The New York Rangers are ready to change the face of hockey in Norwalk.
The 89-year-old NHL franchise is entering into a partnership with the SoNo Ice House, the city's three-year-old ice rink on Wilson Avenue, which will result in bringing youth hockey in Norwalk to a whole new level.
In fact, the milestone move will impact many Norwalk boys and girls who have never even worn a pair of skates -- yet, that is.
It's all being made possible through 'New York Rangers Assist' which is supported by the Chase youth hockey program. Chase Bank is one of Madison Square Garden's biggest sponsors, while Rangers Assist, launched in 2012, is designed to improve the youth hockey experience and increase opportunities and accessibility to the sport.
That's where the SoNo Ice House comes in, or more specifically, the Hockey in Norwalk Foundation, the third party in this equation. The HNF is a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization started by Steve and Francine Ehrlich.
Now pay close attention and you'll begin to see how all these connections and networking led to Norwalk being selected as one of this year's recipients.
Francine Ehrlich is the scheduling manager at the SoNo Ice House and she also handles all of the ice rink's accounting. Several years ago, she and her husband Steve, Stamford residents, were two of the three people who helped start a girls hockey team at Stamford High School, where their daughter Sarah played.
They were both also very involved with Stamford Youth Hockey and their son Lucas played travel hockey at Twin Rinks.
So why would two hockey people from Stamford start an organization to benefit hockey in Norwalk?
"We saw a good opportunity to build a new program that could call Norwalk home," Steve Ehrlich explained.
They also had a connection with Ryan Hughes, the president of the SoNo Ice House and the man who brought an ice rink back to Norwalk in 2012. Once upon a time he coached Lucas Ehrlich in travel hockey, and four years ago the Ehrlichs started the Barons, the Connecticut Oilers' 16-U team that plays at SoNo Ice House.
Lucas, now a senior at Westhill, played goalie for the Barons for two seasons and currently plays for the 18-U Long Island Gulls "only because the Oilers don't have an 18-U team," his father explained.
Francine Ehrlich was also the one who arranged for her daughter's women's hockey team at the University of Delaware to play the UConn women at SoNo Ice House the last two years.
Sarah Ehrlich also played a couple of seasons for the Brewster (N.Y.) Bulldogs and that's how her father got to know Mike Bonelli, the coordinator for New York State Youth Hockey who also runs the ADM -- American Development Model -- for USA Hockey.
"He knew about the Barons and what we were trying to do in Norwalk," Steve Ehrlich said. "So he spoke to Rick Nadeau, who's with the Rangers Assist program."
"When Rick heard about us, he called me to see if it was something we'd be interested in and I said 'Absolutely.' "
The Rangers Assist program was created in 2012 to help rebuild two hockey rinks -- the Playland Ice Casino in Rye, N.Y., and the Long Beach Ice Arena in Long Island -- which were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
But providing rink refurbishments is not the only initiative the program does. It is also designed to improve the youth hockey experience and increase opportunities and accessibility to the sport throughout the Tri-State area through equipment donations, free clinics and coaches training.
In addition to the two aforementioned ice rinks, the Rangers have also "assisted" the New Rochelle Lightning Hockey Program, the Greater New York City Ice Hockey League in Coney Island, the John T. Wright Arena/Mackay Rink in Englewood, N.J., and the Riverbank State Park Youth Hockey Program in Harlem.
And this season's recipients are the Edward J. Murray Memorial Skating Center in Yonkers, N.Y., and the Hockey in Norwalk Foundation/SoNo Ice House. Each of the youth hockey organizations will receive a $25,000 donation from the Rangers and Chase that will be used to help reduce participation fees for hockey events, upgrade infrastructure in the arenas (in the case of the 55-year-old Murray Skating Center), buy new equipment for area families and expand learn-to-skate classes.
In addition, training will be provided to volunteer coaches to improve their ability to teach the game.
Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh and alternate captain Derek Stepan are serving as spokespersons for this year's project.
