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City youngsters making strides with the stars

Two-time Olympic gold medallist Cheryl Pounder works with first-time skater Sharif Iqbali, 10, in an exercise to help him develop balance as he takes part in the first week of a skate program at Parkdale Arena.
Learn to skate Two-time Olympic gold medallist Cheryl Pounder works with first-time skater Sharif Iqbali, 10, in an exercise to help him develop balance as he takes part in the first week of a skate program at Parkdale Arena.
Cathie Coward/The Hamilton Spectator

Nine year-old Ferdosa Adan hugs the boards at Parkdale Arena. It’s her first time on skates and she’s nervous.

Her classmates awkwardly balance on the ice around her, and a friendly voice urges her on, “step and walk.” It’s her first lesson, and her coach is two-time Olympic hockey gold medallist Cheryl Pounder.

Two new programs in Hamilton are giving inner-city kids the chance to learn Canada’s game. And both brought high profile Canadian hockey stars to town on Tuesday to help launch and promote the initiatives.

PHOTO GALLERY: Learn to skate

The Hamilton Bulldogs’ Skate the Dream program, and RBC’s Play Hockey, use donated equipment and ice time to get kids ages 6 to 10 on the ice — some of them for the first time.

Seventy kids in the fourth and fifth grades from Roxborough Park elementary school are getting three hours on the ice each week for the next eight weeks, through RBC’s program. The 100 youngsters participating in the Skate the Dream project were chosen by affiliated programs such as the Boys and Girls Club of Hamilton. They get on the ice for two hours, twice a week.

Both programs give kids who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to play the chance to learn a sport that is becoming increasingly expensive.

“Not everybody has a means to play hockey,” said NHL legend Mark Messier at a news conference on Tuesday. “We need to make sure that we’re not pricing ourselves out of the sport.”

The six-time Stanley Cup winner donated 15 new hockey helmets to Skate the Dream via his Messier Project with Cascade Sports.

On Tuesday the Roxborough Park kids put blade to ice for the first time, gold medallist Cheryl Pounder holding hands and keeping wobbly fourth graders on their feet. They showed some nerves, a few tears and a lot of smiles.

Kids in both programs are being taught by the best. Former NHLer and Stanley Cup winner Ric Nattress takes the ice with the Skate the Dream kids. He teaches the game at Eastwood Arena — the same ice he first laced up on as a six-year-old some 44 years ago.

The two projects maintain donated hockey equipment for use by anyone in the program, but the two are not affiliated or connected with each other.

Gerry Potter, president of the Hamilton Minor Hockey Council, which helps organize and fund the Roxborough program, says registration for an average minor hockey house league runs about $350 for the season. Equipment alone costs hundreds more, and that’s about as cheap as hockey gets for most.

Back when Nattress played minor hockey in the mid 1970s, registration was $52. “Well, it’s almost 10 times that now,” he says.

And it doesn’t end with skates and sticks, says Messier, known in his playing days as the Moose. “What we’re trying to build at the grassroots level of hockey is good citizens.”

“The vehicle is sports,” adds Nattress, “the idea is self confidence.”

Special to The Hamilton Spectator

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