Tough Guy
Ed Snider, the man who gave life to the NHL’s most notorious franchise, desperately wants to bring the Stanley Cup back to Philadelphia. He has another goal—this one kinder, nobler but no less ambitious: to help the city’s at-risk youth earn a better life
by Bill Donahue

Even the toughest players to don the orange and black of the Philadelphia Flyers—from Dave Schultz to Rick Tocchet to Wayne Simmonds—show him deference. In every interview, in every mention, men who earn a living in measures of blood, sweat and broken bones refer to him respectfully, even quietly, as “Mr. Snider.”

Ed Snider, the man who brought professional ice hockey to South Philadelphia, has built a franchise notorious for doing whatever it takes—dropping the gloves to fight an opponent as a way to turn the tide of a game, playing through pain and sickness, even blocking 100-mile-per-hour slapshots (to the face, if needed, as now-retired forward Ian Laperrière did, rather famously, during the Flyers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010)—to gut out a win.

Snider, a native of the Washington, D.C., area, originally came to Philadelphia in 1964 as a vice president with the Philadelphia Eagles. Since founding the Flyers franchise in 1967, his teams have brought two championships home to Philly and endeared themselves to scores of rabidly passionate fans, from the northernmost Philadelphia suburbs to the southernmost tip of the Jersey Shore.  

Yet Snider, 80, has done much more with his considerable resources than relentlessly pursue the hardest-earned trophy in all of professional sports. Yes, he has been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and the Flyers Hall of Fame, and he continues to lead one of the country’s most successful sports-and-entertainment companies as chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, which owns the Flyers. Even so, some of Snider’s greatest achievements have happened away from the ice … at least away from the ice of Wells Fargo Center, where the Flyers now play, or its predecessor, the much-revered Philadelphia Spectrum.

Eight years ago he created the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation to improve the quality of life for underserved populations living in the Philadelphia area, including some who have never before seen a hockey game. Its purpose: to use ice hockey—a game traditionally played by kids from white, middle-class families—as a tool for teaching lessons about competition, sportsmanship and hard work to boys and girls from Philadelphia’s inner-city neighborhoods. (Executives hope to soon expand deeper into the likes of Camden, N.J., and Chester.) In addition to the athletic curriculum, children enrolled in the program also hone their strengths in more essential parts of their lives, specifically in matters of academics and character development.

The foundation has grown to offer programming at rinks throughout Philadelphia and parts of South Jersey, including the Laura Sims Skate House at Cobbs Creek Park in West Philadelphia, Rizzo Rink in South Philadelphia and Scanlon Ice Rink in Kensington, as well as the Flyers Skate Zones in Northeast Philadelphia, Pennsauken, N.J., and Voorhees, N.J. At these locations it provides full protective equipment, ice time and experienced coaching—all of which can be expensive even for kids from affluent families—to more than 3,000 children, at no charge to them or their families. The benefits to the boys and girls involved, however, extend far beyond the ability to stickhandle and body check.

Snider, who has become known for his intensity and desire to win, clearly has a softer side; for every $1 donated to the foundation, he donates $2 of his own, and his contributions far exceed dollars and cents. Through a long-term partnership with the city of Philadelphia, the foundation has taken on responsibility for overseeing a number of rinks that were once considered for closure, and has also renovated a number of outdoor rinks as a way to offer year-round programming.

We spoke with Mr. Snider about the foundation’s beginnings and goals for the future, his early years and his expectations for the Flyers season—one rife with both promise and anticipation, considering the fact that last season’s squad missed the playoffs for just the second time since 1994.

Prior to the season’s start, Snider admitted to being “more excited this year than I have been in a long time,” due to the team’s potential and the off-season additions of “three outstanding players” in goaltender Ray Emery, forward Vincent Lecavalier and defenseman Mark Streit. Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan, however. The team lost its first three games of the season, which cost Peter Laviolette his job as head coach, and the team continued to struggle in the immediate aftermath of the shakeup. But over the years the Flyers have shown tremendous heart and resiliency—much like the man who brought the franchise to life nearly 50 years ago.


Suburban Life: Why did you decide to create the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation?
Ed Snider: I was trying for years to figure out how to help kids in the inner city. I always felt that their condition—and the condition of the inner city—is pretty sad, and I wanted to do something. The best way I knew to do that was through hockey. I grew up in a rough neighborhood; I was in a gang for protection and there were fistfights. Now these kids aren’t dealing with just fistfights but guns and the threat of being killed. I knew how scared I was growing up. Imagine living someplace where getting shot and killed was always a threat; that would be a pretty horrible way to grow up day in and day out.

SL: It’s not just about teaching kids about hockey and how to play hockey. What did you see as the most important lessons for kids to learn in the program?
ES: [Hockey] is the hook; you get the kids in and they love it. In order to participate, you have to get good grades. We help them with homework, we teach them the right skills, and the results are incredible. I think 97 to 98 percent of the kids who are involved matriculate to the next grade, compared to 50 percent of the population [elsewhere].

With the programs at the four city rinks, we have a 20-year agreement with the city, in conjunction with the state, and we have invested $6.5 million to turn them into magnificent year-round rinks. They were part-time rinks, run only from November to March, and now they’re year-round. It’s been a phenomenal partnership.

