The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is shameful: In a wealthy hockey town, D.C. kids have nowhere decent to play

Synchronized skaters Etta Shalaty, 11, and Jaiden Thomas, 12, practice at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena.
Synchronized skaters Etta Shalaty, 11, and Jaiden Thomas, 12, practice at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena. (J. Lawler Duggan for The Washington Post)
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The nation’s capital is now peak hockeytown, right?

There’s the Stanley Cup.

You can’t go 10 feet without running into a Caps logo.

Get this — there’s even a big hockey game between members of Congress and their staffs this week.

But there’s shame in this newly minted hockeytown.

It’s across the Anacostia River, in this city’s lone, ailing public ice rink.

The only indoor rink in the District, Fort Dupont Ice Arena, houses at least six youth hockey teams, figure skating, synchronized skating and speed skating — along with public hours and the Kids on Ice program. The rink has produced NHL players and Olympic speed skaters. Its programs are so popular that gobs of kids — many of them from D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8 — are turned away every year.

And the rink was about to get cut off.

School repairs v. ice rinks: Mayor’s choice inflames passions

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she was looking for money to fix heating and air conditioning, make roof repairs, and fix outdoor facilities at 10 schools. And she wanted the $25 million that the decrepit Fort Dupont Ice Arena needs to keep functioning and was promised after years of fighting for the repairs.

So then we had folks all over town arguing that heated schools are more important than an ice rink.

What a ridiculous debate, especially in a city that has had surpluses in the hundreds of millions for the past several years. The District has plunked down hundreds of millions of dollars to help build professional sports facilities — the women’s pro basketball arena in Congress Heights, the D.C. United soccer stadium at Buzzard Point, the Nationals baseball stadium at Navy Yard.

Tuesday’s council meeting was set to defund the rink.

After a week of calls and emails from parents and fans, plenty of news stories, this column and emergency legislation by City Councilmember Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), the mayor agreed not to pull all the funding from the rink late Monday night and it was taken off the agenda, according to rink staff.

The issue will be revisited at a Feb. 19 meeting, they said.

“In short, there is an agreement for discussions and an agreement by the mayor’s people to not touch Fort Dupont’s money,” said Chuck Thies, a political consultant who often works with Gray. “That is a victory, but as always, the devil is in the details and there remain many specifics to be hammered out. This battle was won by Fort Dupont and Gray, there’s now a truce, but a treaty hasn’t yet been negotiated.”

But the truth is, there are others who should step up, too.

Ted Leonsis, it’s time.

The owner of the Washington Capitals made a big push for saving Fort Dupont last week.

Leonsis tweeted that the rink is “a community treasure and a critical facility for young skaters,” and he plugged it on the Jumbotron at the Caps game on Sunday.

I heard from plenty of folks who were taken aback at this kind of fundraising from a high-profile billionaire.

“I have to admit I sat at the Capitals game on Sunday and stared dumbfounded at the jumbotron during a timeout not sure if I actually saw correctly that the Caps had started a GoFundMe for Fort Dupont,” one season ticket holder said. “Really? A pro hockey team relies on GoFundMe?! “

The charity branch of his company — Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation — launched a GoFundMe for the rink, and Leonsis, his company and the National Hockey League each donated — wait for it — $100,000.

Please. That’s like couch-cushion change for these folks. It’s time for more.

After I wrote a few stories last month about a 13-year-old black hockey player, Divyne Apollon, and the racist taunts he heard on the ice and the way his team supported him, the Caps weighed in.

A black hockey player faced racism on the ice — his team wasn’t having it

They reached out to Divyne and invited his whole team to a game, then met with them afterward. Photos and smiles galore.

That was awesome, but the dirty secret behind all those photo ops is that the Caps have done little to provide full-throated, behind-the-scenes, meaningful support to players like Divyne.

They consistently boast that they’ve helped the programs at Fort Dupont with about $200,000 in donations. Since 2003. That’s, like, their Gatorade budget.

You see, the Caps have a glorious facility for their team to practice in and an entire youth league — the Little Caps — built around them. Great stuff, but two problems.

First, the facility is in Virginia, on the rooftop of Ballston Mall. (Call them the Ballston Caps, then?)

And second, the youth team is great; the coaches are top-notch. But take a wild guess what it costs for one kid to play, all-in, with the program?

I love asking this question because people usually guess: $600? $800? Maybe a wise guy who knows how expensive hockey is will say $2,000, with a smirk.

Nope. The cost can reach $20,000 for a year of youth hockey when your kid wears the mini-me Little Caps jersey. Yes, you read that right.

Leonsis styles himself as a civic-minded kind of mogul.

In his end-of-the-year companywide email, published by the Washington Business Journal, he wrote, “We just completed the most productive, successful and socially responsible year of any sports and entertainment organization.”

You won the Stanley Cup, Caps. Now, time to make youth hockey a thing in D.C.

And they are on track, according to the letter, to reach $500 million in revenue this year.

It’s time, Ted Leonsis, to make a substantial commitment to youth hockey in your team’s hometown.

The blueprint is right there — it shares the same parking lot as Fort Dupont. The Nationals put up about $3 million to help the city build Nats Academy, a state-of-the-art baseball facility that is packed with kids from all over the city.

So far, the Caps, Leonsis himself and his company, Monumental Sports and Entertainment Foundation, have put up $300,000.

I know Fort Dupont. Both of my boys started skating there, and it’s home ice for both of their teams. It’s my second home, where I sleep and do interviews in the car while they practice, where I tear up at their milestones on the ice, where I appreciate the sheer terror of the deep fryer when I volunteer at the concessions stand.

And when we travel to glorious, suburban rinks, at nearly every game, at least one parent from the opposing team shudders and says somthing like, “Oh, your rink. We hate going there.”

The Caps spent $40 million last year on luxury upgrades to their downtown arena. A fraction of that would earn Leonsis credit for the civic engagement and social responsibility he believes in. It would create a whole new generation and demographic of hockey fans. It’s time for more in Washington, Washington Capitals.

Read more Petula Dvorak:

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A hockey player faced racism on the ice and his team took action