William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past eight years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the game. Today, he looks at a recent charity game between the Baltimore Banners, a minority-oriented youth hockey team, and the Sentinels, a team of Baltimore first responders.
A miracle on ice occurred on multiple levels when the Baltimore Banners played the Sentinels in early March.
Drew Robinson scored with four seconds remaining in the third period giving the Banners a 7-6 comeback win against the Sentinel team at Baltimore's Mimi DiPietro Family Skating Center.
The bigger miracle was that the game happened at all.
The Banners are mostly of players of color from some of East Baltimore's toughest and most disenfranchised neighborhoods. The Sentinels are a squad of Baltimore first responders -- police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and a few members of the U.S. military.
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Distrust of the police has long run through segments of Baltimore's minority communities, especially among youth, and reached a riotous boiling point following the 2015 death of a 25-year-old black man from injuries he sustained while in police custody.
The Banners, a 9-year-old program, and the Sentinels, a newly formed team, decided that it was time to try and promote some goodwill and understanding through hockey in what both teams hope will become an annual event.
The March 8 game was spirited, physical and fun, with both teams playing for keeps. The Banners came away with the win -- as well as more than $2,000 in cash and new and used hockey equipment raised donated by the Sentinels.
"This brings together two groups in Baltimore City that kind of had a contentious relationship -- you have the Baltimore police department and you have inner city youth," said Antoine Green Sr., a volunteer board member for the nonprofit Banners. "This is important because we need to bridge that gap between the two."
Consider Mike McKay a bridge-builder. He's a Baltimore EMT who plays for the city fire department hockey team and the Sentinels; he joined the Banners coaching staff six months ago.
McKay knew that the Banners didn't have many games scheduled during the season -- they can't afford it -- and the Sentinels didn't have a full schedule because they had just formed.
"I thought it would be a good opportunity for them to come together and play," McKay said. "It would give the kids an opportunity and the police officers an opportunity to bond together knowing the relationship on the street isn't too well with them in the last couple of years.
"For the police officers, it gave them a chance to reach out to the kids to show them that they're not all about trying to get them in trouble, chase them down the street, things like that. And it gave the kids an opportunity to reach out and bond a little bit."
Baltimore isn't the only place where hockey is being used to try to heal fractured relations between law enforcement and communities of color.
Defenseman P.K. Subban established P.K.'s Blueline Buddies program in 2017 while playing for the Nashville Predators and brought it to New Jersey after he was traded to the Devils in June 2019. Under the program, police officers in Newark and local youth are guests of Subban's at home games, where they are treated to dinner and get to meet the defenseman afterward.
There are also programs like the Hawthorne Force, created by the community affairs division of the Hawthorne Police Department, to provide youth in an underserved community near the Los Angeles Kings practice facility.
The program's start in 2013 was assisted by a grant and equipment donations from the NHL Players' Association Goals & Dreams Fund.
In Baltimore, Sgt. Steven Slack stood near the Sentinels bench in his blue uniform and smiled as he watched some of his officers race up and down the ice against the Banners.
"I'm waiting to hear my officers say, 'I'm so sore,'" Slack said with a laugh. "[Those] kids ran them around."
The sergeant called the game "a positive step in the direction of building the relationship between them and the community, getting them to see that we're not just machines or whatever."
"You actually see us as people as opposed to a man or woman in uniform," he said.
Robinson, the 17-year-old who scored the game-winning goal, agreed.
"I feel like these guys are really good,": he said. "They're hard workers, they keep the community safe."
Antoine Green Jr., the Banners goalie, said the game provided a good time "to time to put aside age-old differences and see our true personalities come to light."
"Out in everyday life, you're not going to see much of this because it's that one confrontation and that's it," he said. "Getting this whole fundraiser, hockey game organized, you get to see the true colors of each other. I think it helps with bonding and understanding."