Neal Henderson never thought he would become “popular” from founding and coaching at the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club. He always did it for the love of hockey, and love of the kids.
Now, while the Washington Capitals try to win their first Stanley Cup in their 43-year history, this local hockey fixture is entering the 43rd year of his community-transforming career.
“When you have kids that are in situations and different home settings, where they’re used to the words ‘No.’ ‘Stop.’ ‘Don’t.’ ‘Can’t.’ ‘Cannot.’ ‘Will not,’” Mr. Henderson said, “You turn over those things into ‘I will’ and ‘I can,’ it makes a big difference in their outlook.”
Mr. Henderson, 80, founded the Fort Dupont youth program in the 1970s to teach hockey and life skills to inner-city children from often less-fortunate backgrounds. Now he is a finalist for the NHL’s inaugural Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.
In April, the NHL announced the creation of the award, intended for the nominee who “best utilizes hockey as a platform for participants to build character and develop important life skills for a more positive family experience.”
To players like 16-year-old Eric Bennett, their coach and mentor is a perfect fit for that description.
“You know how many people I can say that I’ve known growing up that he got off the streets just because he got them to start playing hockey?” the teen asked. “I probably can’t even count how many. That’s the point.”
The not-for-profit organization is home to the Fort Dupont Cannons, the oldest minority youth hockey program in the country. When Henderson began his work, there was no public rink in the District; they now practice at Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast, still the city’s only year-round indoor public rink.
“I look at it as if I were a member of their family, and I am in a position to help steer their life in a positive manner,” Mr. Henderson said. “They can have somebody to look up to and see that the words that I have spoken with them have meant something to them and given them a view of what their future could be, and, if they wish to follow with determination, what it could make for them.”
For many of the boys who come through the program, it means staying on top of grades — Mr. Henderson checks report cards — and getting a diploma. The program has a 95 percent high school graduation rate and most of those young men then go on to college.
Originally from St. Croix, New Brunswick, Mr. Henderson moved to the Washington area in the 1960s and taught hockey to his son, Neal Jr. One day, his son asked if he would consider starting a team. Mr. Henderson began his work in 1976 and Fort Dupont was incorporated in 1977, he said.
Today, Fort Dupont is an establishment in the community and a partner of the Capitals. When Capitals winger Devante Smith-Pelly was the target of racist taunts at a game in Chicago this season, someone suggested people donate to a cause of Smith-Pelly’s choice. He chose Fort Dupont, and fans donated more than $23,000.
Coincidentally, the award Mr. Henderson is nominated for is named after Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958. Mr. Henderson met O’Ree at a league diversity conference and the two have remained in touch.
“It’s a pleasure knowing him,” Mr. Henderson said. “I’ve known him for years. And it’s an honor that just knowing him has given me great hopes for my kids, giving them an example that they can follow.”
One of these students, Bennett, first started going to Fort Dupont at age six, following in the footsteps of his older brother and cousins. He now plays center and defenseman for the Cannons’ senior team and hopes to continue his playing career at the NCAA level. It might not have been possible without his relationship with Mr. Henderson, starting from an early age.
“Anytime I was there, Coach Neal was there,” the young player said. “He was the man who taught me how to skate.”
That, and much more. Mr. Henderson, who now lives in Springdale, Maryland, calls hockey a “life-building instrument” and uses it to teach his players life lessons.
“You learn how to deal with people. You can speak a language without saying a word,” he said. “You can maneuver and control situations through mannerisms on the ice that will magnify and give you independence as well as stability and it gives you an importance of accomplishments, to show that you can be an individual and promote togetherness all at the same time.”
Individuality is one of the many elements that’s stuck with Bennett, who is black. After all, he asks, how many black athletes can say that their sport is hockey?
“Coach Neal showed me and I’m sure a lot of other people that you, being black, you can be different and pursue anything you want to do by not being like everybody else,” Bennett said.
Mr. Henderson is accessible and often “goofy” with the team, Bennett said. One of his famous quotes that players like to parrot is the rule about electronics in the locker room or on bus trips to games: “No iPhones, earphones, nose-phones or toes-phones.”
“I use a lot of stuff that Coach Neal said. A lot of stuff you might hear him say might sound super goofy, but then you’ll think of it in a later point in time and it’ll make complete sense,” Bennett said.”
The league will announce the winner of the O’Ree Award on June 20 at the 2018 NHL Awards in Las Vegas. The other finalists are Darcy Haugan, former head coach of the Humboldt Broncos who passed away in the team’s tragic bus accident, and Debbie Bland, co-founder of the Etobicoke Dolphins Girls Hockey League in Ontario.
Mr. Henderson said his nomination is “humbling.”
“It’s quite rewarding to me just to be thought of in the manner of receiving an award such as this,” he said.”
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