Three years ago, Neil Henderson introduced Southeast Washington youngsters to ice hockey as an alternative to the streets, basketball courts and football fields.
Today, he is watching interest grow in a burgeoning league which has mushroomed from an original 21 playes to 63, including six girls and 15 whites. New players are signing up nearly every week, he says.
A former semi-pro hockey player, Henderson started the league at the suggestion of his 12-year-old son Neil.
Called the Fort Dupont Athletic Club, the hockey league operates under the auspicies of the Fort Dupont Athletic Association, and practices Monday nights at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena. The players range from 5 to 15 years old, and most live in Southeast Washington.
Henderson says although the teams in the Fort Dupont League do play other teams, he emphasizes the fundamentals of ice hockey rather than competition.
"We work on the basics of ice hockey -- how to skate, how to move and how to get position on the ice," he explained.
"I don't want to push them into competition or anything. I just want them to learn hockey."
Adam Wegner, a league member for four months, said "I knew how to skate before I joined the team but since I've been here I have learned a lot about playing hockey, especially how to handle a stick."
Wegner's younger brother Benjie said he found out about the league through his brother: "I went out to see the practices one day and became interested. It's turned out well because in a short time, I've learned to shoot, handle the puck, check and skate."
Henderson said that some of his players chose the ice rink over the basketball court or football field because "for one thing, it's a challenge, and challenges are a part of growing up for young kids. The other thing is the contact. Boys love the contact and ice hockey involves a lot of contact." t
Henderson, 42, is a native of the Virgin Islands. He began playing ice hockey at the age of 9 when he moved with his family to St. Catherine in British Columbia. During his 25-year athletic career he played in several amateur hockey leagues and for the Baltimore Clippers, a semi-pro team.
He is temporarily wearing a patch over his left eye following survery in January for an injury he received when hit in the eye with a hockey stick while he was on the ice as a semi-pro.
But the youngsters are oblivious to the threat of injury. Henderson's son Neil, who hopes to play professinal hockey, said that the sport caught on right away among the neighborhood kids.
"My father had already taken them skating and the idea of learning hockey really turned them on. Now, more and more are coming every week," young Henderson said.
Henderson said there have only been three professional black hockey players because, "first, the area or locality has a lot to do with it. A lot of areas where blacks live just don't have ice.
"Secondly, it is so expensive. Equipment alone costs about $250, and that's not counting the $400 or so needed to buy ice time. Many blacks just don't have that kind of money."
Players in the Fort Dupont league pay a $5 monthly fee for each household that has one or more children participating. Henderson, who has managed to keep the league afloat without a sponsor, says he has raised money for equipment through candy sales and raffles. He also has acquired some equipment from second-hand stores.
Henderson's work with the youngsters has not gone unnoticed by their parents.
"He's just tops in my book," said Caradett Jones, whose son, Charles Jr., is on one team. "He's just like a father to a lot of these kids, because a lot of them don't have fathers."
James Baltimore was so impressed with what Henderson was doing that he volunteered to assist in the coaching: "After my son (James Jr.) got involved with the team and I saw what he was trying to do, I decided to volunteer my services. I usually ake care of the younger kids while he handles the more advanced ones."
"He relates to these kids, Baltimore added. "They really respect him a lot."
Henderson, who works as a driving instructor, quit a second job as a sports writer to coach the young hockey players. The satisfaction of working with the kids is his biggest enjoyment, he says.
"I get to understand these children -- to spend time with them. It means a lot to them and it is important to me."
But Henderson doesn't offer just a cone-shot deal. On Saturdays, he takes the league members skiing in Pennsylvania.
Helen Chinn, a volunteer who does secretarial chores for the league, summed up her estimation of Henderson: "He is just a beautiful person. He loves to devote his time and talents to these kids."