BOSTON – Ayodele Adeniye walked around the Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend events in Boston recently, holding proof of what can be.
The 23-year-old Hockey is for Everyone alumnus was showing kids a replica of the NCAA Division III championship trophy he won as a defenseman for Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan, which defeated the State University of New York Geneseo 5-2 in the title game at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, New York, on March 26.
“This shows that literally anything is possible,” said Adeniye, who learned to play with the Columbus Ice Hockey Club in Columbus, Ohio. “Like Willie says, ‘If you say you can, you can. If you say you can’t, you’re probably right.’ It’s a mindset. “
John Haferman, CIHC’s executive director, said Adeniye becoming an NCAA champion is inspirational not only to participants in his program but to other Hockey is for Everyone affiliates across the United States and Canada.
Hockey is for Everyone is a network of 26 independent non-profit youth hockey organizations in more than 40 locations in North America that use the sport to improve the lives and communities of underrepresented, underserved and marginalized populations.
“You need to have somebody who can say, ‘Look, this can be attained,'” Haferman said. “We never had anyone (with CIHC) make it to an NCAA team before, so just for ‘Ayo’ to play, then all of a sudden, wow, he’s a national champion? You can’t take that away, that’s a piece of history. It gives us that spark. ”
Adeniye said he has been able to achieve and overcome obstacles, setbacks and naysayers on and off the ice by following the hockey gospel of O’Ree, who has mentored him since he was 6 years old.
O’Ree became the NHL’s first Black player on Jan. 18, 1958, when he debuted with the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum.
He played 45 NHL games over two seasons (1957-58, 1960-61) and scored 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) despite being legally blind in his right eye, the result of a sustained injury playing junior hockey.
Adeniye has been able to advance in hockey despite being born with misaligned eyes.
“I’ve had seven eye surgeries so I kind of relate to him in a way,” he said of O’Ree. “Seeing what he’s been able to do inspires me to reach my dream and, hopefully, play in the NHL.”
Adeniye has traveled across North America chasing that dream, playing on AAA and junior teams in Ohio, Florida, New Jersey, Iowa and Carleton Place of the Central Canada Hockey League.
He achieved a goal of playing NCAA Division I hockey when he skated for the University of Alabama at Huntsville in 2020-21; he had no points in 21 games.
But Adeniye endured an offseason of uncertainty after the university abruptly suspended the only Division I hockey program in the southeastern United States on May 5, 2021, after failing to secure a long-term conference affiliation.
“It was a crazy, surreal year,” Adeniye said. “When I got the phone call that we weren’t going to be a team anymore, it just motivated me more. I’ve been through so much stuff that I was just, like, ‘We’ll see what happens.'”
Adeniye entered the NCAA transfer portal, where athletes from all three NCAA divisions post notices of their intention to transfer and where coaches can search for players.
He was looking for a home hockey. Adrian coach Adam Krug was looking for a big-bodied, right shot, defensive defenseman who plays a simple game and can devour a lot of minutes.
“I spoke to the Huntsville guys and reached out to Carleton Place where he played junior hockey and, ultimately, it seemed like Ayo was going to be a good fit,” said Krug, St. John’s brother. Louis Blues defenseman Torey Krug and former minor league defenseman Matt Krug.
Adeniye scored 10 points (one goal, nine assists) in 28 regular season games, and quickly became a fan favorite on a team that went 31-1 during the regular season.
“You know our guys love him, our coaching staff loves him,” Krug said. “My son plays 8U hockey for the Toledo Cherokee and I hear about Ayo from those guys all the time.”
Krug said Adeniye brought a stylish confidence to Adrian’s lineup from the short dreadlocks flowing from his helmet to the colorful wraps he wore on his skates to match Adrian’s home, away or specialty jerseys.
Adeniye, a member of the College Hockey for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion committee that formed in 2021, said it’s his way of trying to change hockey culture.
“I just hope that it turns a couple of heads, changes the game, maybe brings a couple of different kids from different backgrounds into hockey because they like the fashion aspect,” he said.
Adeniye said he also wants to be a change agent by becoming the next player from an NHL diversity program to play in the NHL.
Gerald Coleman, a goalie who played in a HIFE predecessor known as NHL Diversity, became the first with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Nov. 11, 2005, when he played the third period of a 5-2 loss at the Atlanta Thrashers.
Coleman, selected by the Lightning in the seventh round (No. 224) of the 2003 NHL Draft, appeared in one other NHL game, when he played 23:16 in a 6-5 overtime loss at the Florida Panthers on March 20, 2006 .
“Everyone says, ‘Sit back, enjoy the championship,'” Adeniye said. “I’m trying to do that, but I’m still looking towards the future, man, because this isn’t the end of what I want to do.”
Photos: Adrian College Athletics, Gabe Haferman, Lisa Ramos