SL: Was there something in your life that taught you values such as character, competitiveness and tenacity? Or did simply growing up where you did teach you those things?
ES: I think it did. It toughened me up a little bit. I grew up around Washington, D.C., in Alexandria, Va. It was during the Second World War, and other than that time I lived in nice neighborhoods. It made me a little tougher, and I think I understand a little where kids are coming from. It was a different time then, though.

SL: Are there any foundation success stories in particular that stand out for you?

ES: There was one young woman I took an interest in. (See sidebar.) It was the first year of the foundation, and she was skating at [one of our rinks], and she wrote me a letter saying that before the foundation she had no hope in life. I decided I wanted to know who this young lady was. To make a long story short, she stayed in the program, and we helped her get into West Chester University. She’s a defenseman on the hockey team, and last year they won the national championship at their level. She’s on the dean’s list, and she has turned into a magnificent woman. That’s a story I know personally, but we as organization take an interest in every kid.

SL: Are you pleased with how the foundation has grown over the past eight years?
ES: The hockey program has worked out beyond my wildest dreams, and we’ve accomplished a lot more this soon by virtue of the city deciding to close four or five city rinks. We stepped in and run them at our own expense. The city was grateful, and it worked out well for us because you didn’t have city rinks right in the heart of where the people were that we want to serve.

SL: What happens next with the foundation?
ES: We want to continue with what we’re doing, and continue to serve more kids. Our goal is to someday have 10,000 kids in the program, and right now have 3,000. It will require more rinks and spreading our wings further. We want to serve the entire Delaware Valley, growing in places like Chester and Camden, and we have other things ahead that will be opportunities for growth.

SL: It’s been almost 50 years since the Flyers started playing in Philadelphia. How’s the experiment going?
ES: [Laughs.] I doubt I’d call it an experiment. It’s the best thing in my life other than my children. We keep trying for another Cup. I never realized how hard it would be to get back there.

SL: Every Flyers player I’ve interviewed—past and present—has wonderful things to say about the organization, specifically mentioning you by name. What about the culture here makes it so special?
ES: We’ve treated the organization like a family. We have a great alumni group, which we’ve always supported; I would match our alumni up with any in professional sports. We look after our own. I can’t tell you how many ex-Flyers we have working for us—in the front office, in the buildings we manage and run, things of that nature. We make sure our people are taken care of. It’s a rough sport, and we always appreciate everything they do for us.   

Taking Shots
“Leap of faith” pays dividends for foundation alumna Virlen Reyes

When Virlen Reyes took the ice for the very first time, she can admit it was not a graceful sight. “I kept stumbling,” she says, but she kept working at it, and over the years she developed into an elite hockey player, now competing at the collegiate level. She considers this early experience a perfect metaphor for the most important lesson she learned from the organization that introduced her to the game, the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation.

“I didn’t know what was going on at all,” she recalls from her early days skating at Scanlon Ice Rink in Kensington. “I take it as a moment that is going to define you in how you take on things in life, how you can take the potentiality and do something extraordinary. You’re hit with a situation, and you’re stumbling here and there, but perseverance is the key. Over time you smooth the rough edges out.”

Reyes’ once-rough edges are now as keen as a sharpened skate blade. As a junior at West Chester University, she plays forward and defense for the school’s Division I women’s ice hockey team—her team won the national championship last year—while working toward her undergraduate degree in philosophy. Once she graduates, she expects to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy, an interest formed by her volunteer work with World War II veterans.

This Kensington native’s future, however, was not always so rosy. In 2005, as a 13-year-old middle schooler, she had a turbulent family life and rudderless academic career, with no definable skill set, no strong interests and no idea of where life would take her. Then her gym teacher told her about the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, which at the time was in its first year of existence.

“Ice hockey—I never even thought about it, but I took the risk and didn’t look back,” she says. “It was a defining moment. That moment of saying yes to being a participant changed everything for me; it changed my perspective. I was not a hockey fan at all; it was the first time I ever laced up any type of skates. The sport hooked me, but what kept me going were the life skills I learned. It wasn’t till I was more educated via the foundation, where people were telling me to get good grades and watch what is going to happen. They kept saying, ‘It might not make sense now, but it will afterwards.’”

In addition to sharing the fundamentals of shooting and passing the puck, the foundation coaches helped Reyes become a better student and taught her to “work hard for what you want,” she says. With their guidance, she took Advanced Placement courses in American history, English, environmental science and statistics, and she also prepared intensely for the SAT, to improve her chances of getting into a good college. She describes this as another “leap of faith” that ultimately paid off.

“Whenever I think I have to do something that’s beyond me, I think about what Ed Snider did,” she says. “I’m sure there were moments when he or someone else from the organization thought there was something beyond them, no matter how difficult it was, but they made that action and took that step to get over whatever problems were in front of them.”

Such determination and grittiness have influenced all facets of Reyes’ life, including the way she plays the game. In describing her on-ice persona, she says she likes to “get in the corners, because those are the times that show the type of strength you have, when you get down in your life and have no space to go.” She credits foundation executives such as Jim Britt, Jan Koziara and Scott Tharp for her transformation. Above all, however, she professes the deepest admiration for the foundation’s namesake, Ed Snider.

“I couldn’t even try to describe that man’s integrity,” she says. “Anything he puts forth, it’s just amazing. … I cannot fathom my life without the foundation, but I can imagine the never-ending pendulum of strong and amazing children that are going to become leaders from the organization.”