If you’ve spent any time navigating the streets of Northeast Philadelphia with a car, you’ve likely come across a group of kids playing hockey in the middle of the road.
With their sticks and nets strewn across from sidewalk to sidewalk, the temporary blockage of traffic may be viewed as an annoyance to drivers; however, that hasn’t stopped youngsters from enjoying a variation of the sport that has been popularized all across the area for decades: street hockey.
Street hockey can be played on foot or skates, but in either case, it’s a fun, cheap activity to keep kids entertained while they build memories that can sustain the long haul.
Dennis Gannon and Joel Schriver know all too well about the benefits of playing foot hockey, because they’ve spent most of their adolescent and adult lives partaking in it. Now, they’ve helped take the game that so many kids love and have organized it into something much more large-scale with the Torresdale Summer Foot Hockey League.
The league formed last summer at the Torresdale Boys & Girls Club, at 4500 Linden Ave., with a staggering 230 kids. A year later, the league continues to thrive and has grown to an even more eye-popping 400 participants, with no sign of slowing down.
And while the turnout has even surprised lifelong foot hockey enthusiasts Gannon and Schriver, they couldn’t be more thrilled to see so many young kids across the Northeast taking part in their brainchild.
“It’s pretty simple,” Gannon said during a Thursday afternoon chat. “Joel and I both have young kids that we introduced to street hockey early on, and we had them playing in the wintertime inside the gymnasium at Holmesburg Boys Club. We saw kids wanted to keep playing, but nothing was offered in the summer months. Our research led us to the beautiful rink at Torresdale that really wasn’t being used and was perfect in what we were looking for so that the kids wouldn’t be restricted playing indoors.”
Gannon and Schriver talked to city officials, as well as people within the Torresdale club, and the idea for an outdoor summer foot hockey league was born. Already backed by the Holmesburg community, the longtime friends began circulating fliers to area schools in hopes of recruiting more players. The turnout was astounding.
“In the first year, we expected maybe four teams with fifteen to twenty kids each,” Gannon said. “We surely didn’t expect this.”
For just $40, kids can sign up and get to play a season that lasts from mid-June through the middle of August. There are three different age groups — 5 to 7 (seven teams), 8 to 10 (10 teams) and 11 to 13 (seven teams) — and the eight-week season concludes with a postseason.
The older kids play three 15-minute periods, while the youngsters play two 18-minute periods. It is a no-contact league, although players are susceptible to one-minute penalties throughout the game.
Street hockey offers the basic fundamentals of advanced roller or ice hockey, and both experienced players and those who have never picked up a hockey stick are welcome to register before the season. Each team practices once a week and plays one game a week, with games being played on Monday through Thursday evenings.
“I think you could say we found our own little niche,” Schriver said by phone Friday afternoon. “When I was growing up you played your sport in-season and that was it, but now so many different sports are offered year-round, and the kids are torn because they play a lot of them. But in the summer months between the end of baseball and the start of football and soccer, there’s not too much going on.”
The exponential growth of the league has it fair share of challenges, especially because both Gannon and Schriver work multiple jobs and each have three children of their own (four of whom play in the hockey league).
Because of the demanding nature of being at the forefront of the league, both men have leaned on the exceptional support of volunteer head and assistant coaches, most of whom have their own kids participating for various teams. Schriver was also quick to credit Rich Gatt, who has been an invaluable behind-the-scenes organizer.
“Dennis and I are the front guys, and Rich has helped us organize everything, but without every one of those parents we couldn’t do any of this,” Schriver said. “They’re the backbone of this entire league.”
Gannon, Schriver and the Torresdale Boys & Girls Club have all worked together to make this league possible, and as a result it has represented a fun summertime activity for kids, that, as Gannon said, “keeps them away from the video games for a little while.”
“We wanted to emphasize something of good value, and it is a steal,” he said. “But at the end of the day our hope was to get the kids to do something fun while creating memories and excitement in a safe environment, and so far we’ve been able to do that.”
Gannon and Schriver have known each other for about 25 years, and their bond as friends has only been strengthened by their experiences playing street hockey. In fact, Schriver said that about 20 of the 24 head coaches were guys he knows from his own street hockey days.
Now, the two men, as well as hundreds of other parents, get to watch their kids create their own memories with both new and old friends.
“Most of us (the parents) played street hockey, and now their kids are into it, which is great,” Schriver said. “But we’re not all maniac parents telling them they have to play; rather, kids are like sponges when they’re young and they want to get involved because they see it’s something we love. It’s not like we’re brainwashing them…they saw their dads with hockey sticks, and now they want sticks too.”
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t loud and animated when I coach,” he said. “But everything out of my mouth is positive. I like to pump them up and tell them they’re doing a good job, because that plays a role in kids coming back.
“It helps you learn about life, how to celebrate the positives and help someone when they’re down,” he continued. “If you have a bad game, so what? That’s what life is. Not every day is a home run. We volunteer because we love it, and we want people to feel our honesty and passion, because it’s contagious.” ••
Sports editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or email@example.com