Charlotte Checkers’ brawler fights for school literacy

A Beautiful War

Kyle Hagel, the enforcer for the Charlotte Checkers hockey team, is fighting to increase literacy at McClintock Middle School through his Stick to Reading program and more recently a book club for boys.
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Kyle Hagel, the enforcer for the Charlotte Checkers hockey team, is fighting to increase literacy at McClintock Middle School through his Stick to Reading program and more recently a book club for boys.

“Is your nose broken?”

The boy, a 12-year-old, asked the question with a mix of fascination and admiration. He was clearly impressed that a grown man would address a middle school book club looking like he’d been in a fist fight.

“No,” replied Kyle Hagel, as he counted heads in the media room at McClintock Middle School. “It’s not broken, just a little cut. I have a hostile work environment.”

Hagel, a 31-year-old professional hockey player, is used to such questions as chief enforcer for the Charlotte Checkers.

Enforcers are the guys most likely to get in a fistfight during games. Hagel has been in league high of 17 fights so far this season, making it seem he is either the meanest or angriest man in Charlotte.

The book club proves otherwise.

Hagel isn’t a celebrated guest speaker. He’s an organizer of both the newly formed club and a related literacy program called Stick to Reading. In the latter, sixth-graders at McClintock competed earlier this year to see who could read the most in six weeks. The top 15 readers played Hagel and a handful of other Checkers players in a floor hockey game in the school gym on March 7.

It is the second year Hagel has fought to improve literacy levels at McClintock, though the effort has gone largely unnoticed in a city focused mostly on the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Hornets.

“The first time Kyle came to the school, he walked in with a black eye and stitches in his face. He looked like someone had beaten the crap out of him,” recalls McClintock Principal Paul Williams.

“This rough and tumble guy, with all the bruises and cuts, walks in and says he wants to volunteer his time at my school by starting a literacy program. Then I found out he was a Princeton grad, and I thought ‘you gotta be kidding me.’ What better role model for kids than a Princeton grad who is a solid minor league hockey player.”

Hagel assumes the largely African-American and Hispanic student body would prefer he were a member of the Panthers or Hornets. “But that just means I have to try harder,” he says.

Responding in 5 minutes

Hagel, a Canadian new to the South, has played for five different hockey teams in five different cities over the past six years, and he started school literacy programs in each one.

Charlotte has been different, though, in that his emails to various Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools were not returned, Hagel said.

Except for McClintock, where many students are from low-income families and considered at risk of falling behind in school. “They responded to my email within five minutes, and wanted me at the very first date I was available,” recalls Hagel.

That enthusiasm was due partly to how rare it is for the city’s professional sports teams to send players to McClintock, said Tausha Wright, a literacy specialist at the school.

“We had a reputation,” she says. “We have been considered a low-performing school, so we tend to get over looked. At one time, when you heard McClintock, eyebrows were raised. It’s changing. Good stuff is going on here.”

Grades have improved and school staff give Hagel some of the credit. Students showed a 10 percent jump in proficiency after participating in his Stick to Reading program during the 2014-15 school year, officials said.

Wright suggested Hagel start a book club this school year to build on that momentum and he jumped at the idea, convincing the Checkers to buy the books. Sixty boys are reading “We Should Hang Out Sometime” by Paralympic ski racer Josh Sundquist.

“Kyle Hagel has definitely made reading look cooler,” says book club member Dominic Redmon, 12, a seventh-grader.

“I see why he’s coming here to help kids. An enforcer gets in a lot of fights because its their job to help people on the team who are in trouble. My feeling is, he wants to help us read as much as he’s helping guys on his team.”

The real ‘Fight club’

It is not uncommon to show up at the end of a Checkers practice at Bojangles’ Coliseum and see Hagel sparing with other members of the team.

They grab each other’s jerseys, sling each other around, throw punches, jab elbows and generally act like they’re going to kill each other.

He calls this class “fight club” and its intended to show younger members how not to get hurt when they “throw down the gloves.” Hagel says the fights are calculated, strategic and often don’t involve actually being angry.

“Fighting is an unselfish thing to do, because you’re putting your body on the line. You are willing to sacrifice your body for the betterment of the team. In that way, it’s kind of humanitarian, as opposed to just being aggressive.”

His reputation among fans is as a guy who won’t back down from anything.

“I’ve seen him drop the gloves with guys who are six to eight inches taller and 40 pounds heavier,” says Checkers fan Eric Feldman. “He’s not afraid of anybody.”

Even Hagel’s mother, Helen Hagel, can’t quite believe sometimes what her son does for a living. He once talked about being a lawyer, she says.

“As a mother, I don’t like the fact that Kyle fights, especially with his education. Why would he do this?” she asks. “He believes it’s part of the game to stick up for his players, but I cringe every time.”

His community service projects sound more like the boy she and her steelworker husband, Mark Hagel, raised in Hamilton, Ontario, not far from Niagara Falls, N.Y. She believes he got that sense of responsibility from having to help take care of twin brothers who are three years younger. One is now studying to be a pediatrician. The other plays hockey for the minor-league Iowa Wild.

‘More than an enforcer’

Kyle Hagel was named American Hockey League Man of the Year in 2015 for acts of kindness that have included delivering toys to patients at a children’s hospital, using the physics of hockey to teach science lessons in schools and, of course, his literacy programs.

“It’s relatively common that the more physical players are actually the most active in helping young people,” said David Andrews, president of the AHL. “I don’t know why that is, but Kyle is way more than an enforcer. A player like him doesn’t keep getting picked up by teams unless they provide a lot of leadership.”

It hasn’t escaped the league that Hagel is aiming high in tackling middle school literacy. It would have been easier to launch a physical education program, a sports camp or a healthy diet challenge, they admit.

Hagel chose otherwise because he loves to read, devouring 20 books a year. His guilty pleasure is to sit at local coffee shops with his fiancee and read.

He is in his second season with the Checkers at a pivotal time. The team moved last year from Time Warner Cable Arena back to its original home at Bojangles’ Coliseum. Team owner Michael Kahn says the move has been a boon for the club, making for bigger crowds and more financial success.

Hagel loves it in Charlotte, but he admits it can be an uphill battle in reaching Southern kids raised on football and basketball. He often brings teammates with him for school visits as backup. On Jan. 21, when the group showed up at McClintock to kick off Stick to Reading, sixth-graders wanted to know which player had been in the most fights (Hagel, of course), and if any of them had hit another player in the head with their stick (No, they hadn’t).

However, the conversation turned serious when a soft-spoken girl asked if the players had ever been picked on in school.

Yes, some of them had, including 6-foot-2 Carter Sandlak, who was bullied for having a lisp. “I couldn’t say my ‘s,’ so I got made fun of a lot.”

In the minutes that followed, the players answered one question after another about dealing with bullies. “I thought it was powerful that the little girl had the nerve to ask and I thought the guys laid their hearts on their sleeve answering it,” says Hagel. “It was a humbling gesture by Carter to show the kids that there is weakness in himself.”

Hagel hopes for the same type of engagement when his book club meets in mid April. In his first meeting with the boys, he told them reading is good, no matter whether it’s a novel, a comic, or a cereal box. His says his mother used to always say that when he was a kid, and he ended up graduating from Princeton.

She also used to remind her three boys that “It’s nice to be nice,” which Hagel says inspires his work in schools.

Even an enforcer listens to his mother.