Now in its 16th season, the New Jersey Devils School Assembly Program sends its former hockey pros to area schools each year. On Tuesday, Jan. 10, the students at West New York Public School No. 2 welcomed recently-retired New Jersey Devil Rob Skrlac.
“This is my 20th school of the season, and I believe we visit about 300 schools a year,” said Skrlac.
Speakers for the program regale students with their glory days on the ice, but always give a message that their success came with a foundation in education and a healthy lifestyle.
“A lot of these kids have no idea how a guy becomes a hockey player, and students need to hear stories about people who have succeeded [through adversity],” said Skrlac. “I persevered through a lot of obstacles.”
Skrlac is only in his mid twenties, but he recently retired after playing with the Devils in the major leagues for a year, due to the injuries he has endured from participating in the sport almost all of his life.
“I spent most of my career in the minors, but that is where I built my character,” said Skrlac.
Climbing Mt. Everest
Two hundred and ninety third to seventh graders packed the gymnasium of West New York School No. 2 for the assembly.
Skrlac, who compared attaining life goals to climbing one of the wonders of the world, emphasized the importance of school, setting your goals, and having big dreams.
“[Elementary school] is your first step on your journey up the mountain, and there are people that will try to stray you from your path; you have to set your goals now,” said Skrlac.
Speakers often discuss topics such as drug and alcohol abuse, the value of education, living healthy lifestyles, and the benefits of dedication and determination, which the players relate through their own life experiences.
Small town boy
Skrlac told the kids about growing up in a small town on the west coast of Canada, and how he, like so many boys, would revel in the major league hockey games broadcast on TV.
“In Canada, hockey is like our Monday night football, and that became my goal [to play professionally],” said Skrlac.
Skrlac admitted to having been an average student, and looking back, he wished he had worked harder like his twin brother, who ended up being valedictorian at their high school.
However, he did have his favorite subjects such as history, which he continues to learn about today. He said he is a fan of the History Channel.
Skrlac and his brother were also athletes, and Skrlac had a strong focus on the game of hockey.
“A lifetime of sports is a lifetime well spent; you can’t just sit back and watch Sponge Bob and MTV, and [expect] to accomplish your goals,” said Skrlac.
Skrlac focused his energy on his passion, and spent many afternoons in his small suburb of Canada playing street roller hockey.
“Most of my hockey skills were developed playing street hockey,” said Skrlac.
What Skrlac really emphasized to the students was that throughout his academic career, he never let anyone deter him to lose his focus, and he never lost sight of his dreams.
“I was fortunate to have great coaches and mentors in my life that I could always reach out to,” said Skrlac.
While playing hockey in Canada at the age of 20, Skrlac was spotted by NHL scouts and signed his first professional contract with the New Jersey Devils. However, Skrlac was still a ways away from the major leagues at that time. He spent most of his professional career playing for the minors, so he could continue to sharpen his skills.
“I could have given up my dream, but I wanted to be successful and I wanted to play hockey,” said Skrlac. “It was my reputation for hard work and my constant desire to compete and get better [that made me succeed].”
After spending a few years of hard work playing in the minors, Skrlac finally earned his chance to play with the champion New Jersey Devils at the age of 25, six years after he first signed his pro contract.
Can we do that too?
After the 2003-2004 pro season, the NHL went on strike. By the time the hockey season was back in motion, Skrlac decided it was time to retire due to the pain he endured from injuries and surgeries he had throughout his career.
But he had already fulfilled his dreams.
“I got to stand on top of my mountain and stare down at all of my accomplishments,” said Skrlac. “I hope you all accomplish your goals, whether it’s going to college, working in New York, or moving to Los Angeles to become an actor.”
After his initial presentation was over, the students were electrified during the question and answer session, asking Skrlac about the game and his experience. Some students also stayed to pose for pictures and get autographs.
“It was really good the way he talked to the kids, and he inspired me to do better in school and play hockey,” said Kelvin Borbon, 12, seventh grade.
“I like when he talked about how we’re supposed to do good in school and have a lot of goals,” said Andrea Vega, 11, fifth grade.
“I hope you guys make the right decisions and have big dreams,” said Skrlac. “Without my Mount Everest, I would still be in a little town [in Canada].”