You have a moment right now, Caps, an important one. And it’s crucial — for the future of the sport — to capitalize on it. And it starts with Washington’s kids.
It means doing a lot more than having owner Ted Leonsis and star Alex Ovechkin swing by D.C.’s only hockey rink with the Stanley Cup for a photo op Friday, nice as that is.
During Tuesday’s victory parade, when the Caps looked out on that sea of red (except for the dots of old-school blue brought by longtime fans like yours truly, wearing her No. 68 Jaromir Jagr jersey), they saw something else.
A lot of brown faces. Welcome to D.C. The real D.C.
“It would be great if the Caps could look a this as an opportunity to bring hockey to communities that have not been part of hockey,” said former mayor and current D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), whose ward includes the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast.
Yes, there are black hockey fans. About 92 percent of the National Hockey League’s fan base is white, according to a 2017 report by Demographic Partitions. But anyone who has ever followed William G. Douglas’s fantastic blog, the Color of Hockey, there is a dynamic population of black players, fans and coaches.
Right now, Douglas, who still tends goal and whose day job is covering Congress for McClatchy’s Washington bureau, is chasing a story on whether Devante Smith-Pelly jerseys are selling out.
The Caps forward — who is one of two black players on the roster and faced racist taunts when he played in Chicago earlier in the season — was a rock star in the Stanley Cup finals, scoring the spectacular game-tying goal in Game 5 that was the turning point for the championship.
In the 1970s, Chocolate City was poised to be the leader in African American hockey.
That decade also saw the creation of the Fort Dupont Cannons, the nation’s oldest minority youth hockey program. Founder Neal Henderson, 80, didn’t start the program specifically to bring black players to the sport. The Canadian simply wanted to bring hockey to the neighborhood. And because the only rink in the Distict — to this day — is in Ward 7, that’s who the neighborhood kids were. And still are.
The Cannons are great and beloved. Their alumni include the U.S. Naval Academy hockey team’s first black captain, Ralph Featherstone, and Duante’ Abercrombie and Clyde Thomas, who now coach other prominent teams in the region.
The Caps do some events with the Cannons and write them a check every once in a while. “Through Teammates for Kids, the Capitals have donated more than $200,000 to the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Program since 2003,” according to a news release from the Monumental Sports and Entertainment Foundation.
But let me put that in perspective. That comes to about $13,000 a year.
Now let’s look at the mighty signature youth hockey program the Capitals run in Virginia, on the rooftop of the Ballston mall where the NHL team’s offices and practice rink are.
The lowest-budget entry into that world is what my son does, Rooftop Hockey. That lets them play around 10 games — no practices — for almost $400. It’s the price of hockey. Not cheap.
But if we wanted to do Little Capitals — the super-competitive, full-on, all-in hockey program with full practices, coaching, dozens of games and tournaments — club fees start around $6,000. The families I chat with said that after the assessment fees, equipment, travel and extras, a season of youth hockey easily runs $20,000.
Back in Washington, the Fort Dupont Cannons are free and sell fruit in their parking lot to make ends meet.
The cruelest part of this equation sits right across that parking lot. There is the gleaming, nearly $18 million Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, a facility that was part of the Nationals Park lease with the city. It brought baseball to a neighborhood that had not had it in years, nurturing future players and building a fan base among African Americans who have largely abandoned the sport.
“Third- and fourth-graders fill the 18,000-square-foot, two-floor facility after school, learning to play baseball and softball on its three artificial turf fields and doing their homework and extra classwork under the watchful eyes of mentors in the seven upstairs classrooms,” James Wagner wrote in The Washington Post four years ago when the academy opened.
This is what I’m talking about, Caps. Swap “hockey” in there, please?
Philadelphia did it. The Flyers help fund the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, which has — wait for it — 3,000 kids and four year-round rinks.
The District has one. One aging rink for figure skating, synchronized skating, speedskating, public skating and lessons. The Fort Dupont Ice Arena is held together by a Friends of Dupont network that sells most of its ice time to Northern Virginia teams and private schools.
Is this really your Washington, Caps?
The city has about $25 million slated to improve Fort Dupont. This is the perfect time for the Caps to come in and match it with real programming, teams, camps and input. The city’s only ice facility needs two rinks and a program to bring all the kids hanging around the Ward 7 rink onto the ice.
Gray worked with the Nats to make the baseball academy happen. He’d like the same partnership with the Caps.
“Ted Leonsis should be challenged now to turn this win into a point of civic pride, a moment on behalf of the people of D.C., especially the children of color of D.C.,” Gray said. “He is a good man and I think he can respond to the challenge. It is literally the right thing to do. We need to mainstream hockey in D.C.”
Douglas, the hockey blogger, and I disagree on the effort the Caps put into the city. He sees all the appearances and funding and donations — the big picture — and praises their efforts.
I’m a hockey mom who lives, eat and breathes (and oh, what a stench) youth hockey, who wrangles the scholarship money and does the carpool and hears the kids in the locker room, and I believe the Caps can do more. A Stanley Cup-size effort.
The fans who poured into the streets to cheer you on Tuesday, Caps, looked like your city.
I saw a boy with a worn Nationals red T-shirt. Over the Nats logo he had scrawled “Caps” with an ink pen, and he waved wildly as the bus with Ovi and the Stanley Cup inched by.
This new fan is your future, Caps. Do it right. As you’ve done everything else this year.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Devante Smith-Pelly is the Capitals’ only black player. Madison Bowey, a defenseman, is also black.
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