Kids from other countries find freedom on ice

New London — One Connecticut College student skated backward as she held a hockey stick parallel to the ice in front of her, using the stick to pull along a middle-school student. Some kids skated tentatively in the middle, looking slightly panicked as they headed toward a wall, unsure of the best way to stop.

"Yo, this is hard, son," one commented.

After making her way around the perimeter of the rink, seventh-grader Christina Echevarria took a breather on the bench, marveling at how quickly eighth-grader Adrian Escobar picked up skating.

"He's like The Flash on ice," she commented as Adrian zipped around Dayton Arena.

They are part of a group of 30 students at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in New London who go to the Connecticut College ice rink on Fridays for the free Learn to Skate program, an initiative that Conn junior Cam Segal, a member of the school's club hockey team, started in the fall semester.

The middle-school students participating are all either in the new arrivals or dual language program at school, meaning they have one thing in common: They're immigrants.

'Why has hockey historically been considered a white sport?'

Segal, an American studies major in the secondary teacher certificate program, developed the Learn to Skate program as part of his involvement in an Integrative Pathway at Conn. The school describes a pathway as "a set of courses and experiences organized around a central theme," with the requirement of pursuing "purposeful engagement in a local or international context."

There are 11 pathways, such as Peace and Conflict, Public Health, and Global Capitalism. The one Segal, who is from Wenham, Mass., chose is called Cities and Schools.

One element of the pathway is developing an animating question, and Segal decided on, "Why has hockey historically been considered a white sport?"

This question stemmed in part from Segal's reaction to an incident in February of last year. When Washington Capitals player Devante Smith-Pelly, one of the few black players in the National Hockey League, was sent to the penalty box, people started chanting that he should go play basketball.

While Segal is white, this triggered an unhappy memory from middle school: A kid skated past him and called him a "dirty Mexican."

In his research into the question, Segal noted there are not many hockey rinks in urban areas.

The costs are also prohibitive for many. In 2013, ESPN writer Steve Wulf added up the costs of his daughter's participation in hockey over 10 years — club dues, camps and clinics, travel, skates, helmets, sticks and more — and ended up at an estimate of nearly $50,000.

Segal also spoke of the racism in the sport, and he indicated there may be a cyclical nature to participation by people of color: Without black role models to look up to in the NHL, black kids may be less inclined to join the sport, which keeps it from diversifying.

At Bennie Dover Jackson, teacher Rocio Tinoco's class of new arrivals is predominantly Latino, meaning many come from countries where they never even saw ice, such as the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru.

Tinoco is a 2017 graduate of Connecticut College, and Segal worked in her classroom last year, part of a requirement for his Curriculum and Classroom Assessment course. He kept in touch with Tinoco and enlisted her help in developing the Learn to Skate program, which the college highlighted in an article last year.

Segal got funding for rink operation costs through the college, and the Bennie Dover Jackson students are bused over to Dayton Arena on Friday afternoons. He got several members of the men and women's club hockey teams at Connecticut College to volunteer.

They ran four sessions in 2018, and with mostly the same middle-school students, they have so far held five of the six sessions for the spring semester.

'You get to be free'

The Bennie Dover students streamed into Dayton Arena a little after 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 25, grabbing snacks that Segal had left on a table inside the door.

"Nice to see you again!" one of them called out to Segal.

Tinoco said her students didn't seem to understand the extended winter break of college students, so earlier in January, they kept asking, "Miss, are we going this weekend?"

Tinoco sees Learn to Skate as a good alternative to what many of her students would be doing otherwise: going home and playing on their Xbox. She also noted there aren't usually after-school activities on Fridays.

Segal helped kids put on skates, asking about their day at school and their favorite Netflix show and what country they're from. Then they were on the ice.

Some of the students formed a chain to skate around. In another cluster, one kid grabbed on to two others to keep himself from falling, but then all three seemed at risk of tumbling together.

Their stick-to-itiveness is a testament to what Segal views as a literal life lesson from skating: "You fall a lot, and you get back up, and you just have to keep trying."

After belly-flopping on the ice, sixth-grader Darielys Arnold quickly pulled herself onto her knees, got up and kept skating. While she said her butt started to hurt by the end of the day, she likes the feeling of skating because "you get to be free."

The next week, some of the kids played games like Red Light/Green Light, Octopus Tag and Fishy Fishy Cross My Ocean. Sixth-grader Jarielys Escolastico was excited after she successfully skated on one leg for the first time.

For Segal, it's rewarding to see the kids' excitement at the newness of it all — and the smiles and laughter that come with it. He said he tries to live out the Jewish concept of "tikkun olam," or acts of kindness done to "repair the world."

Segal hopes to continue the program in the fall but said continuing in the spring of his senior year might be tough, as he'll be student teaching. After college, his goal is to be a teacher, coach and adviser at a boarding school, and Segal will be interning at the Loomis Chaffee School this summer.

"The skating program has definitely been the highlight of my year," he said.

e.moser@theday.com

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