Seven-year-old Wallace Louis took a face plant on the ice at Morgan Park Sports Center but was all smiles when he hoisted himself back up.
He’s among 300 school-age children taking advantage of the Hockey On Your Block program, which teaches kids from some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods how to play the game. The program is free, which allows families to introduce their children to a sport they might not otherwise be able to afford.
“He probably never would have had an opportunity to do it if we hadn’t learned about it through the school,” says Wallace’s mom, Michelle Griffin. “He loves it. It teaches discipline. He wants to play hockey.”
Hockey On Your Block is the brainchild of Ray Lilja, a retired hedge-fund executive who played hockey growing up in the south suburbs and later at Illinois State University. His three brothers excelled at a different sport — football — and even played in the NFL, but Lilja says he was too small.
“They’re all out of the game, but I can still play hockey,” he chuckles.
Lilja remembers the moment that sparked the idea for Hockey On Your Block and the First Goal Foundation that funds the program. He was sitting on his couch in 2010, watching the postgame wrap-up of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup win.
A TV reporter was outside the United Center. The reporter asked a young boy if he’d ever dreamed of hoisting the Stanley Cup.
“But this kid said he’d never played hockey. He’d never even been on the ice. And that’s when it hit me. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do with my retirement,’” Lilja recalls.
He asked friends he’d played hockey with over the years — including U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and political strategist Pete Giangreco — for advice and financial support. His not-for-profit now has an annual budget of about $100,000.
Players log ice time not only at the Morgan Park Sports Center on the South Side but also at the McFetridge Sports Center on the North Side. Johnny’s Ice House in the West Loop, popular with adult hockey players, donates ice time to the organization. And Lilja says the foundation is hoping to land ice time at the new Blackhawks practice facility on the West Side, as many of the children in the program live close to that rink.
The program teaches kids kindergarten through eighth grade skating and other hockey basics. Classes have become so popular, Lilja says, that he’s added figure skating to the mix.
About 300 children are enrolled at any one time. So far, about 1,200 have taken classes, many from the Austin, Humboldt Park and Englewood neighborhoods.
“We don’t talk about the violence they might see. We know they each have a story to tell and hopefully the story moving forward is better than the one they’re coming from,” Lilja says.
He and and his team often bus potential skaters and their parents from schools near the United Center to the ice rinks as a way to promote the program.
That’s how 6-year-old Hans Rodriguez started skating. A student at Suder Montessori Elementary Magnet School, he just graduated from the first-level skating program and is interested in continuing figure skating, says his mom, Jenny Bahena.
“It’s the first sport he’s really been interested in,” she says. “We’re Latino, and you just don’t see many people of color on the ice or playing hockey. It never would have crossed my mind to enroll him in hockey before I was introduced to the program.”
The program doesn’t have any income guidelines, though its mission is to bring “the joy of ice sports to any Chicago youth who would not otherwise” be able to experience that.
“We debated heavily over whether to set income guidelines but ultimately decided against it,” Lilja says. “We use the honor system and trust the wealthy parents won’t take advantage of our kindness. However, there are a few privileged kids in our program, in which case I’ll ask the parents if they’d consider making a donation so that more of Chicago’s most deserving kids are able to join us. It usually works, and we’ve received some very nice donations this way.”
Lilja says the program is bigger than the sport. “The most important life lesson our kids learn is how to fail and then get back up and keep trying,” he says.
The 70 volunteer coaches get a lot out of the program, too, he adds. “You see how you can have an impact with a single word or a pat on the back or just saying ‘I believe in you.'”