While there are many reasons why the number of youth hockey players in Washington, D.C., has more than doubled from 2006-16, it’s certain that the Fort Dupont Cannons are one of them.
Fort Dupont, the oldest minority hockey program in the United States, is one of 34 programs in the North America affiliated with the National Hockey League’s Hockey is for Everyone (HIFE) Program.
It’s all due to the work of Neal Henderson, who founded the Cannons in 1977 in Ward 7 in Southeast D.C., which is one of the most economically depressed areas in the city.
As a result, Henderson gave young African-American boys a chance to experience the benefits of playing hockey, a sport they likely never would have gotten the chance to try otherwise.
“I started the program in the driveway of my house [in Springdale, Maryland],” said Henderson, who was born in St. Croix and was raised in Canada. “My son [also named Neal] had the idea, because I had coached other programs when I was in the military in Utah and D.C.”
To say the Cannons got off to a modest start would be an understatement. Sticks and pucks they had, but tennis shoes stood in for skates.
“I taught the kids in the neighborhood, because there wasn’t anything going on except football,” Henderson said. “Then, I would teach them to skate at the [Fort Dupont Ice Arena]. After I taught them to skate, we would take sticks out on the ice.
“A couple neighborhood kids saw what was going on and they asked if they could skate. I told them to get their parents. When they came back, they told me they didn’t have any money.”
Henderson solved that problem by paying for ice time out of his own pocket, eventually gravitating to selling fruit and candy as well as accepting donations.
“People would bring us nickels and dimes,” Henderson said. “Now, we’ve been going for 40 years.”
After that initial skating session, seven more neighborhood kids showed up along with the first group.
“My son wanted to know why we couldn’t start a team and play some games,” Henderson said. “Our first uniforms were sweatshirts and blue jeans.”
Fast-forward to the present and the Cannons now consist of two travel teams plus a house team, a total of 55 kids.
That number may continue to grow because Henderson doesn’t charge any fees.
“We accept donations from people,” he said. “The Washington Capitals are very generous to us. They help us in any way they can.
“We have a food drive every year and sell 700 boxes of fruit. We’re trying to sell 1,000 boxes of fruit so we can build from that.”
Before youngsters can play for the Cannons, they must submit to a Q-and-A from Henderson who considers himself a historian.
“When I see a young man that might be interested, I ask him some questions,” Henderson said. “‘What do you know about the sport?’”
At that point, Henderson introduces his players to his basic philosophy.
“If you know what is in the past, you can make it the future,” he said. “But if you don’t know what is in the past, how can you know what you’re future is going to be?”
Among many, arguably the most impressive statistic about the Cannons is that almost every kid who graduates from the program goes on to college. Over the years, Fort Dupont has compiled a 95-percent high school graduation rate.
“The thing is, each child in the African-American community is used to ‘stop, don’t know and can’t,’” Henderson said. “I teach, ‘You will, you can, and you can succeed. But you must do your school work.’
“I check their schoolwork and the lowest grade I will accept is a C.”
While some D.C. youngsters seldom if ever venture outside their neighborhoods, that isn’t the case with the Cannons, who have traveled from D.C. to Boston, Ohio, New Jersey and Delaware. But there’s more to those trips than playing hockey.
“As part of the traveling, each player will have to write a thesis about what they know about that town,” Henderson said. “I tell them that a hockey player is a very smart individual. One of the things I tell them is, ‘How many people do you know that can do six things at one time? That person is your mother.’”
By embracing a sport that once was an unknown commodity, youngsters become personally involved in talking, observing and having a conversation, as well as learning to like an individual for who and what that person is.
“Color is no barrier,” Henderson said. “You go on the ice and you’re one team. You will think as one. When that happens, you become a team. When you become a team, there is no one person that’s better than another.”
Henderson also encourages the Cannons to play other sports like baseball, football and swimming.
“I want them to play other sports when hockey isn’t in session so they’ll learn other sports,” he said. “That way, they’ll be better (all-around athletes) when they come back to hockey.”
While Henderson has been the driving force behind the Cannons’ success, USA Hockey’s influence (especially its American Development Model) has been a major contributor.
“We follow everything that USA Hockey puts out,” Henderson said. “[ADM] has helped our coaches and me to train our kids in the right fashion.
“I’m very thankful that they look at our organization as one of the leading organizations that can help around the country. They’re responsive to our needs.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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