A documentary about DC hockey coach Neal Henderson’s guns reminds us what’s at stake

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His players are not in the NHL.

Championship banners don’t hang from the rafters of its rink and shiny tournament cups aren’t in the display case. He struggles to schedule matches for his players.

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

And a documentary that had its DC premiere on Saturday reminds the nation’s capital that Henderson — and the rink where he etched hockey’s life lessons into the lives of thousands of local kids — deserves support.

“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 lessons, who received phone calls monkeys and racial slurs hurled by white players. , “You can do anything.”

That’s the magic of Henderson, who in his 44 years coaching the nation’s oldest minority hockey team has shown hundreds of DC kids that, yes, they can do something. something that seems impossible.

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

Hall and his friend Robert Lynch are the origin of the story of “The Cannons”, a film of two Canadians who found the purest essence of sport in a black neighborhood of the American 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 jeopardy.

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 on-ice miracle that goes far beyond the rink.

“Parents went places they hadn’t even thought of,” Henderson said during a Q&A after the movie. “And the kids played hockey in places they’d never heard of.

He explained the ripples of influence that follow children as they come off the streets and onto the ice.

The Cannons are not part of a league, so Henderson organizes games with volunteer teams in Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey. They delve into shooting, skating and strategy before games, but Henderson also inspires players to learn more about states, their histories, even their primary cultures, so when players return to school and a teacher asks what they did during the weekend, they have something interesting to offer.

“We played hockey,” Henderson said, the kids said. “And we went to Ohio. And Ohio, they’re famous for their apples. They are also famous for their railways, their agricultural lands. They can go back and tell their class about what they did.

Lt. Col. Ralph Featherstone, a protege of Henderson who later played hockey at the US Naval Academy and became an aviator in the Marine Corps, said Saturday he would hear Henderson’s voice urging him when ‘he would take on life’s challenges, like airsickness. during flight training.

An airman who struggles with airsickness is not much different from a black boy who plays hockey, he said.

“I could hear the coach’s voice yelling at me to keep my stick on that ice,” Featherstone recalled after the film’s premiere. “I learned how to operate radar with a bag of vomit in my hand. It was a homecoming.”

The Cannons and Henderson, who have inspired similar programs across the country, are extraordinary. Two Canadians made a documentary when they saw it. The American Hockey Hall of Fame gets it. People shouting, clapping and crying in the audience know this well.

You know who doesn’t seem to understand? DC leaders.

Although Fort Dupont Ice Arena is home to one of the city’s most inspiring stories, it’s a neglected and abandoned government property that, once again, has been relegated to the bottom of the city’s priority list.

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The rink fans — and I was one of them for a long time as the parent of two Fort Dupont hockey players whose lives were immensely enriched by three Cannons who became phenomenal coaches (thanks to Bryan King, Marquise Cotten and Duante’ Abercrombie) – fought for years to get help for the struggling facility, built in 1976.

Finally, in 2013, the city agreed to a brand new $15 million rink that would have two new sheets of ice. Don’t forget that Fort Dupont is home to the Cannons as well as two Olympic speed skaters and thousands of figure skaters.

It took so long to greenlight the plan that once it was finally greenlit last year, the cost soared to $37 million and the project was cut in half, with a single sheet of ice. Its unexplained new price is “the cost per square foot of a New York skyscraper,” the Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena said in a statement lambasting the city.

The Friends, the non-profit organization that runs the rink, refused to close it for demolition until a better plan was created. The fight to save DC’s only indoor rink — and the Cannons, Titans, Gonzaga Eagles, and the joy of the thousands of skaters who call it home — is at an impasse.

So while film festivals go to celebrate this remarkable story of Henderson and his guns, their home ice cream is in jeopardy. The municipal agency responsible for the contract did not respond to questions on Monday.

Fort Dupont’s new ice rink is mothballed. Again.

When writing Henderson’s nomination to join the Hockey Hall of Fame, journalist William Douglas explained the Cannons’ mission:

“It seems like in sport it’s all about metrics, numbers, goals and assists, wins and losses, and Neal doesn’t talk about that,” Douglas said in the premiere.

“Neal Henderson isn’t talking about wins and losses,” he said, but “lives being saved.”

DC owes Henderson to save its rink.


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