NEW YORK, N.Y. — Nestled on the Hudson River in Harlem, not far from Washington Heights, Riverbank State Park is a rather improbable location to find a group of young hockey aficionados.
But situated in the $125.9 million park - a sprawling 28-acre athletic and cultural complex built over a large sewage treatment facility - is a public ice rink used for roller hockey during the warm months. At one end of the rink, Ice Hockey in Harlem (IHIH) coach Oliver Dow has a group of 20 kids skate circles around bright orange pilons. At the other end, three coaches take turns shooting pucks at 13-year-old George Calderon in goal.
Decked out in black-and-red goalie pads with yellow trim, and a bright red mask with a tiger design, George looks a tad like his favorite player, New York Ranger goalie Mike Richter.
"This program has meant a lot to me," says George, wiping the beads of sweat off his forehead. "I love hockey, but I've never had the opportunity or the money to play it."
The sport is typically associated with guys named Pierre and Jacques from such northern cities as Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
But not anymore. Just ask Brenda Barrett, whose 11-year-old grandson, Jason, is in his second year at IHIH. "Jason really enjoys Ice Hockey in Harlem," she says, watching him zip across the rink. "He talks about it all the time."
Launched a decade ago, IHIH is a nonprofit, privately financed hockey and education program. In addition to offering kids ages 7 to 19 an opportunity to play ice and roller hockey, it also includes mandatory classes, tutoring, mentoring, community service activities, and opportunities for youngsters to find jobs and participate in summer hockey camps in such cities as Boston and Toronto.
In the weekly classes during the winter season, kids learn basic geography, math, and writing - often using apropos hockey examples. For instance, one of 13-year-old Xavier Vilar's favorite classes was a budget breakdown of a typical Vancouver Canucks road trip.
"I was slumping in English," says George, who has participated in IHIH for more than four years, "and my tutor helped my studying a lot. My grades improved."
On a more basic level, though, IHIH has helped kids simply by offering them a constructive alternative after school. Though Harlem has retained much of the lure of the Harlem Renaissance and its cultural dynamism, the proliferation of drugs, violence, and poverty makes it a challenging and dangerous place for kids to grow up.
A 1992 study by the Carnegie Corp. of New York titled "A Matter of Time: Risk and Opportunity in the Nonschool Hours" reports that only 60 percent of adolescent's waking hours are taken up by such "essentials" as school, homework, and eating. The other 40 percent is discretionary.
Of particular importance, the study contends, are the immediate after-school hours, when kids are often left on their own and are most likely to engage in mischievous and illegal activities - especially those from impoverished, urban areas.
For IHIH participants like Joseph Diaz, a bubbly 16-year-old who will be entering ninth grade this September at St. Agnes School in New York's Upper West Side, the program has been a productive way to spend these critical after-school hours.
"If I wasn't coming here," he says, "I would probably be hanging around the streets. I might be getting into trouble."
Part of IHIH's success has translated into an impressive growth rate. In 1987, when IHIH was established, the program had 40 players. Now it has 250 registered participants - an increase of 525 percent.
Indeed, the success of IHIH - and kids like Joseph Diaz - has been contagious. In 1994, the Walt Disney Corp. launched Disney GOALS, a program based in Anaheim, Calif., and designed to provide kids in urban areas with fun and constructive alternatives after school.
Like IHIH, Disney GOALS also has mandatory after-school classes and offers such amenities as tutoring, mentoring, and guidance counseling.
And, like IHIH, Disney GOALS is also growing exponentially. Over the past three years, it has experienced a remarkable 600 percent increase in participation - from roughly 50 participants in the 1994-95 season to approximately 350 in the 1996-97 season.
Despite the success of both programs, though, there are still plenty of challenges.
"The barriers are staggering," says Dave Wilk, executive director of Disney GOALS and chairman and founder of IHIH. "There are no magic answers to deal with the host of challenges that face poor areas and kids from poor families. We need to be prepared to work with these kids over a period of years."
Back in Riverbank State Park, as dusk settles on Harlem and a balmy breeze blows across the Hudson River, coach Oliver Dow gathers the kids together after a two-hour roller hockey session crammed with drills and a scrimmage.
"This is much more than hockey," he says. "It's about commitment, discipline, hard work, and a good attitude. Let's remember that the next time."