Medical students strive to eliminate barriers to hockey

July 26, 2022

Hockey Haven board members with former NHL player Anson Carter

Aaron Marcel, MD ’25 started playing ice hockey at just 5 years old and realized that in his 20-plus-year career, he had never had a person of color on any of his teams.

Hockey is an expensive sport, making it inaccessible to many children, especially in low-income areas, he said. The exclusion that many children face is a problem that Marcel wanted to try and tackle.

“The NHL is composed of 95% white players and the lack of diversity extends all the way down to youth hockey. This history of exclusion is a result of long-standing systematic racism that has created social barriers that impede people of color from experiencing hockey,” said Marcel. “Additionally, hockey is prohibitively expensive. With rising prices in equipment, enormous team fees, and transportation among other costs, families can pay anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000 per year for their kids to play hockey.”

Shortly after starting medical school at the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine at Quinnipiac, Marcel teamed up with Jake Baekey, MD ’25, Zak Foster, MD ‘25 and Colin Uyeki, MD ‘25 to begin the non-profit organization Hockey Haven. Shortly after, they added Courtney Morgan to their squad and began their mission of making hockey more accessible.

“Hockey Haven is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to breaking down barriers in the sport of hockey,” said Uyeki. “We are committed to increasing diversity and inclusivity in hockey by providing improved access to gear, ice time, and training and providing these tools in a welcoming and encouraging environment.”

Hockey Haven, now an affiliate of The New York Rangers, holds learn-to-skate programs at the Ralph Walker Ice Rink in New Haven where participation is free and all players are given free gear from the partnership with the Rangers. Many of the kids who register have never been on ice and get to try something new that they may not have otherwise, said Uyeki.

“As we progressed through the program, it was inspiring to see the kids continue to get up each time they fell down, and watch the smiles get bigger as they became more comfortable with a hockey stick in their hands,” said Foster.

Morgan said he observed a variety of growth in the kids that participate in their programs.

“It’s amazing to see the development in all of the kids on and off the ice after just a few weeks in our learn to skate program,” he said. “Hockey not only teaches discipline, but it also introduces these kids to a community where they will make new friendships and experiences that will hopefully last a lifetime.”

Hockey Haven’s partnership with the Rangers has given the Hockey Haven team invaluable access to funding, resources and connections to continue and build upon their mission, its founders agreed. Former NHL player and current analyst Anson Carter even made an appearance at a practice.

“For our first learn-to-play program, they provided brand new equipment for all participants, coaches and a practice curriculum. Additionally, they have helped put us in touch with national leaders in the movement to diversify hockey, such as Ice Hockey In Harlem,” said Marcel. “We have also had several events in which Rangers alumni have come out to meet our kids and sign autographs. Moving forward the Rangers will be an integral part of Hockey Haven. They will continue to offer us counsel as we navigate the ins and outs of growing our program and offer resources that will take Hockey Haven to the next level.”

The team’s outlook is bright and includes ideas to expand and impact young athletes outside of the rink.

“In the near future, we will be enhancing our learn-to-play program by expanding what we can offer, implementing more off-ice activities and creating a mentor program for our participants,” said Marcel. “This includes, but is not limited to, an educational aspect such as tutoring, a house league, street hockey games, collaborative events with other non-profits, ‘day in the life’ events with various college hockey programs and attending professional hockey games.”

Marcel also explained how the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine has greatly supported Hockey Haven in becoming an impactful community organization.

The Perspectives on Equity Advancement Research & Learning Symposium (PEARLS) conference held at the medical school also awarded Hockey Haven a $1,000 grant which helped them to pay for ice time in addition to increasing awareness of the program.

“We have created several strong relationships with faculty of the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine, including Phil Boiselle, dean of the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine; Don Sawyer, vice president for equity, inclusion and leadership development; Charles Collier, assistant dean of the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine; and Lisa Coplit, associate dean for faculty development. Each has offered their full support for Hockey Haven, as our mission closely aligns with the values of Netter and Quinnipiac University,” said Marcel. “They have leveraged resources for us, offered advice, and fostered connections that have helped us push our program forward and that will continue to be beneficial as we grow.”

They have also been able to connect with the Quinnipiac men’s and women’s ice hockey teams which give kids in-person examples of where hockey can take them.

“Players from the women’s team have joined us at several practices. Having them on the ice was an amazing experience for the kids,” said Marcel. “Having someone with Division I hockey star power to look up to and learn the game with is really something that gets the kids excited about hockey.”

Morgan noted that donations to nonprofits like Hockey Haven directly impact and benefit people’s lives in extraordinary ways.

“Donations provide kids from under-resourced communities the opportunity to participate in a team sport. Without these donations, Hockey Haven would not be able to provide every kid with the tools necessary to participate in the game of hockey,” said Morgan. “The donations allow for purchase of equipment and ice time, which are crucial to the program’s success and present each player in our program the chance to build lasting relationships which will be foundational to their future success.”

Marcel, Baekey, Uyeki, Foster and Morgan’s decision to try and ignite change within a local community has already made a lasting impact, one that Marcel hopes could grow and diversify hockey as a whole.

“Hockey is in dire need of a culture change. We have identified this gap and we are actively working to make the sport more inclusive,” said Marcel. “We hope to make hockey a place where all kids feel safe to be themselves and where they can realize their full potential, be accepted into a new community, and, most importantly, have fun.”

Hockey Haven can be found on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook

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