The Ice May Be Synthetic, But the Dreams Are Real

Topline Hockey hopes to make the glide path to the NHL easier for New York City kids.


The road to the National Hockey League is a slippery one in the best of circumstances. And if you’re a hockey player from one of the five boroughs of New York City, you might as well consider that road closed unless you’re willing to ignore the Stop signs, smash through barriers, and have enough money and time to navigate every toll along the way.

“It’s not easy,” Staten Island native Kevin Labanc, a right wing for the San Jose Sharks, tells the Voice. “It’s long road trips and you’re always traveling. I remember I was fortunate enough to be playing out of Jersey, and my furthest travel was maybe two hours for a hockey game, but I know that if you’re playing in the Brooklyn League or New York [City], you’ve got to travel all the way out to Westchester and even Buffalo. You’re just trying to make the most of it.”

That’s dedication, but then again, most aspiring players start out with plenty of that. What isn’t as prevalent in the Big Apple is getting consistent ice time and having parents with the time, means, and willingness to buy the equipment, take those long road trips, and sit in empty rinks while their kid chases his dream. Another Staten Island native, Toronto Maple Leafs left winger Zach Aston-Reese, knew what he wanted from the time he was out of diapers: “There’s actually a home video, probably from 1997 or 1998, and I’m blowing bubbles outside and my mom asked what I wanted to be. I said, ‘A hockey player,’” recalls the 28-year-old, in conversation with the Voice. “So they kind of always encouraged me. And it’s something that I always wanted to be, ever since I was three years old.

“I’ve got to tip the cap off to my parents,” Aston-Reese continues. “They put in so many hours driving. I played travel hockey in Jersey when I was 13, so it was a lot of long car rides from Staten Island, a lot of long road trips, a lot of money spent on me. So I was definitely lucky enough to have the resources to do it.”

Many don’t, making the idea of an NYC native becoming an NHL player as likely as becoming the best water polo player in Brooklyn. It’s a tall task, maybe an impossible ask, for someone who might have the talent but doesn’t have everything else needed to move forward. Better off to take your athletic talents to a basketball court, baseball diamond, or football field. 

But that was yesterday. On March 16, Topline Hockey joined the local conversation about producing Division I college and NHL-level talent in the city, as they opened their performance center in Long Island City’s City Ice building, on 32nd Place. Already home to a respected program in Newburgh, north of the city, run by former college/pro players Justin Selman, Connor Leen, RJ Burns, and New York Rangers vet Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, Topline has been a one-stop hockey shop for nearly a decade for everyone from aspiring pros to adults looking to recapture their youth. Adam Gaudette and Nick Lappin are two alumni who even made it to the NHL. 

Now Topline wants to tackle the big city, with a performance center that will include synthetic ice (made from a self-lubricating plastic compound), a weight training center, a recovery lounge, and classroom space.

“Justin and I and Boo and some of the other members on the team have a heavy presence down in the New York City area, and it just felt like the natural progression to get a space that was a little bit more convenient for us, something that we’d be able to staff 24/7 with multiple coaches that have all played at a high level,” says Leen, whose on-ice career took him from the University of Maine and the Pittsburgh Penguins organization to Italy’s Sportivi Ghiaccio Cortina, in Central Europe’s Alps Hockey League. “It just seemed like the natural fit for us. Queens doesn’t really have this type of training available, and it was a new market for us and something that we really thought would work.”

There have been rinks, hockey programs, and leagues, but nowhere in the five boroughs could this kind of intensive hockey training previously be found, at least not all in one facility: ice time with elite coaches, strength and conditioning, and recovery work, as well as mental health programs. A player going all-in in search of the training that will turn hockey from a hobby to a career can now find it a train or bus ride away.

 Despite this new accessibility, the training is still not cheap, with prices dependent on the programs requested. Group sessions range from $75 to $90 per session, private lessons from $150 to $200, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel for those who don’t have that kind of discretionary income: Topline’s affiliation with the 43 Oak Foundation, which seeks to promote “educational development of young athletes who are either minorities or underprivileged, through the sport of ice hockey.”


