ormer Devils captain working with nonprofit organization to help low-income, at-risk children
NEW YORK -- It's in Bryce Salvador's bloodline to lead and make a difference.
The roots go back to his upbringing in Brandon, Manitoba. His family was in social work and at times had up to five extra people living with them, ranging from mentally challenged adults to juvenile delinquents trying to get back into society. It's what attracted Salvador to become an ambassador for the NextGEN AAA Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring, education and hockey programs to low-income and at-risk children.
"Being around that at such a young age for so many years made an impression on me to always help others," said Salvador, who played 786 NHL games over 13 seasons as a defenseman with the St. Louis Blues and New Jersey Devils. "Because I played hockey, I thought that was the easiest vehicle for me to have an impact. These types of initiatives have always resonated with me."
Salvador carries plenty of cachet even after retiring in 2015, three years after helping the Devils advance to the Stanley Cup Final. At age 36, Salvador had 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 24 games during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Although the Devils lost the Cup Final to the Los Angeles Kings in six games, Salvador learned there were no limits and no barriers to what one can accomplish. He missed the entire 2010-11 season because of a concussion but returned to play a full 82-game season and spark a Devils team that finished sixth in the Eastern Conference (48-28-6, 102 points) and peaked at the right time.
"That year was really an important year for me just for my own personal beliefs and my own personal limits," Salvador said. "I saw the game differently than in my whole career.
"What it really showed me is that you have to be careful at times of what you believe. If you always believe that you're not going to play in the NHL or you're not an offensive guy you're only a defensive guy, or in this case there's no hope for me to ever play hockey, you create those barriers. I realized that if you change the thought process, like what we're doing with NextGEN, you can open new doors and possibilities for these kids to realize, 'Hey, I may play in college, I may make the NHL,' and just show them to believe in themselves."
Salvador was the third black captain in NHL history (Dirk Graham, Jarome Iginla) and the Devils' 10th captain on Jan. 17, 2013. He joined NextGEN and teamed with founder Dee Dee Ricks to help overcome financial barriers.
"You could be talking about $10,000 on average a year just to keep them in the game and to give them the support they need academically," Ricks said. "When you really understand that you're providing something that's not there and you're fulfilling a need … there's not a thousand NextGENs out there. We're the only person right now that's really addressing this hole in the market, so to speak."
Partnering with Pure Hockey, the largest retailer of hockey equipment in the United States, NextGEN sent a team to suburban Boston for New England Pro-Am Hockey's 2018 Chowder Cup on July 13-14. The tone for their run through the College Open bracket was set during the first practice when 18-year-old defenseman Ricardo Kornegay questioned if he was at the same level as the other players. That's when co-coach Jeff Devenney got everyone together to remind them they were competing for a greater cause.
"Not that it was terrible body language, but you can see that a couple of guys were frustrated," Devenney said. "They bought into the idea that it's about everybody, not just me."
About 10 minutes into the first game against Elite Top Prospects, Kornesay delivered a hit that inspired NextGEN to a 6-0 victory. His teammates voted him player of the game, proving that he belonged.
"It turned the whole complexion of the game," Devenney said. "That was the moment that kind of galvanized the group on the ice. The expression on his face, the acceptance that he felt, it made those fears that he had just go away. He was just one of the boys from that point."
Despite a 5-0 loss to the eventual champion Northwood Huskies in the quarterfinals, lessons learned went beyond victory and defeat. One player, 15-year-old defenseman Bryce Montgomery, committed to Providence College on Tuesday. "Everyone had value." Devenney said. "It was more than just a hockey game. It was these kids who were facing whatever adversities they come from and putting it all out there for each other."
And that's how NextGEN ties in with the Declaration of Principles, which promotes development of character and life skills through hockey regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.
But it goes deeper than even the strong message shared by the DOP. "To continue to play hockey, you need a support structure," Salvador said. "Guys who make it in the NHL, their grandparents, sisters, whomever, someone had to help them. It seems that because of the support and the structures needed for people to excel at hockey, they generally in my opinion develop into a great individual that's respectful and doesn't take anything for granted.
"Everyone says why are hockey players so humble; it took a whole ecosystem to play that game that we love. Whether I made the NHL or not, just the journey that hockey took me on made a lot of memories. Now that I'm post playing, I can take those memories and pass them on and be a mentor with kids."