Fuelled with excitement and enthusiasm over this being a very rare type of occasion, I booked my plane ticket from Toronto to New York for the next day ✈️!
Booking my flight to New York solidified my commitment to a 3 week road trip to the USA, which some of my soccer friends dubbed an “OpenSports Promotional Tour.” I barely had time to tie up loose ends back home in Toronto or say goodbye to my friends.
About a month ago, we (OpenSports) received confirmation that we were approved for a $4,000 travel grant to go to Philadelphia, Kansas City, and San Francisco! We were brainstorming ideas as absurd and unrealistic as cycling from the East to West Coast to cover a whopping 3,290 miles, to driving the whole distance. Regardless of what on-the-ground mode of transportation we took, we wanted to visit as many cities and sports organizations as possible. With such a tight budget, we soon realized the only feasible option would be to fly and only visit a few major cities that we can continue to make a big splash in. In the 2 weeks leading up to the unbooked trip, James, myself, and Alex started reaching out to as many pickup sports organizers as we could.
One group of contacts I was reaching out to included OpenSports members who had posted a game on the app in the past, and who, since then, stopped using the app:
To my surprise, Gabriel responded relatively quickly and we were speaking on the phone within 1 hour of my initial contact. My basic understanding was that Gabriel hosts several pickup hockey games per week, and uses Whatsapp to organize them (manage rsvp’s, cancellations, etc). He seemed to be looking for a better solution, and asked relevant questions about our features. What if some of my guys don’t want to pay through the app and some do? Can some still pay with cash? I understood this to mean he was genuinely interested in it.
After this call, I did not expect to hear back from Gabriel until the summer time. And now his invitation to the scrimmage forced my decision to come to New York early and hit the ground running!
Within a few hours of arriving in NYC, and an additional message from Gabriel inviting me to the Islander’s game with his group, I found myself at Barclay’s Centre, which I learned is relatively new (built in 2012), was co-designed by Jay-Z, is home to the NY Islanders (Hockey) and Brooklyn Nets (B-ball), and a ton of great concerts. A bit of background research taught me that the Islanders’ home arena was previously in Long Island, and the Long Island fans essentially refuse to make the trip to Brooklyn. The poor Islanders have lost a lot of their following, and games at Barclay’s do not traditionally sell out. Regardless, this place is ridiculously sleek.
My ticket to the Islanders game was neatly folded in a blank envelope with my name on it, waiting for me with a security officer. Upon entering the stadium, and walking closer to my seat during the second intermission, the reality of being a completely random person who is more or less promoting an app, dawned on me. Plus, nobody else was sitting anywhere close to my seat. Weird, I thought. I wonder where Gabriel is? Shoot. I wonder what Gabriel looks like!
Alas, Gabriel and his super fan for the evening — his 5 year old daughter Liat — eventually found their way to my seat, and we chatted during the final period. I tried to make a joke about the game because the Islanders were losing 3–0, so I asked if the score was crushing his soul? He replied very casually that he’s a Capital’s fan and only here for his scrimmage after the NHL game was over!
During the game, Gabriel started to demo the process with which he organizes pickup hockey games on Whatsapp. He opened up Whatsapp on his phone and had to use the search bar to find the group he manages by typing “hockey” while muttering that, you know, the problem is, he has so many hockey-related groups that it’s hard to even find this particular group through the search bar! Delighted to finally find the correct group, he pointed out that there are 71 people in the group that he uses to post his games. He showed me his system. It seemed… rather difficult to manage😅…
He posts a message indicating an upcoming game (Normally within 6 days of the game) →The first 20 ppl to respond are in → If any of them have to cancel, they have to private message him to cancel their RSVP (in a separate chat)→ On the day of the game, he creates 2 teams, and 4 lines on an excel spreadsheet and sends a screen shot of it to the players, through the Whatsapp chat → collects $20 per player (cash) per game just to cover the arena rental cost → since each “pickup season” has 5 games, some of the players just pay $100 to get access to 5 games, to avoid paying $20 cash at every game…
My mind was swirling….71 people… multiple games a week… different payment systems… a pseudo-membership system…How does Gabriel keep track of all of this!!!
