Two months ago, members of Clark Park's Learn to Skate team in southwest Detroit were just getting their bearings on ice but lately the sound of their skates scraping the ice is regular occurrence. This weekend, they and other children and adults from the community will have a chance to see pros masterfully take over the ice during the Detroit Red Wings' outdoor community practice session, part of a national Hockey Weekend Across America series of events.
"It's going to be fun," said Anthony Benavides, the director of the Clark Park Coalition, which supervises the recreation center, including the rink, and next month celebrates its 20th anniversary as a group dedicated to keeping the park as a vital neighborhood resource. "It's good for the community. It's good for Detroit."
Rob Mattina, director of marketing for the Detroit Red Wings, said the notion of an outdoor practice arose during a brainstorming session about Hockey Weekend; the players, the head coach, Mike Babcock, and the general manager, Ken Holland, all loved the idea. "It's a celebration of hockey and its origins," Mattina said. "We all grew up playing on ponds and in public parks." The event will include a short joint drill of the Wings and the TimBits minor league hockey team.
The special practice will give fans a chance to watch the Wings prepare for Sunday's home game against the San Jose Sharks and is open to the first 2,000 people who show up. Those attending are asked to bring canned goods to benefit the Gleaners Food Bank, a minimum of a $2 donation to the Clark Park Coalition or pre-owned hockey equipment to donate to Clark Park and the Detroit Hockey Association. Event organizers are installing special temporary observation areas to accommodate all the spectators. Al Sobotka, the team's Zamboni driver, will also be on hand to give the ice rink a professional touch.
The event comes at a time when the city of Detroit's well-publicized budget problems have led to officials' weighing severe cutbacks to the parks and recreation system and even closure of some parks. "The city of Detroit is in financial crisis and that affects the city of Detroit Recreation Department as well," said Deb Sumner, a founder of the Clark Park Coalition. Parent Virginia Zeigler, who lives in the neighborhood, is concerned that if Clark Park were to close, drug activity would increase. "The only thing that's going to hold it back is something else to get the kids attention," she said.
Sumner first got involved as an advocate for the park in the summer of 1991, also a time of budget constraints and talk of park closures. First she and other residents worked to counter a wave of drug trafficking by creating a fitness trail there, with signage in English and Spanish. Then as part of the Hubbard Farms Community Group, she asked police officers to increase their presence in the park. Finally she banded together with Benavides and high school teacher Ziggy Gonzalez to form the Clark Park Coalition. The group worked with Hubbard Farms Community, the Holy Redeemer Church and police to try to save the park from closure. Hank Aguirre, a former Detroit Tiger and the owner of auto parts supplier Mexican Industries, helped convince the Detroit Recreation Department to hand over the recreation center's keys to the new group and preserve some city funding.
Over the years, the coalition picked up more volunteers, including local kids who pitch in with maintaining the park. Now the coalition runs the park with minimal assistance from the city, which still pays for utilities, trash pickup and lawn maintenance. Sumner calls the park's revival "an absolute 100 percent transformation."
"We have been able to invest, improve, repair and restore," Sumner said. "We have touched ... thousands of children's lives over the last 20 years. And a lot of them have come back with their children to become part of the park."
Next on the coalition's agenda: reducing energy and water consumption."We're thinking about bringing air chillers to cool water. We think we can reduce water, utility costs, gas and lights by insulating the recreation center," Sumner said. "With LED lighting, we believe we could see an enormous savings in energy costs."
Plus the coalition will work to vigorously counter any new attempt to close the park The alternative is simply unthinkable to Sumner. "We will not allow the gates to close," she said. "We will not let a negative history repeat itself."
The Red Wings practice starts Saturday at noon. Also as part of Hockey Weekend, the Red Wings are hosting a 24-hour hockey marathon on Saturday, with various local community groups skating at the Joe Louis Arena.
The Clark Park Coalition's 20th anniversary celebration starts March 2 at 5 p.m. with a fund-raising dinner at Armando's restaurant on Vernor Avenue. A winter carnival in the park is planned for March 3, from 12 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., as well as an adult skating party on the rink, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.