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Ovechkin is just one of the kids

Wednesday, 12.10.2008 / 11:00 AM / NHL Insider

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

Neal Henderson can recall the days pressing his face against the chicken wire at the rink in downtown Washington D.C. to catch a glimpse of the local hockey professionals performing their magic.

He always imagined what it would be like to skate and learn the basics from the men who made it look so simple.

On Thursday, the 72-year-old Henderson will give the players of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club the opportunity he could only dream of as a teenager -- a chance to skate with Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.

Ovechkin will conduct an exclusive hockey clinic for the kids of Henderson's club team from 2:30-3:30 p.m. at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Va.

"To me, it shows that our organization and our kids must mean something to the world to have a worldly-known person come to visit because he's only known to people like (the NHL fans and media)," Henderson said.

Ovechkin still recalls how special it was for him to be taught the basics back home in Moscow, Russia.

"I remember how big a deal it was for older guys to be skating with us when I was a kid," Ovechkin said. "When you see how big and fast and strong a guy can be, that was really special. I was a little older, maybe 15, when Igor Larionov skated with my team in Moscow, with Dynamo. That was unbelievable."

Ovechkin, 23, hopes his presence will provide the children of the oldest minority hockey program in the country with lasting memories.
 
"It's a little different in Moscow, since I go out with the Dynamo kids who are part of the same club I played with when I was younger," Ovechkin said. "They're excited, but sometimes it's no big deal, I just go and skate. Here the kids are crazy sometimes and that can be fun because I like when they are excited. It's fun for me too."
 
Despite the fact Henderson was born in Saint Croix, Virgin Islands, and Ovechkin in Russia, both are considered role models in their craft. Henderson, though, is the undeniable father figure.

"The first thing I teach my kids is dedication and, after that, determination," he said.

Henderson provides each new child entering the program a lecture on what he and the club stands for before presenting them a helmet, a pair of skates and a jersey. Upon earning a pair of gloves and a stick, the player eventually graduates into full gear and placed on the house travel team.

"If I take a kid and just stick him into a hockey game, he won't learn anything," Henderson said. "If you give them goals that they have to work toward, you can see them improve. I let each child go at his own pace."

It's no wonder 95 percent of the players who graduate from Henderson's program eventually move on and earn college degrees. More than 4,500 players have skated in the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club and this year's group includes 50 boys and girls ranging in age from 5 to 18 from around Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland and even Pittsburgh.

Kids who have graduated Henderson's program have moved on to not only become college graduates, but doctors, lawyers, school teachers, police officers, electrical engineers, scientists and professors. And to think, a majority of the children who enter the club came from broken homes or were suffering some sort of physical or emotional anguish.

"One of the things I tell the kids is that hockey is a tool of life's expectancies," Henderson said. "You use this tool to the best of your ability so that you can be able to conquer all of your expectations in life. If you don't have any expectations in life, you have nothing to look forward to."

No volunteer staff member of the Fort Dupont Club, including Henderson, earns a dime for time spent working for the children. The club remains financially afloat due to Henderson's fundraising efforts, while player equipment is donated and kept in pristine condition by Henderson himself.

"I look at every piece of equipment and check every nut, bolt and screw before it ever touches a child," Henderson said. "I don't put anything on those children that I wouldn't wear myself."

Henderson, who has also held clinics with Caps forward Donald Brashear, is a huge Capitals fan who admits to watching the hometown club on television any chance he gets.

"It was promising last year and this year I'm confident the team will make it happen," Henderson said. "I watch the team every chance I get on TV and if it's not during a time when I have to be with the kids. Sometimes, we're able to get some tickets to a Caps game and I always make sure every child has a chance to see a game."

On Thursday, however, one of the game's best players will return the favor by joining Henderson and his students of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club.

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.



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