He must really enjoy doing this.
I know the time commitment it takes to be this involved in sports as an organizer. And I also know that Gabriel is not trying to profit off of these games, so why is he doing this?
“I only started playing again 1 or 2 years ago. I started organizing a beginner game 4–5 months ago. Many of those beginners improved rather quickly and many had a need for a more intermediate level game. I started to integrate and add other intermediate games to offer a more challenging game for the group.”
As for this particular scrimmage that Gabriel organized at Barclay’s Center, well, it took months of planning, and definitely cost the players a pretty penny! The impetus of this scrimmage was actually a quarter century ago, as Gabriel recalls:
“In 1993, I skated at the Capital Center (Washington Capitals) before an Washington Capitals Skills Competition. At that skills competition, Al Iafrate shot 102 MPH slap shot. He broke his own record a few weeks later at the NHL Skills competition (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBPQnyktSVI), but he held the title for 16 years. It was a day that I will always remember. I wanted other people to have a similar experience. It was fairly easy. A close friend Ian Peters facilitated and dealt with the facility.”
When the Islander’s game ended, Gabriel and his friends jetted from their seats. There was an excited buzz amongst them that I could only imagine was months in the making. They were about to feel like pros!
Fans (myself included) didn’t get an all access pass to the locker/change room area and headed to another section where we awaited the arrival of the 20 hockey players onto the ice. After a bit of restless waiting, eyes glossing over as the Zamboni looped around the ice making several perfect laps, I could finally hear a bit of an enthusiastic buzz coming from the walkway from the change room area.
The grand entrance of the players resembled what I’ve seen at NHL games before… one man at a time glided out, armed with excitement and pride. As they skated towards the board and waved to our little crowd, it was clear that they were very excited to see us — their children, wives, nephews, nieces, friends, and random ol’ me, watching their skates hit the crisp ice. I was imagining how electric this felt for them! Gabriel’s daughter Liat, sitting 3 rows ahead of me, caught my eye and ran up the towards me. She made a point of pointing her dad out on the ice, and reminding me that she’s been here at the arena the whole time. Back and forth the game went, it was pretty evenly matched and was not a high scoring match, but it was evident that everyone was having an amazing time and it felt like a true community event.
When I followed up with Gabriel after the game, there was no doubt in his mind: “I will definitely do it again. I had a waitlist for the last game, and I want as many people as possible to have a similar experience.”
In terms of what’s next besides his upcoming tournament to tackle cancer challenges, Gabriel mentioned to me that he would eventually like to run a league. He hasn’t put a time table yet on the league, and says, “it’s all based on what my guys want”. His idea for the league, “is to simplify the process of organizing the games, and giving guys an opportunity to play with a reasonably mixed skill set.
“My goal is for people to have fun. If they want more games, I will organize them.”
As I reflected on all of this and tried to understand why Gabriel was so welcoming, kind, and generous to me, a complete stranger, by inviting me to to join his friends and family to experience this whole event, I finally made the connection. He will go the extra mile to include anybody who he thinks will enjoy something, and genuinely cares about ensuring people have a great time. I just so happen to always be looking for the next adventure, and this was the perfect opportunity to bridge my love of the community-building aspect of sports, with travel. I will forever appreciate this experience and remember it as an important and unique one on our journey:) Thank you so much, Gabriel, and to your entire group of friends and family who collectively made this such a special night in NYC.
Please make sure you check out the two-day RCCS Classic Tournament webpage, which is still accepting donations. “The mission of RCCS is to tackle cancer challenges, ease medical treatment, cover insurance premiums to lighten the financial burden and make cancer care more accessible.” Good luck!!
If you’d like to know more about my travels through the US meeting amazing recreational sports organizers and groups like Gabriel, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you so much for reading :)