For more than 30 years, Neal Henderson has coached youths from some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods in a sport they otherwise may never have thought to play — ice hockey.
Serving as drill sergeant, taxi driver, father figure and mentor, Henderson has become an iconic figure at the District’s only indoor skating rink, the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast. But despite his reknown, he has had to fight for time on the ice just like all the other teams vying for hours, such as Gonzaga College High School and the arena’s free hockey and ice-skating program, Kids On Ice.
Next season, he hopes, he’ll face less competition. Officials of the nonprofit Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena announced Monday that Henderson will serve as the director of the arena’s hockey program. Under his leadership, his team, the Cannons, made up primarily of youths from wards 7 and 8, will unite with Kids on Ice to form a unified hockey program.
The merger will offer players more practice time on the ice and give the nonprofit group, which has been running programs at the rink for 15 years, more leverage when applying for funding, said Nick Lewis, a board member of the group.
The Washington Capitals marked the occasion with a check to the group for $45,000, and the National Hockey League added $7,500. At a time when funding is hard to attract, such administrative changes and donations are critical, Lewis said.
“We’re trying desperately to keep the doors open,” he said.
Henderson, who started playing hockey at age 7 while living in Canada, founded the Cannons in 1978, making it the oldest minority hockey program in the country. The team aims to foster self-esteem and life skills at no cost to its participants.
“Ninety-five percent of those that go through the program graduate from high school and go on to college,” Henderson said.
Former Cannons player Ralph Featherstone, 34, who attended the announcement ceremony, attributed his entry into the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and his career as a major in the Marines to his teenage years spent on the ice.
“Seeing how hard work progresses and turns into success has definitely transferred throughout my life,” he said. Even now, he added, he drives to the D.C. arena from his home in Quantico at least once a week to volunteer as a coach.