When Jamal Mayers stands in front of a group of schoolchildren in his role as community liaison for the Blackhawks, he often sees a 10-year-old version of himself looking back.
Mayers sees the child who grew up in a single-parent home in Toronto whose mother struggled to make ends meet while raising him. He sees a boy who at 10 couldn’t play hockey because it was too expensive for both of Doreen Mayers’ sons to play, so older brother Al got the first opportunity.
So upon retirement from the NHL after 15 seasons, including his final two with the Hawks, Mayers could have settled for concentrating on his career as a TV analyst while being a devoted father to his three children.
Instead, Mayers spends much of his time visiting schools and putting on clinics — many in the inner city — to introduce hockey at the grass-roots level to kids who otherwise might not have the opportunity to try the sport as part of the G.O.A.L. (Get Out and Learn) program.
“It has been very rewarding,” Mayers said. “I get to meet all kinds of kids who never would think of putting a hockey stick in their hands. I see their smiles and I see them learning life skills.
“And there’s something to be said for trying something you’re afraid of trying. To see these kids with a stick in their hands was important to me. Let’s face it, hockey is an expensive sport. If we can start with these kids getting the love and the passion for the game by playing ball hockey in their gym class, that passion is going to grow.”
More than 72,000 children at 105 area schools, including 80 in Chicago, participate in G.O.A.L. and Mayers is at the forefront. During a recent visit to Skinner North Classical School just west of downtown, Mayers was all smiles as he interacted with kids in a classroom while they showed him their work in a computer lab and during an assembly. Along with Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, he fielded questions about the fitness and dedication it takes to play hockey.
For Mayers, who won the Stanley Cup with the Hawks in 2013, experiences like that hit home.Mayers’ eagerness to help youths discover themselves — and hockey — made him the perfect fit as the Hawks’ liaison, said team President John McDonough, who along with Chairman Rocky Wirtz has stressed the organization’s involvement in the community.
“There’s a certain, natural ease about Jamal that’s very disarming,” McDonough said. “He’s a pro athlete and there’s no ego attached to it. We always thought this would be a good opportunity for him. He’s a perfect fit for us in the community.”
As one of the few African-Americans to have played in the NHL, Mayers called interacting with minority children “a byproduct” instead of a focus.”It’s more about the kids who don’t have access,” Mayers, 41, said. “It’s about kids who are underprivileged.”Mayers is thrilled about the Hawks’ new practice facility not far from the United Center that will feature a rink dedicated to youth hockey.
“That’s the next step when you look at Rocky’s vision with the extra sheet of ice and what that can mean for the city of Chicago,” Mayers said. “Getting these kids who are playing street hockey to that facility and giving them equipment to play hockey is amazing.”It has made the move to a post-playing career that much easier.”It makes me think back to when I was a kid,” Mayers said. “I love doing this.”