Willie O'Ree has made several trips to Columbus since becoming the NHL's director of youth development and the ambassador for NHL Diversity in 1998, and every time he comes to town he is impressed with the work being done to promote the game at the youth level, particularly by the Columbus Ice Hockey Club.

Willie O'Ree has made several trips to Columbus since becoming the NHL's director of youth development and the ambassador for NHL Diversity in 1998, and every time he comes to town he is impressed with the work being done to promote the game at the youth level, particularly by the Columbus Ice Hockey Club.

Founded in 1999, the CIHC is a non-profit program that provides an opportunity for inner-city and economically disadvantaged children to participate in hockey. The CIHC, in conjunction with Columbus Recreation and Parks and with support from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Chiller Ice Rinks and corporate and private donors, runs year-round hockey and skating programs.

On his latest trip to Columbus from Nov. 6-8, O'Ree, who was the first black player in NHL history, spoke at four elementary schools and took part in an on-ice hockey clinic at the Dispatch Ice Haus with members of the CIHC, which is the official NHL Diversity team of the Blue Jackets.

Players from teams in the Capital Amateur Hockey Association, Columbus Chill Youth Hockey Association, Easton Youth Hockey Association and Newark Ice Hockey Association also participated in the clinic.

"When I first started, I believe there were approximately five or six programs (in the NHL Diversity program) and now there are 39 programs in North America," O'Ree said. "I think (the CIHC) is one of the top two or three programs.

"(The CIHC) brought four teams to the Hockey in the Hood tournament last February in Detroit and no other program brought four teams. It just goes to show that they're doing very well and they're exposing a lot of kids to hockey and getting them on the ice."

John Haferman, an employee with Columbus Recreation and Parks, co-founded the CIHC with Jeff Christian and now serves as its program director. Christian left the CIHC several years ago to become director of Ice Hockey in Harlem -- an NHL Diversity program in New York City and the model by which he helped create the CIHC -- but since has stepped down from that position, though he still serves for it as a volunteer.

Haferman said the numbers of participants in the CIHC has been on the rise since the end of the NHL lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. The participants, mostly boys, range in age from 4 to 18 and the majority are African-American.

Haferman said the CIHC typically meets twice a week and that the members of its learn-to-skate program usually meet once a week.

"We had a lot of steam going into (the 2004-05 season) and then the (lockout) hit and we ended up picking up the pieces," Haferman said. "With the (lockout), we lost our budget. We literally went from about 125 to 130 kids to 15 or 20, so it hit us hard. But now our numbers are really increasing. We're now back to where we were five years in.

"In our summer program, we probably had about 1,600 kids participate. But in our actual hockey program, there are probably about 80 to 90 in our learn-to-skate (program) and another 65 to 70 that in the program, so roughly between 130 and 140."

Haferman is impressed by what the CIHC has accomplished in the last nine years.

"The most amazing thing is, there was never any thought as to how far this program could go, where are we going to be in 10 years?" he said. "It was just, 'Let's give some kids an opportunity to play hockey."

One of the players who got an opportunity to learn the game of hockey through the CIHC was 2008 St. Charles Preparatory School graduate Darryl Mason, who played varsity for four seasons and is considering playing club at the University of Cincinnati.

"I started out with this group when I was 8 years old and I worked my way up," Mason said. "When I was in eighth grade, I played for a bantam team and did well, and then I played varsity for four years at St. Charles."

Mason, who is African-American, has worked as both a paid and volunteer instructor with the CIHC.

"It's great giving back to a program that has done so much for me," he said. "It's a very diverse program. It doesn't matter the color of your skin. And it's just not diverse as far as skin color goes, it's diverse as far as money goes. Hockey is an expensive sport and lot of people don't have the money to play it."

Mason is honored to have had the opportunity to meet O'Ree through the CIHC. O'Ree, who was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, broke the NHL's color barrier as a winger with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958, in Montreal.

"In 2002, I was a Willie O'Ree All-Star and I got to meet him," Mason said. "It was a great experience. Seeing him now and having him recognize me is a really great feeling because he is the 'Jackie Robinson of hockey.' To say that you've met him and you know him, that's pretty special."

Haferman said Mason is one of the CIHC's many success stories. Another example is Ahmad Kalash, who played for the Westerville Warcats high-school club team last season and this season is playing for the Rhinelander (Wis.) Daggers of the Wisconsin Junior Hockey League, an independent junior A league.

"He's our first kid who has ever played juniors," Haferman said of Kalash. "It makes me really proud to see these kids stick to it."

O'Ree said Gerald Coleman may be the biggest success story. A former participant of the NHL Diversity program in Chicago, P.U.C.K. (Providing Underprivileged Communities and Kids), Coleman was drafted 224th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning as a goaltender in the 2003 entry draft and appeared in two NHL games during the 2005-06 season. He now is in the San Jose Sharks' system.

"He stayed with hockey and was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning," O'Ree said of Coleman. "He's an example of a kid who set a goal for himself, stayed focused on what he wanted to do and he made it. He's a good role model, not only for black kids, but anyone who wants to play the sport."

O'Ree said the NHL is committed to doing all it can to introduce as many underprivileged youths as possible to the sport.

"Our motto is 'Hockey is for Everyone,'" he said. "We will not turn any boy or girl away regardless of whether they can afford the cost or not. It's about $50 a year to outfit each boy or girl with the proper equipment and they're registered with USA Hockey and we have volunteers that will pick up the boys and girls at their homes and brings them to the rink if they can't get there. The program works."

But donations, both corporate and private, are needed to keep programs such as the CIHC going.

"We have about 120 sets of equipment that we've already given out and we're actually in the process of going back to the NHL Players Association for another donation," Haferman said. "The Blue Jackets Foundation has always given us help. They've been our main contributor, and they've helped us garner donations from the NHL Players Association and (General Motors Corp.), which was our first big donation back in 2000."

Haferman said Chiller Ice Rinks also has been generous.

"We've been able to get two price cuts, which is a tremendous asset," he said. "In the summertime, they gave us a 65 percent price cut so that we were able to bring 1,600 kids to skate. This fall, we're being sponsored by them. The cost of the learn-to-skate (program) has been cut in half, so we're able to get twice as many kids out there than we've ever been able to, so the Chillers and (Chiller director of sales and programs) Jeremy Rogers are another key contributor to our program."

Anyone interested in making a donation to the CIHC may contact Haferman at (614) 206-8784 or may visit the program's Web site at www.columbushockeyclub.com.

"We always take donations," he said. "We're a 501(c)3 (non-profit program), so we can give a tax credit to anybody who donates to our program, whether it's cash or equipment."