The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This hockey coach spent decades saving lives. Let’s save his ice.

Neal Henderson, center, is presented with a signed Capitals jersey by "Cannons" producer Steven Hoffner in D.C. on April 30. At left is Lt. Col. Ralph Featherstone, a Henderson protege. (Ben Sumner/The Washington Post)
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His players aren’t in the NHL.

Championship banners aren’t hanging from his ice rink’s rafters, and shiny tournament cups aren’t in the display case. He has a hard time scheduling games for his players.

Coach Neal Henderson’s team, the Fort Dupont Cannons, isn’t even in a league. But Henderson, 84, is in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame — for all the right reasons.

And a documentary that had its D.C. premiere Saturday reminds the nation’s capital that Henderson — along with the rink where he’s carved hockey’s life lessons into the lives of thousands of local kids — is worth supporting.

“If you can play hockey,” Henderson tells his players, who are mostly young and Black and poor and didn’t grow up going to hockey clinics, camps or classes, who have had monkey calls and racial slurs hurled at them by White players, “you can do anything.”

That’s the magic of Henderson, who over his 44 years coaching the nation’s longest-running minority-oriented hockey team has shown hundreds of D.C. kids that, yes, they can do something that looks impossible.

“Me and Rob, dang, man, we came a long way from barely knowing how to skate and shoot a puck,” Rayvon Hall says in the documentary by Steven Hoffner and AJ Messier. “But now, it’s a different thing. People can barely touch me, you know?”

Hall and his friend Robert Lynch drive the story of “The Cannons,” a film by two Canadians who found the purest essence of the sport in a Black neighborhood in America’s capital.

The film is an ode to Henderson and his legacy. And it comes at a time when the future of the local rink is in peril.

There was a red carpet and cameras on Saturday, and Henderson was there, along with some of the adults who have been part of this miracle on ice that goes far beyond the rink.

“The parents have gone to places that they haven’t even thought of,” Henderson said in a question-and-answer session after the film. “And the kids have played hockey in places that they’ve never heard of.”

He explained the ripples of influence that follow kids as they get off the street and onto the ice.

The Cannons aren’t part of a league, so Henderson organizes games with willing teams in Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey. They drill down on shooting, skating and strategy before the games, but Henderson also makes the players learn about the states, their histories, even their primary crops, so when the players return to school and a teacher asks what they did over the weekend, they have something interesting to offer.

“We played hockey,” Henderson said the kids would say. “And we went to Ohio. And Ohio, they’re famous for their apples. They’re also famous for their railroads, their farmlands. They can go back and talk to their class about what they did.”

His lessons stick.

Lt. Col. Ralph Featherstone, a Henderson protege who went on to play hockey at the U.S. Naval Academy and became an aviator with the Marine Corps, said Saturday that he would hear Henderson’s voice urging him on when he met life’s challenges — such as airsickness during flight training.

An aviator fighting airsickness isn’t too different from a Black boy playing hockey, he said.

“I would hear coach’s voice yelling at me to keep my stick on this ice,” Featherstone recalled after the film premiere. “I learned how to run a radar with a bag of puke in my hand. It was back to basics.”

The Cannons and Henderson, who inspired similar programs across the nation, are extraordinary. Two Canadians made a documentary when they saw it. The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame got it. The people whooping, cheering and weeping in the audience know it well.

You know who doesn’t seem to get it? D.C.’s leaders.

Though Fort Dupont Ice Arena is home to one of the city’s most inspiring stories, it’s a neglected, forlorn piece of government property that — again — has been shoved to the bottom of the city’s priority list.

The shameful truth of how a Stanley Cup town neglects its young hockey players

The rink’s supporters — and I’ve long been one of them as a parent of two Fort Dupont hockey players whose lives were immeasurably enriched by three Cannons who went on to become phenomenal coaches (shout out to Bryan King, Marquise Cotten and Duante’ Abercrombie) — have fought for years to get help for the ailing facility, built in 1976.

At long last, in 2013, the city agreed to a brand-new, $15 million rink that would have two new sheets of ice. Remember, Fort Dupont is home to the Cannons as well as two Olympic speedskaters and thousands of figure skaters.

It took so long to greenlight the plan that once it finally got the go-ahead last year, the cost had ballooned to $37 million and the project was cut in half, with just one sheet of ice. Its new, unexplained price tag is “the per-square-foot cost of a New York City skyscraper,” the Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena said in a statement blasting the city.

The Friends, the nonprofit organization that actually runs the rink, refused to shut it down for demolition until a better plan is created. The fight to save D.C.’s only indoor ice rink — and the Cannons, the Titans, the Gonzaga Eagles and the joy of thousands of skaters who call it home — is deadlocked.

So while film fests are going to be celebrating this remarkable story of Henderson and his Cannons, their home ice is in peril. The city agency responsible for the contract did not respond to questions Monday.

Fort Dupont's New Ice Rink is put on hold. Again.

When he wrote the nomination for Henderson to join the Hockey Hall of Fame, journalist William Douglas explained the mission of the Cannons:

“It seems in sports everything is about metrics, about numbers, about goals and assists, about wins and losses, and Neal’s not about that,” Douglas said at the premiere.

“Neal Henderson’s not about wins and losses,” he said, but “about lives that are saved.”

D.C. owes it to Henderson to save his rink.

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