The story of the NextGEN AAA Foundation began four years ago in the 2014-2015 season.
During one game, John Jaenisch – a defenseman and then first year Bantam – delivered what his mother, Dee Dee Ricks, considered a late and questionable hit. The mother asked her son after the game why he did it? John told Dee Dee the player he had sent over the boards had made some racial remarks to one of his teammates.
“From that moment on, there was no doubt,” Ricks said. “NextGEN evolved from that season.”
Already a noted philanthropist, Ricks – NextGEN’s founder and Chair of Boards – started small at first, helping out John’s team, a squad from New York City with players hailing from a number of diverse backgrounds, while she perfected her vision. As the world has seen in recent months, the hockey community can be a place of strength and giving for those in need. In some areas, however, local support just is not enough.
“…there are ancillary expenses that can be cost prohibitive for many talented players that ultimately leave [hockey] over these costs,” Ricks said. “I’ve heard many stories of hockey parents and teams pooling money together for players that need financial support. These families and organizations make hockey the best sport in the world, but it’s simply not enough to translate to a more inclusive sport.”
While the root mission of the program is to create an all-inclusive hockey culture regardless of racial, social or financial barriers, Ricks wanted the foundation to be more than just another scholarship program offering an alleviated entryway into the game. There were plenty of those. Where Ricks really saw the need was at the higher levels of the game when players needed the assistance getting to its farthest reaches.
NextGEN does not just want to give those who need help a better place to play hockey, but also give the hockey world its next generation of top tier players.
“There are many Learn-to-Play programs where many of our participants began their hockey career,” Ricks said. “Here’s the issue, though: They learn to play, but then what? I have yet to see an elite player that spent most of his youth hockey career in house league. There’s a gap between these programs and going to the highest levels of hockey.
“If you have a player that is talented that can’t afford to continue, we take over.”
The foundation officially launched in September of 2017, and has continued to grow and develop its mission in the short time since. It is a lengthy list of varied and immersive support services NextGEN has for its players.
There are the standard skills coaching, video analysis of games and scholarships for travel programs and prep schools. NextGEN then dives deeper. The foundation does not employ just a hockey operations staff, but also has an Academic Program Director, aimed to assist the players with SAT/ACT prep, as well as preparatory and college placement advice, and a Motivational Director for mentoring support.
All of the foundation’s departments report on a wide variety of metrics in and out of the hockey season, tracked and customized by location and level of play, to help ensure players are getting what they need.
“Anything to support our participants to get to the next level,” Ricks said.
“…We will partner with the best non-profits, especially those supporting inclusiveness in youth hockey, by providing funding and best practices for organizations that meet our rigorous standards and quality controls. We want to make sure that every kid gets a shot at a better life through the game of hockey, regardless of race, religion or socioeconomic status.”
When the team steps on the ice – as they will this coming July, having partnered with Pure Hockey to send a team to compete at New England Pro-Am Hockey’s 2018 Chowder Cup – the crest on their sweaters reads “NextGEN AAA Hockey Club.” Unlike to most of the hockey world, however, to Ricks’ organization, AAA means a little bit more than just the level of play.
“AAA for us means ‘Advancement in Academics and Athletics,’” the founder said. “Our ultimate vision is to have our players be the next generation of ‘best in class’ on and off the ice…”
With the mission of NextGEN focusing as much (if not more so) on developing a player’s character off the ice, as Ricks shaped her foundation, there seemed a need to place someone within the organizational ranks who could prove as much as a mentor to the players as a hockey coach. That search ultimately led to former NHL veteran Bryce Salvador, who recently joined NextGEN as its National Hockey Program Director and Head NHL Ambassador.
“I will never forget the first time Bryce jumped on the phone with one of our new players last month after experiencing racism on the ice,” Ricks said. “He turned this kid around in 45 minutes. Talk about a role model.”
Since retiring from his 14-year NHL career in 2015, during which time he followed Dirk Graham and Jarome Iginla in becoming the third player of black decent to be named captain of a NHL club, Salvador has devoted much of his time to community and youth hockey-based programs, growing the game from the grassroots level.
The founder and her new ambassador first met at NextGEN’s launch party last September and the talks of Salvador getting involved began. Joining NextGEN fit right into his post-playing career.
“After spending time with Dee Dee Ricks, I was instantly drawn into wanting to support her initiative,” Salvador said. “When I was presented with an opportunity to become their Head NHL Ambassador, with the mandate to get more children involved in the game from all different backgrounds, it was an easy decision for me.”
Based in New York, players have been recruited not just from the Tri-State area, but across North America; from Toronto, to Anchorage and Columbus, OH, to name a few. Players of all backgrounds, genders and ability levels, starting as young as 8-years old.
“Every tournament I attend, I count [the number of minority players],” the founder noted. “Sadly most of the participants are ours. We knew we needed to create a pipeline of new talent.
“Our Learn to Play Expansion Program and interactive NGEN platform were developed specifically to increase the pool of talent.”
Their roots began in diversifying the game of hockey, but this is not charity work. There are high demands that come with being part of NextGEN’s program – including a GPA requirement – and adhering to the organizations three sought after core values of dedication, tenacity and sportsmanship.
So far, the players have stood to the test.
Donte Pierre has been one of NextGEN’s brightest success stories. The 17-year old Brooklyn, NY native was a good student in the public school system and a good player at the AA level, picking up the game as a 12-year old playing for the NYC Cyclones. This past year, with the foundation’s guidance and assistance, Pierre elevated and was accepted to Kimball Union Academy. The forward started the year playing for the elite prep school’s JV team before being promoted during the season to a top ranked Varsity team amidst its second consecutive New England Elite League Championship campaign in 2018. His grade point average was credited as going up to a 3.62 on the year, and he recently scored in the 96th percentile on his PSAT’s.
“Donte is a very talented and driven young man,” said Kimball Union head coach Tim Whitehead. “His passion for the game and his desire to improve and become an elite player are exceptional. It’s amazing how far Donte has progressed in a short amount of time.
“…with Donte’s work ethic, I know he will continue to elevate his game. I’m confident great things are on the horizon for this young man.”
Also on the list is Romeo Torain. Already a strong player, playing on nationally ranked AAA teams, Torain struggled academically. After a neuropsychological evaluation, NextGEN tutors helped develop a plan to bolster Torain’s reading and writing skills, as well as provided guidance towards finding the right schools to help Torain’s academic development.
“As I know firsthand, if given the right amount of support and guidance, any child can thrive, not only on the ice, but in school and at home,” Salvador said. “That child can grow with a strong sense of pride and accomplishment. I wanted to be a part of something so impactful to the community and important to the game that gave me so much.