MIKE LATIMER has two dreams when he grows up: to sing rap music or play in the National Hockey League.
The Harlem high schooler is one of a slowly growing number of African-Americans who are playing ice hockey and setting their sights on the NHL, a league traditionally dominated by white Canadians.
``That's one of my dreams: To become one of the first, to let people know they can do whatever they want to do,'' Latimer says as he suits up for an after-school Ice Hockey in Harlem game. ``Before, it was just a game for me. But now I'm trying to modify my skills so I can go pro.''
About 40 or 50 black hockey players - almost all of them Canadian - have competed in the NHL since Willie O'Rhee broke into the league briefly in 1957, but few have achieved much fame, says Jeff Davis, the archivist at the NHL Hall of Fame in Toronto.
The main reasons for the sparse black participation are that fewer blacks live in traditional hockey capitals, and the equipment required to play and the access to skating rinks are very costly.
Mike Grier, a promising black player at Boston University, says that the lack of black role models also makes the game less alluring to minority kids. ``They don't really see that many people playing it, and they see a lot of people they admire playing other sports, so that's what they want to do,'' he says.
As in other professional sports, racism has hindered black hockey players. O'Rhee, who played for the Boston Bruins in 1957 and 1961, says that throughout his career some white players went out of their way to harass him.
``The name-calling didn't bother me because I let it in one ear and out the other,'' says O'Rhee, who now lives in southern California and works as a security guard. But it was because of ``the butt-ending and high-sticking and the spearing and stuff that I felt these guys wanted a piece of me.''
One advantage O'Rhee had was that he started skating at age three, an early beginning not uncommon among hockey players in his native Canada. ``You've got to grow up in an area where there is hockey,'' O'Rhee says. ``You've got to go on the ice and get some exposure.''
Children growing up in America's inner cities rarely get such an early start. Latimer of the Harlem league began playing when he was eight years old, a relatively late start that makes it very difficult to reach the big leagues, hockey experts say.
Because of these obstacles, Ice Hockey in Harlem, probably the largest inner-city hockey program of its kind with 250 players, focuses on youth development rather than on building stars. ``I think it's wrong to say the goal is to become an NHL player,'' says program organizer Mike Levy. ``The goal is to live better lives.''
The league, funded by donations and manned mostly by volunteers, mixes hockey with mandatory classes teaching math, geography, and other subjects through hockey examples. Their five best students earn scholarships to top prep schools, and others are sent to summer hockey camp, Levy says.
The Walt Disney Company was so impressed with this approach that last year it asked league founder Dave Wilk to set up a similar program in Anaheim, Calif., under Disney's sponsorship. Cities like Detroit and Washington, D.C., have also set up inner-city hockey programs in recent years for youths who otherwise would not have a chance to play.
``Our community doesn't provide for the kids,'' says Johnny Johnson, who joined the Harlem league two years ago. ``You find more liquor stores than hockey rinks'' in Harlem.
For some of the players, hockey is just a fun diversion from the temptations of inner-city life. ``It keeps me off the street,'' says David Mariano, ``getting into a lot of trouble - robbery, fights, lots of stuff.''
Others, however, dream of making it big in hockey. O'Rhee, the hockey pioneer, attended a Harlem hockey league game in 1991. He predicts that one of these days a gifted Harlem player will make make it to the NHL. ``I was very impressed with a lot of the black kids that I saw,'' he says.