Denver’s famed 16th Street Mall comes alive at night with the sounds of Irish bag pipes, horse-drawn carriages parading up and down the brick road and street vendors peddling their trinkets and treats to the post-dinner crowd.
Among all the attractions and distractions, the person gaining the lion’s share of attention on one of Colorado’s most iconic streets is a 14-year-old hockey player.
Will Graber, a native of Longmont, Colo., spends his weekend nights during the summer displaying a unique skill that helps him and his family cover some of the costs associated with playing the game he loves. Sporting a shirt that reads “I’d Rather Be Playing Hockey,” Graber stands out among the crowd by displaying his impressive juggling skills for all to see.
This past summer was the fourth he’s spent juggling for hockey, and the third straight year he’s set up shop on one of downtown Denver’s busiest streets. Armed with a hockey bag and a stick that form a makeshift stand for his sign proclaiming “Juggling For AAA Hockey,” Graber delights the crowd by juggling anywhere from three to six balls at a time, often throwing in tricks such as going between his legs or catching one ball on the back of his neck.
“My brother really got me started juggling,” Graber said during a rare break. “He taught me how to do three balls and kind of worked with me a little bit. Then I just started trying things, figuring out what worked and what didn’t.”
Graber began playing hockey at an outdoor rink when he was 7 years old and immediately developed a deep passion for the game. The next year, he joined his first organized league at Boulder Valley. After his third year of organized hockey, Graber asked his parents if he could also enter a spring hockey league following his winter season.
Concerned about the additional costs, the Graber family decided that if Will could help out in some way, he could extend his hockey season. At first, the idea of having Will juggle to earn his keep was tossed around in an almost joking manner. But after receiving encouragement from numerous others, including his brother who had helped teach him, Graber started to display his skills on Pearl Street in Boulder at the mere age of 10.
“I had been juggling in the park, just practicing and stuff, and I’d have people come up to me and say that I should go street perform somewhere and put my hat out,” Graber said. “Then my brother made me a sign and told me I should raise money for hockey.”
The family certainly didn’t expect the money he earned juggling to make much of a dent in the costs associated with playing hockey, but thought it could serve as a valuable life lesson on finding a way to reach your goals.
In this day and age, where handouts and free rides are more common than working to achieve something, Graber’s positive attitude and resourcefulness are both refreshing and lucrative. Displaying his youthful charisma during his act, he not only grabs people’s attention, but also gets them to open their wallets. On a really good night, his performances can bring in up to $150 in donations from the crowd.
“I kind of feel like this happened by accident,” said Will’s mother, Susan. “Other people said he should start doing this, but it really wasn’t planned. It all fell into place. He appreciates it all the more because he has to earn it.”
According to Matt Huckins, who has worked with Will since he started playing and will coach him this season within the U-14 AAA Rocky Mountain RoughRider program, the youngster’s work ethic off of the ice parallels his commitment at the rink.
“In 14 years of coaching I have never seen a player approach his game with this much maturity, passion and determination,” Huckins said. “That is how Will approaches everything. He knows it is expensive to chase his dreams and is responsible enough to go to his family and say this is my passion and here is what I can do to help us make this work.”
A talented player on the ice and a well-mannered, humble kid away from the rink, Graber nonetheless enjoys the spotlight that comes along with his act. Whether it’s simply catching the attention of an unsuspecting passerby or taking a quick break to pose for a picture with half a dozen young female fans, he seems to relish the attention. But he also knows it’s a means to an end that allows him to pursue his greatest passion.
VIDEO: Will Juggle For Hockey