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When 15-year-old Braeden Montague, a defenseman for the local Potomac Patriots, entered through the doors of MedStar Capitals Iceplex, he couldn't believe his eyes.

The start of the Rising Stars Academy was an environment many of the players involved had never experienced before.

"I've never seen so many hockey players of color," said Braeden to his mom Raveena Seeraj-Montague. "I'm amazed that there are this many people."

This acknowledgment is the standard that these players quickly discovered: hockey is for everyone.

Youth hockey players of color and their families flocked to the Capitals practice rink for the start of the Academy's two-day clinic, eagerly awaiting what was in store.

Participants mulled their hockey bags over their shoulders while the sounds of their sticks, while gripped in their hands, smacked the floor side to side with a hockey ball. These are hockey players through and through with their passion for the game ruminating throughout the mezzanine level.

Little did they know that they would leave the academy with not only valuable on-ice hockey experience but off-ice discussions and resolutions that would last a lifetime.

Led by lead instructor, Capitals Black Hockey Committee member, and past Toronto Maple Leafs coaching development associate Duante' Abercrombie - the Rising Stars Academy is a no cost, co-ed program developed for youth hockey players of color to gain elite skill development and mentorship.

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The academy was designed to provide minority youth players who play travel and high-level house hockey across the Washington, D.C. area an environment to interact with their peers and coaches across various races. The program also informs players and their families about what hockey can provide, what the next steps are in their careers, and how to achieve them.

The Capitals received an overwhelmingly positive response in terms of people who registered. A total of 115 players -- 97 boys and 18 girls between the ages of 9-17 were accepted into the inaugural program.

Participants identify as Asian, Black, or African American, Hispanic, or Latino, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Island Native and as Two or More Races.

The academy was funded through the Capital Impact Fund, which was established in 2020 by the Capitals and Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation to provide grants to organizations that can assist in eliminating cost barriers faced by people of color in the hockey community.

For some parents and players, this experience and honor for their child to be accepted into the academy was unlike anything they had ever seen.

"To see this inclusion and to have coaches of color here; my son has never had an African American hockey coach, that's amazing," said Raveena Seeraj-Montague. "It lets him know that he can do whatever his hockey dreams are and can accomplish them."

Raveena and Braeden, who were staying in Winnipeg for a family visit, started their descent to D.C. in two days. They drove 10 hours on day one and 12 hours on day two before finally reaching the nation's capital.

Braeden and his mom wouldn't trade the exhaustive car ride in to miss out on a clinic they will remember forever.

"It was an honor to be chosen; so many children apply," said Seeraj-Montague of her son. "He just loves the sport. In the D.C. area, how we've seen hockey grow here is amazing."

Ralph Featherstone, a 14-year-old player for the local Fort Dupont Cannons, got his first experience as a "star" last season when the Capitals recognized future "Rising Stars" for their leadership, paving the way for the next generation of Black hockey players in-game.

"It was a great honor [to be accepted]," said Featherstone. "My dad always thought of me as a rising star and to actually be one is pretty special."

Arriving to address the "Rising Stars" for the first time Saturday morning, Abercrombie's presence was instantly displayed through his powerful voice and echoing personality.

He immediately gained the room's attention, proving the type of leader the young players can admire.

As someone who was born and raised in D.C. and played for the Fort Dupont Cannons as a kid, Abercrombie is the perfect role model.

"Duante' Abercrombie - he's a true professional, every sense of the word," said Capitals director of youth hockey development Peter Robinson. "We felt that he was the perfect person to lead the Rising Stars Academy and to represent the Washington Capitals when it comes to diversity and inclusion. [For him] having these difficult conversations to really change the hockey culture and help the sport grow in the future."

After Abercrombie addressed the crowd, it was time for a media training session. Media training aims to implement a certain standard for young players to act in a certain way on social media and around professionals.

Capitals beat reporter for The Athletic Tarik El-Bashir and NHL.com writer William Douglas were both special guests sharing the importance of professionalism and respect while dealing with the media.

The biggest thing El-Bashir, Douglas, and Abercrombie stressed is how demonstrating character, respect, and passion will go a long way.

"My goal, with the support of the Washington Capitals, is to help develop great humans through hockey," said Abercrombie.

After the players polished up on their interview skills, it was time for a film session.

