Setting new goals

A Muñoz-Marín math teacher helps bring hockey to his students.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Flyers’ season may have ended prematurely, but hockey is still being played in some unlikely places in Philadelphia.

For Matt Braun, a math teacher at Muñoz-Marín Elementary in Kensington, that’s just one more reason to be excited to come to work each day.

In addition to teaching, Braun is a hockey coach with the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation (ESYHF), which provides year-round hockey programming to School District students. In early May, just as the weather was getting warm and the city’s pro team was being swept out of the playoffs, Braun was helping 150 3rd and 4th graders at his school pick up sticks for the first time.

For the high-energy 39-year-old, the chance to bring his worlds together meant even more enthusiasm than usual.

"I love the game," said Braun. "And I love my job."

The opportunity came during a demonstration lesson as part of the District’s participation in "Let’s Move in School" National Physical Education and Sport Week. ESYHF led three such lessons as part of their growing partnership with the District.

At Muñoz-Marín, most of the 10- and 11-year-old hockey novices dove right in.

"It’s my first time playing, but it’s fun," said 3rd grader Kiara Torres, catching her breath after a drill in which she learned to maneuver a street hockey ball across the school’s blacktop and shoot it into a net.

Hockey is not known for its popularity in largely Black and Latino neighborhoods, and most of the kids at Muñoz-Marín would struggle to name a single Flyers player. But Braun said that unfamiliarity often works to his advantage when trying to get a wide range of kids engaged and active.

"I’ve found that the alternative sports are a really good equalizer for kids," he explained. "Because no one in this community knows who the best hockey players are, no one can brag. They just listen and they learn, [then] they fall in love with the speed and aggressiveness of the game."

That was certainly the case during the hourlong "Let’s Move" demonstration, during which most of Braun’s students remained eager and focused as they learned how to hold a hockey stick, handle and pass a ball, and shoot on goal.

Braun’s enthusiasm helped. Even as some of the kids struggled to hold their sticks properly and others whiffed repeatedly on wide-open shots, the intense math teacher called out a steady stream of encouragement.

"I don’t know any other way to be," said Braun. "I’m relentless."

It wasn’t always that way.

Unlike most of his students, Braun grew up playing hockey, including a stint on his high school team in North Wales, PA. But he lost touch with the sport after being cut from his college team at West Chester University. The disconnect continued during 10 years spent working in the marble and granite industry, a period of his life he describes as less than inspiring.

"No matter how many slabs of granite I sold, I wasn’t really doing anything," said Braun. "I wanted to make a difference."

Eventually, he re-evaluated his priorities and decided to become a teacher. After three years providing emotional support services in District schools, he got his own classroom. Now, he’s in his third year at Muñoz-Marín and loving every minute of it.

"Every day I come in, and the kids fill me with energy," said Braun.

On top of his teaching duties, Braun spends up to 20 hours a week coaching and teaching hockey through ESYHF. His duties include coaching a competitive team of kids from across the city, writing conflict resolution lessons for the life-skills portion of ESYHF’s programming, and running summer camps. Whether on the ice or in the classroom, said Braun, he feels fortunate to be able to make an impact.

"I believe teachers teach and coaches coach," said Braun. "It doesn’t matter where. If there’s a need, you feel the need."

At a broader level, that’s exactly what ESYHF tries to do. Founded by Comcast-Spectacor Chair Ed Snider in 2005, the foundation got its start partnering with the District to provide middle school students with on-ice hockey programming at three rinks across the city.

"We came through with the yellow buses. Ed Snider provided everything else — the equipment, the instruction, and the ice time," said District Director of Athletics Robert Coleman.

Until Snider called, the District’s hockey offerings were scant at best. According to District officials, the city’s last official city hockey champion was West Philadelphia High – in 1922.

In recent years, ESYHF has expanded, introducing summer hockey camps and adding afterschool programming. During the 2008-09 school year, the foundation started competitive teams based out of three city-owned rinks, including the Scanlon Ice Rink in Kensington, where Braun coaches.

In 2010, the foundation and the city of Philadelphia announced a public-private partnership to invest $6.5 million in renovating and enclosing the three rinks in order to make them accessible year-round.

"There weren’t people making the sport accessible in some neighborhoods," said ESYHF Director of Hockey Operations Jan Koziara. "[But now], you go to Kensington any night of the week in winter, and we have 100 kids playing hockey."

Next, said Koziara, the foundation wants to provide school-day physical education programming directly inside schools – including, hopefully, Muñoz-Marín.

"We provide all of the coaching, all of the equipment, all at no cost," said Koziara. "It’s starting with the basics and doing a life-skills lesson after it and getting to the point where they can have fun games."

For Braun, the chance to further merge his passion for hockey with his love of teaching would be almost too good to be true.

"The whole point of teaching for me is to have impact, have value," he said. "Any time you can show an interest in a child that goes beyond the classroom, you have more value."