ATLANTIC CITY – Jared Avril doubts he would be playing ice hockey if he had never met Art Dorrington. He said he used to “pop in” on Dorrington at his North Indiana Ave. home, just to “put a smile on his face” and watch highlights of his minor-league hockey career.
“He taught me a lot,” said Jared, a 13-year-old Atlantic City resident. “If I didn’t watch his highlights, I don’t think I’d be here today. Even when I was playing street hockey, I was still watching the first African-American (to play hockey), Mr. Art. He’s the one that made me want to come play hockey, because I was always told, hockey was the white man’s sport. But now I know, it’s for everybody, as long as you put your head to it.”
Dorrington, known to some as the "Jackie Robinson of hockey" because he was the first professional black hockey player in this country, died Dec. 29 at the age of 87. But the Dorrington Ice Hockey Foundation, which he founded with wife Dorothie in 1998, lives on.
The foundation provides low-income children the opportunity to learn life skills through hockey. For every hour the youths are on the ice, they spend an hour in the classroom. Dorrington’s mantra was “On the Ice – Off the Streets.”
The program was supported by the National Hockey League’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative in the early 2000s.
This month, the NHL is taking another crack at pushing a diversity initiative. Using the hashtag “#HockeyisForEveryone” the league is jumping on the bandwagon of adding social causes to sport. The NHL Network’s official Twitter account reads “Celebrate inclusion and diversity in the sport of hockey!”
But it’s fair to say the Dorrington Foundation has done more to promote diversity in ice hockey – at least at the community level - than any hashtag or Twitter feed could do.
Art’s daughter, Judah, a member of the foundation’s board of directors, estimates the organization has helped nearly a thousand area youths improve their education and social skills, with hockey as the catalyst.
“We’d get a call from a parent who said, ‘My kid wants to play hockey. He might be a little too old for your organization, but can you help us with some equipment or help us pay the fee for him to play?’” Judah recalled. “And Daddy would always do it. There were always kids he was helping through the foundation. These kids need a lot of things. Learning to play ice hockey and the wonderful life skills program that we have is often not enough. But it’s a start.”
Dorrington, from Truro, Nova Scotia, didn’t grow up in Atlantic City, but his name became synonymous with the resort. He moved to the city in 1950 to play professional ice hockey for the Eastern Hockey League’s Atlantic City Sea Gulls.
He never made it to the NHL. His hockey career was derailed by a broken leg suffered during the 1957-58 season. "I look at it like this: if God meant for me to get in the NHL, then it would have happened," Dorrington said in a 1999 interview. "Maybe God meant for me to work with kids and try to help them become good citizens."
Jared Avril is one example. He and twin brother Jamar are among the 25 youngsters, ages 8-13, currently enrolled in the Dorrington Foundation program. They’re on the ice at Flyers Skate Zone one day a week, for about 90 minutes, and in classes conducted by teachers Bill Martin and Laverne Saunders the other day. Both components seem to be working.
“Everyone gets to play. There’s no favoritism on the ice,” Jared said. “Everyone passes the puck, keeps the game flowing, and there’s good sportsmanship. The coaches keep us up, help us out if there’s any struggles. That’s what I think of Art Dorrington. He keeps us active.”
“These kids deserve this program,” said coach John Loughney, who has been involved with the foundation for 20 years. “It helps them with identity, with social skills, and promotes teamwork and good sportsmanship.”
Foundation treasurer Bob Rothhouse said “there are a few hundred people walking around Atlantic City today who are graduates of the program who have received a positive influence from Art, from what he originally put together. They’ve stayed on the right track, have landed on their feet and are doing well, have gone on to college, to solid employment, have gone on to raise their own families.
“Maybe some of it is because of the positive influence that Art has brought to kids at a very impressionable age,” Rothhouse said. “They are better people today because of Art, and hopefully more to come.”
That’s the hope, at least. Keeping the youngsters on the ice is an expensive enterprise. Judah Dorrington said ice time alone costs $17,000 per year. The foundation is waiting on a $25,000 grant – part of the $1.3 million MGM Atlantic City Endowment Fund - promised to Dorrington by former Atlantic City mayor Don Guardian last fall.
“Since he had been so sick, he hadn’t been able to raise any money for about two years,” Judah Dorrington said of her father. “I told (Guardian), truthfully, if we don’t get the money from somewhere, then the future of the foundation is highly questionable.”
Judah Dorrington said they would like to expand the educational component of the program to expose the youngsters to other cultural events, or take them out of town to hockey tournaments.
“We could be doing a lot more for these kids,” she said. “We want to be the flagship program that people look at and say, ‘This is what we need to be doing with kids in Atlantic City.’ This program is not a competitive program. They learn life skills and leadership and that, if you fall down, you get right back up. That’s what the program teaches.
“We’re going to keep this going,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll get the $25,000, but whether we do or don’t, we’re going to start our fund-raising project right away, because life goes on.”