In 2002, Brad Erickson was walking along North Avenue Beach when he saw something unexpected. A longtime youth hockey coach, Erickson had long thought the sport could help kids, particularly in urban areas where the game never caught on. And that day at North Avenue Beach, Erickson realized he wasn’t the only one.
“I saw some black kids playing inline,” said Erickson. “I went over to them and spoke to their coach, and he told me he coaches hockey in Garfield Park. He introduced me to Perry, and between the three us, I had the experience and they had the kids. We had something going.”
The “Perry” Erickson refers to is Perry Starks, a man who has almost single-handedly brought hockey to the impoverished neighborhoods of Chicago’s West Side. A Garfield Park native, Starks started the Panthers Hockey Club when he was a kid in the 1970s.
Soon after their meeting, Starks and Erickson formed a partnership. While Erickson helped Starks out, coaching here and there, in 2003 he also started Inner City Education (ICE), a non-profit mentoring organization that grants scholarships to young hockey players to help them attend better high schools. Now, the Panthers play year-round, on ice or, as Erickson saw, on inline skates. But they’re skating for much more than stats. And it’s taken decades of volunteer effort to get the game to where it is today.
Blazing a trail
“The program started with three guys in a hallway who wanted to play hockey,” says Starks, wistful about his time playing hockey as a kid. “We taught each other how to play hockey. We were learning as we go. We were little kids at the time. At first we were called the No-names. One day I was watching the Pink Panther show. The theme music got to my head a little bit and I said ‘Why don’t we call ourselves the Panthers?’ That’s how we got the name…the Garfield Park Panthers.”
Starks says that people often wondered what he and his friends were doing playing a game foreign to virtually everyone in Garfield Park. Little did they know that Starks was just gauging the interest of the neighborhood kids.
“People started to ask us what we were doing out there,” he said. “We wanted to do something for the neighborhood. The youth in our neighborhood didn’t know too much about hockey, so we started teaching people how to play.”
When Starks and his friends moved their hockey club to the ice rink in Garfield Park, the people who lived nearby thought that unwanted visitors were going to start showing up. Starks felt the need to alleviate some concerns.
“When they first put the hockey rink out here, the community thought it was going to be an invasion of white people,” Starks said. “So I’m standing there listening to that and I had to step in and say that this was just something new for the neighborhood. I wanted people to see that was going to be something the whole neighborhood can benefit from.”
Helping beyond the ice
Since those early days, the Panthers have expanded to become a volunteer organization that lace u Garfield Park kids, ages 6 to 19. It’s a mission that’s become even more imperative, as Chicago’s streets have grown increasingly violent and threatening for teens.
Erickson sees it all the time. ICE does what it can to get kids off the streets and onto the ice. He says that when he heard about what the kids in the program were dealing with, he felt the need to do more.
“I learned about the kids’ home lives: One kid’s father is in jail, one’s mom is on drugs,” Erickson said. “Bad situations, but really good kids. Polite kids, smart kids. The situations didn’t help, but the killer for me was the schools weren’t going to help. So I came up with the idea to raise money to fund scholarships to put them in good schools.”
The scholarships that have come through the ICE program have now helped six players land at high-ranking high schools like De La Salle, St. Ignatius, Notre Dame and Brother Rice.
Blackhawks pitch in
But aside from all of the more social good the organizations do for the kids, they’re also learning the game. The kids get to play, and some Chicago athletes have pitched in to help out.
“Brent Seabrook has come out here and played with us,” said Starks. “We do get sports celebrities that come out from time to time that have provided encouragement.”
Erickson notes that the Blackhawks’ involvement has gone far beyond what they could have expected. Seabrook convinced Bauer Hockey to donate a truckload of gear for the kids. And every year the organization throws a bowling fund-raiser; the Hawks help promote it, and many of the players come and roll with fans.
On the day I went to see the Panthers for myself, they were scrimmaging with the Winnetka Warriors, a pee-wee club team. John Mickelon’s kids, Brendan and Benjamin, were there playing alongside the Panthers. He said he heard about the ICE program and the Panthers from Erickson coaching his kids on another team.
“It’s a great combination of hockey and philanthropy, fund-raising and giving back to the community,” Mickelon said. “It was a no-brainer for my kids to be involved.”
Antwaine, a sixth-grader at A.N. Pritzker Elementary School, and his 4-year-old brother, play with the Panthers. He’s hoping hockey spreads throughout his neighborhood.
“I like skating on the ice,” said Antwaine. “It feels good. I think it’s fun to play and more kids should play hockey.”
Erickson sees the direct effect playing for the Panthers has on kids.
“They get to be a part of the team, and learn some discipline and teamwork,” he says. “A lot of kids we coach come from tough situations, and coaches can become second fathers or role models. A lot of different kids benefit in different ways.”
Starks says that Erickson’s involvement with ICE has been invaluable to the kids who have been chosen to receive scholarships.
“A lot of kids through the ICE program were able to get into better schools and I felt that was the most important thing that could happen out of all of this,” Starks said. ”If you can keep a kid off of the street you have accomplished something as far as making that kid a better citizen. That’s how I look at it. I figured it would be my calling to help the neighborhood.”