.
“Mike continues to provide invaluable direction to Hockey On Your Block. He will make sure that one day every kid in Chicago has the opportunity to learn and play the greatest sport on the planet.”
Lilja himself brings a lifetime on the ice to Hockey On Your Block, starting in-house leagues in the Chicago area before heading off to play college hockey at Illinois State University. After college, he played semipro hockey with the Peoria Blades, and even had a cup of coffee with the Peoria Rivermen. Then he moved into coaching, ultimately earning his USA Hockey Level 5 coaching certification. He has been Hockey Director, Power Skating Director, and Program Manager of youth hockey organizations throughout the Chicago area. And, he teaches adult learn-to-play hockey classes at several Chicago area rinks.
“I usually led the team, and sometimes the league, in assists while maintaining a stay-at-home defenseman style. I’ve been on championship (teams) and (also on) last-place teams…and learned just as much on each,” said Lilja, who hails from southwest suburban Worth.
EXPANDING HOCKEY’S OUTREACH
Tyronne is only 5 years-old, and already is hooked on the sport.
His mom said that Tyronne “loves coming to Hockey On Your Block for his weekly skating and hockey lesson. In fact, she added that, “every morning he wakes up and asks me if tonight’s Hockey On Your Block night.”
“I love that it gives him a chance to interact with other children from our community in a safe environment and appears to help with his social skills as well. Since joining the program, I’ve noticed a huge difference in his confidence and self-esteem,” she said.
Hockey On Your Block is geared for kids ages 4 to 14 – with kids coming from multiple neighborhoods, such as United Center Park, Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, Austin, Douglas Park, Inglewood and Chatham. Girls make up 32 percent of the program.
Lilja said the group’s goals are grand. Make that, three-grand. In the next three to five years, they want to grow to 3,000 participants from Chicago’s at-risk communities, plus add a figure skating program for kids who show an interest, and also establish a formal Academic Enrichment Program in collaboration with Chicago Public Schools.
The long-term goals for Hockey On Your Block are expansive and, hopefully, impactful. Just consider, as Lilja said:
- Health & Physical Fitness – “Our participants are 10 percent less likely to be overweight/obese.”
- Academic Performance – “Our participants are 20 percent more likely to meet national standards on standardized tests.”
- Social-Emotional Development – “Our participants are 26 percent more likely to control their emotions when angry or upset, choosing to solve problems without fighting.”
- Parent Engagement – “Parents of our participants are 48 percent more likely to regularly encourage their children to practice healthy behaviors and talk to their children about school.”
- High School Graduation Rate – “Eighty-five percent of our participants will graduate high school compared to 49 percent by their classmates.”
- College Graduation Rate – “Twenty-two percent will graduate college with a bachelor’s degree compared to 6 percent by their classmates.”
“To some, hockey is just a game. To some of us, it represents much more. Hockey players feel a special connection to the game and each other,” Lilja said. “I began my lifelong love affair with hockey in 1965 on frozen lakes and ponds in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. I soon discovered that unlike the other major sports, you don’t have to be 7-feet tall or weigh 350 pounds to excel at hockey, (as the sport is) a poetic mixture of speed, grace and physical contact. Hockey is a true team sport, where success can only be achieved when each member of the team works together.”
“Hockey gives you a life full of love, laughter and friendship. It teaches you perseverance, discipline, teamwork and dedication. It is a game that can be played by boys and girls, young and old. Hockey is not just about the NHL and the famous faces who play at that level; it is about lacing up your skates at 6 a.m., for no other reason than a love for the game.”
“Hockey shows you how to win and lose with dignity. Hockey humbles you as there is always someone better than you. Hockey ignites you as there is always something new to learn and to experience. Hockey shows you what it’s like to depend on others, as well as having them depend on you.”
Lilja knows that, with his 30-plus years on the ice – as a player, coach, teacher and more – he wouldn’t be the person he is today without hockey. “I’ve met hundreds of amazing people whom I otherwise wouldn’t have known and I’ve played in cities all over the world. I would have no memory of these people and places had it not been for hockey. Playing hockey is an enriching journey that everyone should have the opportunity to experience.”
Lilja, and plenty of other Chicagoans, are hoping kids around the city are getting to enjoy hockey as much as they are.
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years, and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.