Giving Back: Thunderbirds' Kenney Makes Donation to Charity

Giving back: Thunderbirds' Kenney makes donation to charity during offseason 

By Patrick Ferlise of the Winston-Salem Journal |

Winston-Salem, NC - When Jay Kenney decided to grow out his hair roughly two-and-a-half years ago, the nicknames began to pour in.

Having spent time on the rosters of several teams as a veteran defenseman in the Federal Hockey League, it didn’t take long for the style change to become part of his persona. As Kenney’s brown hair began to curl and drape across his shoulders, fans and players alike could easily identify the man behind the mask skating across the ice.

The 27-year-old Boston native’s new look grew on everyone — even helping him look deceptively fast.

“I tell everyone I keep it because it makes me look faster since I’m not that fast on the ice ... But when the hair’s moving, it makes me look like I’m going at a decent speed,” Kenney joked. “As I started growing it longer and longer, it sort of became a trademark.”

While on the Port Huron Prowlers, Dayton Demolition and Cornwall Nationals spanning the 2015-2018 seasons, his style sparked praise from his opponents. According to Kenney, a player was even quoted as saying his mullet rivaled two-time Stanley Cup champion Jaromir Jagr.

After the Nationals folded in February and Kenney joined the Carolina Thunderbirds through a dispersal draft, he quickly earned his favorite nickname — Jesus.

But it didn’t take a miracle for him to finally say farewell to the curls after the season ended. On Tuesday in Winston-Salem, Kenney cut off his hair as part of a donation to Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that provides wigs for children with cancer across the United States and Canada.

It was a move roughly a year in the works, as he waited for his hair to grow long enough to donate. When Kenney joined the Thunderbirds, he approached Coach Andre Niec with his plans, where he suggested the team become involved to make a larger impact with charities.

“I said, ‘You know there are a lot of places you can donate it (hair), but you just have to know if you really want to do it,’” Niec said. “He didn’t even wait a second and he said he wanted to.”

The defenseman, who had four assists in 12 games to help the Thunderbirds qualify for the playoffs in their first season, created a GoFundMe page with the team in April in an attempt to raise a $5,000 donation for St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

Promoted by the Thunderbirds on their website and social media, it was only fitting that the campaign be named “Kenney’s Kurlz.”

“There are so many great charities out there, but I know (St. Jude) does a lot for families and they never turn people away — whether they can pay for their cancer treatment or not,” said Kenney, who’s raised $1,400 as of Sunday. “I just think that’s amazing, and I’d love to help fund something like that.”

But his mission to help children isn’t anything new. When Kenney isn’t checking opposing players into the boards during the hockey season, he’s back home in Massachusetts working as a special education teacher with Boston Public Schools.

From October to April or May, expect to see him skating on the ice. During the beginning and tail-end of the school year, Kenney spends his time teaching children with disabilities ranging from attention deficit disorder to Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

His time at the schools is typically short, normally spending a minimum two weeks on staff when a faculty member takes a leave of absence or even filling in as a teaching assistant. But it’s a job Kenney feels is a calling.

“I think I’m just destined to help people,” said Kenney. “If I can help these kids and I can change them, then I want to ... I just love helping people.”

And it was by coincidence that he found his teaching passion. When Kenney was 14 years old, he worked with the public works department in Boston during the summer — anything from landscaping and lifting to trash management.

He quickly realized the field wasn’t for him. As Kenney looked for a different job the next summer, his friend, Christine Tracy, suggested he help out at her aunt’s special needs recreation camp.

Initially, he was apprehensive.

“At first I really wasn’t sure, because I know I’d be emotional seeing the kids with disabilities and whatnot,” said Kenney. “I ended up helping out and going into the classroom, and by the end of my first week, I fell in love with the job. 

“I loved the kids — they were the happiest kids in the world.”

Kenney continued working with the camp until enrolling at Elmira College in 2011. He transferred to SUNY Cortland in 2013 and graduated two years later, while gaining experience as a student teacher.

When he first joined the Prowlers out of college, he started making routine trips back to Boston during the offseason. As Kenney made his rounds through the FHL, the traveling didn’t stop.

But soon there may be no need for him to fly back North following next year with the Thunderbirds.

While Kenney has called Boston home his entire life, he is considering moving to Winston-Salem. He took the Winston-Salem firefighters exam earlier this week — a test he already took in March while in Boston.

He initially looked to donate his hair at a later time, but the curls got in the way during testing and prompted a quick cut.

“It was just good timing because I knew I had the physical test and my hair was a bit too long to be training,” said Kenney. “I just decided it was finally time to get it cut.”

In the meantime, moving away from the “Jesus” look is fine for Kenney because it was a way to help someone in need.

“This St. Jude thing, I see it as just another way to help,” said Kenney. “If I can grow hair, why not? If I can help raise a few dollars to help what they’re doing, then why not?”

Photo credit: Allison Lee Isley of the Winston-Salem Journal