"Creating accessibility to the sport of hockey is vital in continuing to grow the game," McDonagh said on the team's website. "Through the Rangers Assist Program, we are reaching younger hockey fans and providing an opportunity that they normally wouldn't have had to play the game and develop their skills."
The audience Norwalk is looking to target with this grassroots project, according to Ehrlich, are boys and girls ages 10 and under.
"That's the core of what we're trying to do, to grow kids' interest in hockey in the 10-and-under age group," he pointed out. "With the help of the Rangers and Chase Bank, we want to have the most 10-and-under kids in the state playing hockey, whether it's house leagues, clinics, the Barons, or travel hockey, it doesn't matter, we want to be the top in the state in terms of numbers.
"It's a shame that Norwalk is the second biggest city in Fairfield County behind Stamford, but has the least number of hockey players," he added. "We hope to make it more in the future."
Hughes not only loves the concept, but it supports his philosophy of player development he's had since opening the rink.
"The main focus is to introduce kids to hockey and get them on the ice," the 34-year-old Ice House president said. "The New York Rangers are really trying to help promote hockey and to grow the game by getting it to the masses and get more kids on the ice.
"We work with Hockey in Norwalk to give families who can't afford it avenues to play hockey at a very low cost or nothing."
Attracting kids to play hockey is nothing new to the SoNo Ice House. It has a "Future" program for 3-to-7 year-olds and several other beginner programs.
In addition, Rowayton and Naramake elementary schools periodically bus classes over to the Wilson Avenue rink to skate as part of their Physical Education curriculum. Other schools, like Columbus Magnate and Silvermine, schedule social events at the Ice House.
"We want to get kids up and going early," Dale DeRosa, the operations manager and event coordinator, said. "The idea is to get kids on the ice multiple times, not just once. Our goal is to get them out there three, four, five times a season."
While those programs concentrate on skating, the Rangers' initiative focuses on getting kids to start playing hockey.
"Chase wants to donate equipment like smaller nets for younger kids," Hughes said. "They also want to provide cross ice boards so we can play three games at one time in our bigger rink."
The program could extend beyond the ice rink, too.
"We're looking to work with local elementary schools to play floor hockey so kids can learn the game," Hughes said.
"We hope to have a meeting with the school district soon," Ehrlich added. "We want to get kids loving to play hockey."
With the Rangers' help, Ehrlich thinks that will eventually become a reality in Norwalk.
"The challenge is how do we teach kids to do a sport they've never done," he asked. "But that's the pitch we made to the CHC (Connecticut Hockey Conference, the governing body for USA Hockey in the state), how we were going to grow hockey in Norwalk. I told them it would take time. You have to have time and patience and you have to believe in your vision."
The New York Rangers apparently believe in the same vision others have for Norwalk.
"They wanted to do it here," DeRosa said. "They like what we do."
"Norwalk is such a fertile area to grow the game," Ehrlich agreed. "And it doesn't hurt that as you grow the game, the Rangers can also grow their fan base."
Indeed, Hughes said the Rangers brand will definitely have a presence at the SoNo Ice House. At the other ice rinks the Rangers Assist program visited the past three years, charity hockey games featuring former Rangers were held. The same is being planned for Norwalk.
"They're holding a big event on Feb. 15 from 5:30 to 9:30 (p.m.) at the SoNo Ice House," Ehrlich noted. "There will be a clinic, a 'Try Hockey for Fun' where kids can go on the ice with two current members of the Rangers, and capped off with a hockey game with some Rangers alumni, current Oilers and Barons coaches, and local firefighters and policemen. It should be really exciting.
"Plus they're supposed to have a camera crew there and the event will be featured on a Rangers pregame show."
Meanwhile, for Ryan Hughes, next to opening an ice rink and bringing an EHL team there to play, partnering up with the Rangers on this project just might be the pinnacle for him.
"It's always good when you do something with the Rangers involved," he said. "This is definitely the cherry on top."