Arn Criswell and Isaac Eubanks eat, sleep and breathe the game of ice hockey.
“I wanted to play hockey because I saw Sidney Crosby on television and he scored a goal and I said ‘I can do that. I want to score a goal,’” said Criswell a 14-year-old Propel School ninth grader who lives in the Hill District. “As a goalie you’re always a leader.”
Criswell currently serves as a goal tender for the Castle Shannon-based Pittsburgh Predators ice hockey team.
The first year that the Pittsburgh Penguins went to the Winter Classic, Eubanks knew he wanted to take that same journey one day.
“I took my brother’s skates and we were playing street hockey. It was a lot of fun and I thought it was more fun than any other sport and I started asking my parents to buy hockey equipment,” said Eubanks, a 14-year old Propel Junior High School eighth grader who resides in Whittaker. He currently serves as center defenseman/forward on the Pittsburgh Predators team along with Criswell.
Both boys learned the ins and outs of hockey from the Pittsburgh ICE (Inclusion Creates Equality) hockey team.
According to Kimberly L. Slater-Wood, director of outreach for the Pittsburgh Penguins, “Pittsburgh ICE falls under the Pittsburgh Penguins youth hockey program and is supported through the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation. Additionally, Pittsburgh ICE is included under the NHL Diversity program Hockey is for Everyone.”
Pittsburgh ICE was created in 2000 with the support of the Pittsburgh Penguins and its alumni association. It provides boys and girls the chance to learn the game. Pittsburgh ICE is one of more than 40 Hockey is for everyone programs in the United States. Used equipment is donated to the program reducing the cost for players to $40, which covers registration.
“By deepening its footprint, particularly in the urban communities, more African-American children between the ages of 5-18 will have an opportunity to learn to play the great game of ice hockey under the direction of coach Howard Smith and his staff,” Slater-Wood said.
Both Criswell and Eubanks have learned invaluable lessons about ice hockey and life under the tutelage of Smith.
“What I saw special in Arn and Isaac is what I saw in myself years ago,” said Smith who has coached Criswell for five years on the Pittsburgh ICE hockey team and Eubanks for four years. “I saw two individuals who were really dedicated to the game of hockey. As these guys progress, the sky is the limit. I really hope Arn and Isaac take hockey to the next level and play at the college level. They are both good role models and mentors to the other kids on the team.”
Slater-Wood concurs with Smith.
“Arn and Isaac are skilled youth hockey players and stellar young men. They are among several trailblazers in a sport that is primarily homogenous when it comes to race. These young men are focused, diligent and love to play the game of ice hockey. Their athleticism in youth hockey began with the introduction and exposure to an untraditional sport for most African-Americans. Willie O’Ree broke the color barrier in ice hockey and Arn and Isaac are carrying the torch,” Slater-Wood said.
Both Eubanks and Criswell believe that if more Black kids were exposed to ice hockey, they would want to play the sport.
Despite the low number of African-Americans, Criswell and Eubanks are like brothers when on the ice whether it be with the Pittsburgh Predators or Pittsburgh ICE.
“We work hard and motivate each other,” both boys said.
In addition to learning how to skate on the ice and the basics of hockey, the members of Pittsburgh ICE are taught commitment, perseverance and teamwork.
“It teaches them to respect authority and how to negotiate and that carries over into adulthood,” said Criswell’s mother, Lereeta Payne about the Pittsburgh ICE program. “They travel to places like Penn State, Detroit, Washington, D.C. Pittsburgh ICE allows Arn to see other parts of the world. We are very proud of him.”
The Eubanks family agree.
“We’re very proud of Isaac. We’re proud of how he’s learned the sport of hockey. He’s not aggressive, he’s patient. He knows that you’re going to either win or lose,” said his mother, Elnora and father, Isaac, Sr.
(Anyone interested in learning more about Pittsburgh ICE is encouraged to contact Slater-Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.)