“Everyone was like, ‘Wow, you’re from New York?’” Aston-Reese says, laughing. “I was this big cool guy from New York.”


So, is the next Sidney Crosby, P.K. Subban, or Grant Fuhr somewhere in the Queensbridge Houses? It’s possible, and Leen and company would like to find out.

“That’s been one of our main areas of focus,” says Leen. “When we first opened Topline, we started working, pretty much from day one, with 43 Oak. And through that foundation, they’re able to sponsor and donate tons of money to players that are in similar situations, whether it’s a kid who’s just joining youth hockey and needs the funding and backing for that and doesn’t have the equipment, or if it’s a kid that’s ready to go play prep school somewhere. And then running in parallel with that, we’ve been able to heavily discount any additional training that these kids want, and sometimes we’ll go run clinics for free just to give back and to better the community and everything around it.”

It’s an untapped market, for sure, one that could remove the stigma attached to being a hockey player from New York City: A few decades ago, when yet another native Staten Islander, Nick Fotiu, was taking to the ice as a popular, brawling forward for his hometown Rangers, the prevailing view was that American players weren’t as good as their counterparts from Canada or Russia. Yet as the coaching and training improved, that prejudice has faded. Now Topline wants to erase completely the stereotype that if you’re a New Yorker, you’re not as good as the kid who grew up on the ice in Minnesota or Michigan. “I think you’ll slowly start to see New York City players really start to explode and not leave the borough so quickly, if they put their trust in our training and stick around,” says Leen. 

Players like Labanc and Aston-Reese didn’t have that option when they were coming up. Labanc, 27, played in several leagues throughout the country before making it to “the show.” Aston-Reese was on the road from an early age too, going to Lincoln Southeast High School, in Nebraska, while he pursued his hockey career with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL, becoming quite the celebrity to his classmates before heading to Northeastern University.

“Everyone was like, ‘Wow, you’re from New York?’” Aston-Reese says, laughing. “I was this big cool guy from New York, so that was actually quite the nice experience for myself.”

It wasn’t home, though, and the road life isn’t easy for anyone. Leen and his partners in Topline have all been through it, and even though the option is now there for young players to make their bones in the sport locally, focusing on what happens off the ice is just as important for those looking to take things to the next level, whether that level is the NHL or just a vehicle to getting a free college education.


 If a tree grows in Brooklyn, why not an NHL player in Queens?


“As much as hockey could be an outlet physically, we’re trying to also provide a mental outlet for these kids and athletes, to broaden their horizons and introduce them to what the sport can offer you outside of the rink,” says Selman, who was a co-captain with Nieves at the University of Michigan before going on to a successful pro career, signing with the St. Louis Blues organization. “It can be a college scholarship or a high school scholarship, and all these opportunities open doors for you for the rest of your life. You meet people and there’s connections made in the sport that inevitably 10 years down the road could be someone you’re interviewing with for a job or something like that. So we’re teaching these kids and athletes life skills. We’re trying to show them the importance of leadership and teamwork and how they can basically be in society now, with everything that’s gone on the past few years with the pandemic. It’s a chance to be social, work hard around similar athletes, and put all that stuff to good use.”

So, needless to say, it’s more than hockey. And if a tree grows in Brooklyn, why not an NHL player in Queens? For two players who did make it down that long and winding road to the pinnacle of their sport, something like Topline could have made that trip a little bit easier.

“It would’ve been incredible,” says Labanc. “The more help you get, the better off you are. And I think that with the experience that those guys have, they can educate the kids and try and help them, whether it be shooting, skating, and just their overall hockey game, and trying to help the kids become better players and hopefully live out their dream and play in the NHL one day.”

“I think it’s just huge to have another program,” concludes Aston-Reese. “Accessibility is huge, and a lot of the programs I was fortunate enough to be a part of when I was little aren’t around. So I think just having a good quality place where you’re young and you’re able to grow and have fun and fall in love with the sport is huge.”  

Thomas Gerbasi is an award-winning boxing writer who has still found time to write about less violent pursuits, such as roller derby and music, for publications such as The Daily BeastKO63 Music on Medium, and Rolling Stone Australia.


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