- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

They’re anywhere from 5 to 15 years of age, and they’re engaged in a sport — ice hockey — not known for its gentleness and consideration.

Yet the 40 or so children of varying sizes in the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast on a recent Wednesday night are practicing their skating and passing in such a graceful way that it almost looks choreographed.

The “choreographer”? Coach Neal Henderson, 69, who played semiprofessional ice hockey in the 1960s and 1970s with teams such as the Baltimore Clippers and the New York Rangers farm team and helped break the color barrier in a mostly white sport.

“He makes it look easy, doesn’t he?” Betty Dean says. She volunteers many hours a week to assist Mr. Henderson (or just “Coach,” as she and others refer to him) with organizing and fundraising for the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, a nonprofit group, and its team, the Cannons. “It’s like he has eyes in the back of his head.”

The club, which consists of mostly minority players, draws from neighborhoods in the rink’s vicinity. Some would call them rough neighborhoods. Diane Ware, who is raising her ice-hockey-loving grandson DeVon Rouse, 15, calls it her home.

“We live just across the street, and I love coming here,” Mrs. Ware says. “I call it my therapy, and when the season is over, I miss it terribly,” she says while standing with a group of three other parents and grandparents in the rink’s food service area. They’re chatting and joking about this and that while the children, clad in their black, yellow and white uniforms, are busy scrimmaging on the ice.

Also on the ice is assistant coach Steve Graham, 28, who grew up just around the corner from the rink on Alabama Avenue Southeast. Playing for Mr. Henderson and having somewhere to go at least two and sometimes three nights a week while he was a teenager was therapy of sorts for him, too, Mr. Graham says.

“It definitely kept me out of trouble,” he says. “I knew I had to maintain my grades or Coach Neal wouldn’t allow me to play.”

Mr. Henderson is known to bench players who don’t maintain a C average. He also makes the players — who include five girls — earn their gear and their positions on the club’s various teams. For example, many of the younger players don’t get their sticks until they are sufficient skaters, which usually happens at around age 7 or 8. In other words, the 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds have to “earn” their sticks through hard work.

The club has three teams or groups: the traveling team, the house team and the really young players team, which emphasizes skating skills such as developing speed, stopping and going backward.

“At that age, it’s also important to teach them not to be afraid. If it’s instilled early, it really helps,” Mr. Henderson says.

The coach founded the club three decades ago. His goal was to make youth hockey as much about learning life skills as it is a fun, physical sport.

“I see hockey as a tool for learning. You only achieve success if you work at it. Nothing is free,” he says.

There is one thing, however, that Mr. Henderson provides for free: a play-without-pay chance for families that can’t afford the gear and annual membership fees.

“We want it to be open to everyone,” Ms. Dean says. “If you’re broke, come anyway.”

The fees are around $300 per person per season, but she waives that dollar amount for families that can’t pay. She makes up for the loss in income by fundraising.

The season starts in the first week of October and runs through the second week in March. The traveling team faces several contenders on the road during that time, and Ms. Dean and Mr. Henderson try to include at least one field trip — most often skiing in Pennsylvania — for all players during the season.

“But not this year,” Ms. Dean says. We haven’t had any snow.”

Next year, she says, her goal is to take a group to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

“It’s going to require a lot of planning and fundraising, but I think it would be so much fun, so inspiring for them,” she says.

Many of the children don’t seem to need much inspiration beyond the chance to play for Mr. Henderson. They’re charged on the ice and off.

“I love hockey,” says Cormac Finn, 9. “I want to get into Gonzaga, so I can be an NHL player one day.”

He even has a plan for when he becomes rich and famous.

“I’m going to give all the money to charity,” Cormac says.

Gonzaga, a Catholic high school in the District, is known for its strong hockey program. Gonzaga is also the home of the Purple Puck, a local tournament for about a dozen high school varsity teams and about half a dozen junior varsity teams.

The Fort Dupont Cannons won the JV Purple Puck in 2005 and have placed in the top three several times in the past decade. This season, Gonzaga didn’t include the JV category, so the Cannons didn’t get a chance to compete, but Mr. Henderson is hoping for next year.

“We have a lot less ice time than most teams. We only play twice a week, and they’re out there five nights a week,” Mr. Henderson says.

Yet his Cannons have won several times against these better-equipped and better-prepared teams.

“I tell the players, with desire, determination and self-control, you can achieve anything,” he says. “That’s how we do it.”

That’s his message to the players whether they’re on the ice or not: Combine hard work, a drive and discipline, and any goal is attainable.

For Mr. Graham, this has proved to be true. His teenage years with Mr. Henderson not only kept him off the street and out of trouble, as he puts it, but also taught him to set goals and believe that with hard work he could achieve them.

Today, he is the operations manager at Fort Dupont Ice Arena and is planning to take courses at a community college toward a degree in business management.

“Hockey has helped keep me focused,” he says.

So, Mr. Graham continues the legacy of providing a place for neighborhood children to stay off the street, focusing on goals and learning life skills by being an assistant twice a week to Mr. Henderson, who, speaking of legacies, has no intention of hanging up his own stick and skates anytime soon.

“I can’t imagine sitting around at home,” he says. “I’ll be coaching as long as I can.”

Mr. Henderson spends about eight hours a week on the ice, either coaching or playing with a team of other seniors.

He’s so devoted to playing and coaching hockey, Ms. Dean says, that during the off-months in the summer, he sanitizes hundreds of skates.

“The only way I can explain it is Coach has a passion for hockey and coaching the kids,” she says. “He eats, drinks and breathes hockey.”

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