Abercrombie showed his coaching pedigree while going through specific clips from NHL games, pointing out little details one may be unable to see. He showed videos of Toronto Maple Leafs players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner getting to the middle of the ice and identifying the weak-side open player.

Abercrombie occasionally asked about positioning and where that player should get to on the ice.

A hand was raised one by one to shout, "Middle, middle!" Abercrombie stood there in approval like a proud hockey dad and mentor that he is.

As the video analysis ended, a group of players were sent to the locker rooms to test their skills on the ice.

Each player donning a "Rising Stars Academy" logo in a black and grey jersey marched onto the ice to begin the practice. The primary logo for the Rising Stars Academy incorporates artwork by Robert Generette III, also known as Zilla, from the Capitals' 2023 Black History warmup jersey.

Skating, puck possession, defensive checking, and positioning were some of the main parts of the practice.

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"My favorite part was doing the passing drill, battling on the boards, and some shooting," said Featherstone, whose goal is to perfect his between-the-legs move.

It's safe to assume the players enjoyed having the puck on their stick than not, just like most offensive hockey players do.

While this group sharpened their skills, the other half of the players were upstairs learning about nutrition.

Joel "Chef JoJo" Thomas, a private chef and local hockey player, and Chef Robbie, executive chef of SuperFd catering and the Capitals head chef, led participants in a cooking demonstration focused on healthy eating.

The pair demonstrated a chicken and veggie stir fry as a healthy and accessible meal that the players and parents can make.

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The nutrition demonstration group flip-flopped with the group on the ice when both sessions ended.

It wouldn't be until day two and the final day of the academy when the two groups came together for the ultimate lesson.

Abercrombie led a discussion about conflict resolution, hockey culture, and race that hit home for many families.

These are kids who may have or will face potential challenges playing in a predominately white sport. There is hate and racism in the world, and it's crucial for these players to understand, overcome, and grow as a person.

"I'm hoping to learn about hockey inclusion," said Featherstone. "I'm a Black player, and there's not a lot of Black hockey players that look like me so inclusion is really important off the ice."

As important as it is for these players to practice their skills on an ice sheet, it's far more uplifting for them to share and have a sense of belonging within their community.

One common theme shared between parents and players is that they've never seen so many players of color in one room or on one ice sheet before.

The Rising Stars Academy is a community for those to convene, speak, and share a common space of belonging.

Abercrombie and Robinson plan to continue communicating with this community throughout the season via different touchpoints. This academy isn't a one-and-done - it's forever.

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"Our focus is really going to be building the community for Rising Stars [Academy] and providing opportunities for the families to get together," said Robinson. "Providing opportunities that could be in the form of getting online in a digital format and having ongoing discussions or video calls with Duante' or with some of the other coaches here."

As the academy closed, there was one final seminar featuring the Players Against Hate curriculum. Players Against Hate works to increase awareness and stop racism and name-calling by youth athletes, their teams and coaches, their families, and spectators. The organization was an inaugural Capital Impact Fund beneficiary.

The organization was created in 2019 under unfortunate circumstances where thirteen-year-old Divyne Apollon II was the victim of racially motivated taunts and slurs during a youth hockey tournament in Bowie, Maryland.

"These kids need help to teach them things that the people who came before them didn't necessarily have and was more difficult to learn," said Players Against Hate founder Tammi Lynch. "That will be invaluable for the kids and their families. And then coupling that with the work against the hate these kids are regularly experiencing will work to change the culture that we know exists."

Abercrombie and the other coaches of color at the academy genuinely believe that these players and environment can be impacted, which has already been evident from the growth of hockey across the area.

"Just the numbers that are now being tracked by the Washington Capitals are something that we haven't had in the past," said Abercrombie. "I love the fact that this initiative has brought those numbers to the forefront. We were expecting 20 to 40 players, and we had over 150 register and we were able to bring over 100 to the actual event."

As the two-day clinic concluded, Abercrombie took a minute to reflect on what took place in front of him this weekend.

Not only was he the leader of a significant hockey group of minority players, but he was able to implement an educational system where he was first introduced to the game.

"Honestly, I just look out in the audience, and I see little Duante'," said Abercrombie. "It's so heartwarming and inspiring to be able to come back and help impact the lives of the next generation of hockey players from Washington, D.C."