The Youth Leadership Award, created to reward youth hockey players or mentors for their leadership and contributions to youth sports or education, receives nominations from across the United States and Canada.
"It's an exciting day for the National Hockey League and Bridgestone to announce the winner of The Bridgestone Mark Messier Youth Leadership Award. We take great pride in acknowledging the people in our community who do great work for the game of hockey, for our grassroots level of kids.
"This is one of the most important aspects for our children: provide good leadership and coaching and good mentorship. The winner this year has done everything beyond the call of duty – a tremendous asset to our game of hockey. We can use hockey as a metaphor for life. The leadership by is truly inspiring to us all for the many years he has reached out to our kids."
The award, which includes a $5,000 grant from Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations was presented to Brick Township, N.J.–based coach Alex DePalma, who founded the Brick Stars Challenger Ice Hockey program which enables special needs children experience the joy, competition and teamwork that are such unique parts of playing hockey.
DePalma is also the New Jersey Youth Hockey League (NJYHL) coaching director, USA Hockey ADM representative for the Atlantic District and an instructor with the USA Hockey coaching program.
DePalma instills in his players the values of fair play, hard work and the importance of giving back to the community. Additionally, USA Hockey has previously recognized DePalma with numerous appointments, including 2009 Atlantic District Associate Coach in Chief and a five-year-running Outstanding Service Award.
"He's been working so hard for so many years unselfishly," DePalma's wife, Carrie, told NHL.com.
She is the catalyst to the award.
"I just thought it was the right time to submit the essay," she said about one of the award's main criteria. "I had it in my heart that he would win. It's such an honor because he so respects Mark.
"When she called me at work," said her euphoric hubby, "she was crying and saying, 'You won.' I thought she meant the lottery, but this is actually better. Guys like us do this out of passion and love – no expectations to be rewarded."
Messier also offered insight about a few of those people who most influenced his trek from tyke to titan.
"I was lucky," Messier told a packed media room. "I had my father who played hockey and he knew the game from a mental standpoint, but also a physical and technical standpoint. But he was busy when I played a lot of minor hockey with my older brother, so it was my mother I spent a lot of time talking hockey.
"If I had to pick out one coach [who most influenced my early career], it would be Ray 'Timer' Lemaire. He was a guy to this day that made a big impact in my life. As a player you look back at those people that are there to help you and guide you."
"The wives and the mothers – they see it all," said Carrie DePalma.
DePalma has guided many kids in his 20 years of devoted advocacy for youth hockey.
But DePalma knows these success stories are few and far between; he focuses on simple goals for average kids.
"In 20 years, I never had a player quit on me," said DePalma. "Carrie put that in the essay. I thought it was telling. They need to have fun. So many kids quit because of the pressure put on by coaches. That she remembered that meant a lot to me."
Even more to his charges and their parents.
"The satisfaction," said DePalma, "comes from when you're coaching kids that come back in four years and say, 'Thanks to you, Coach, I'm not late for work.' Coaching is about teaching -- teaching kids about things they can carry with them for life.
"When it comes to the special needs program we started a year ago, the satisfaction is every time you come off the ice -- no hockey expectations for those kids. The parents say 'Thank you.' Thank you for what? 'Thank you for just getting them out there.' Everyday is an award. This [award] is something extra – something special."