When Joe Sullivan learned to skate and played youth hockey in Charlestown, he lived so close to the old rink, that he could hear the scoreboard buzzer from his bedroom at 6 a.m. in the morning.
It gave him just enough time to roll out of bed, crawl into his gear and run over to the rink next door for his 7 a.m. game.
But while he slept those early mornings, a whole crew of adults volunteered their time tirelessly every weekend to clear the ice and shovel out the benches alongside the rink (as it had no sides back then and was an outdoor rink with a chain-link fence around it). Those same adults would referee the games, coach the games and teach the young hockey players without much in return.
Sullivan said he never thought about their dedication all that much until he got older and realized how much people had done for him. Now, with both of his girls having progressed through the ranks of the Charlestown Youth Hockey Association (CYHA), he is happily “paying it forward” to a whole new generation of skaters in the same building (albeit now enclosed and modernized) as the instructor of the weekly Learn to Skate program.
“I grew up right across the street, and my mother brought me across to the rink to learn to skate when I was 3,” he recalled this week. “I was the ultimate rink rat. Fast forward several years and I had my own kids grow up learning to skate and play hockey there too. Now for the past 10 years or so I’ve been volunteering with the Learn to Skate. I do it because I thought back on my time as a kid. A lot of people volunteered their time for me. You take that for granted as a kid. But once you’re an adult, you think back and you realize that folks did so much and gave so much time for us to have an outlet – whether that was hockey or Little League.”
Nowadays, Sullivan – and many times his adult daughter Alyssa – can be found on the ice at Emmons Horrigan O’Neil Rink every Saturday teaching kids ages 4-5, some as young as 3, how to skate. It’s a volunteer effort that he said he gets as much out of as the kids he’s teaching.
“On Saturday at 1 p.m. and afterward when I get into my car, I’m all smiles,” he said. “My wife and kids tell me that I like it more than the kids do. I still get the high-fives and fist bumps from the older kids when they see me, and they remember me and say, ‘Hey Coach.’ I don’t even recognize some of these kids because they’re much bigger, but they remember me. If the kids continue in hockey, great. If they don’t, they’ll still have the skill of skating all their lives.”
In his program, Sullivan said he doesn’t rely on teaching with milk crates or tripods, but rather with getting up and falling down. He said when he learned to skate on the same sheet of ice, it was about learning while falling, and then gaining confidence. Once kids have confidence on skates, they can relax and begin to learn to run, glide and stop. That’s when the fun starts and that’s about where the current program is at right now.
Calling it “organized chaos,” Sullivan said the Learn to Skate program has really taken off with future hockey players and kids who just want to get comfortable on skates.
“One thing that is really noteworthy to me is when we first started, we maybe had around 30 or 40 kids a week,” he said. “This year, when they contacted me, they had about 83 to 85 kids. I think this last weekend we had 80-plus kids on the ice ages 3 to 7. I think that’s worth noting.”
While the kids love to learn from Sullivan and his helpers – which this weekend will include a special annual visit from Santa Claus on skates – the adults around the rink have also come to appreciate his role in the Learn to Skate. Sullivan was a coach when his girls played, and even afterward, and steered girls’ teams to five state championships. Yet, in this role he said he is more invigorated to help the young kids and give back what he got as a kid. That wasn’t something that fell from the sky, he said, but rather a realization over a period of time.
“As an adult now, it’s my chance to pay it forward,” he said. “Hockey is my thing. I grew up across the street. When they started a Learn to Skate program, I agreed to do it…I love to give back to the community and this program and give back the things that were given to me as a kid in the Town. I even get to do that in the same building that I learned to skate in 54 years ago when I was 3.”
Now, as he gives back to the kids, he’s hoping that other young people he taught years ago will also step forward – and that a continuous loop of volunteers giving back will emerge year after year.
“None of this happens without the volunteers and the people giving up so much of their time,” he said. “I’m not the only one. There are a lot of other people doing the same things. It’s an honor for me and it’s the satisfaction of knowing you made a difference. Then maybe in the future these kids will remember me and want to pay it forward as well. Then we’ll have a whole new generation of coaches and Learn to Skate instructors volunteering their time too.”