The 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field will host 65,000 fans, two teams and one rivalry: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals. This year, for the first time, the teams' journeys to the Winter Classic are being documented in HBO's Emmy Award-winning reality series, "24/7."
Another less-publicized story will play out at this NHL Winter Classic -- the story of the youth pond, which is one about overcoming adversity and peer pressure. This year, the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club's Cannons and the Pittsburgh ICE will show their skills and sportsmanship on the youth auxiliary pond, which will be situated on the Heinz Field playing surface, adjacent to the main rink, where the Penguins and Capitals will face off.
The Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club has been giving children the opportunity to play hockey since 1977, when it was founded by Neal Henderson. It didn't occur to him then, as he packed 12 neighborhood kids into two cars, that this was the beginning of what was to become the oldest minority youth hockey program in the country.
Over 30 years later, Henderson has molded good hockey players and great citizens by focusing on dedication, determination, discipline and self-respect.
This past June, Henderson was named the recipient of the 2010 Bridgestone Mark Messier Youth Leadership Award, an honor bestowed for his decades of dedication to youth hockey. When Messier presented the award at the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, he called Henderson an "educator on skates."
Fenway kids (Getty Images)
Now entering its 33rd year, the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club has provided more than 4,500 children, from age 8 to high school seniors, a chance to skate. Henderson leads a staff of coaches -- most of whom are graduates of the program -- that teaches the arts of skating, stick handling and situational play.
Fort Dupont gives boys and girls who otherwise might only have dreamed of playing hockey the opportunity to skate every week, to compete against kids their own age, and to meet, learn from and skate with the pros.
Every child in the program knows the rules: Learn the game, respect the experience and find the value in your dedication and determination. In exchange, they'll get game time -- none of Henderson's kids sit on the bench because the chance to skate is a chance to learn, to experience and to grow.
The Cannons' success isn't measured in wins. Rather, Henderson's achievement is reflected by the fact that 95 percent of his graduates go on to college and earn degrees, becoming lawyers, computer analysts, police officers, graphic designers, musicians, servicemen and any other job they could possibly want.
For Henderson's kids, playing on this year's Winter Classic youth pond is one of the only chances they'll get to skate outside. It is an opportunity that Henderson says "brings a sense of adventure to the kids' skating experience. To be outside, to experience the hockey of yesteryear, is itself a reward -- to witness how hockey was pioneered and to gain understanding of what it's evolved into."
Skating with the Cannons will be members of the Pittsburgh ICE (formerly Hockey in the Hood). ICE stands for "inclusion creates equality," and for the past 10 years, head coach and director of hockey operations Howard Smith, alongside founder and president Cliff Benson, has been giving kids the chance to play hockey at minimal or no cost to the players and their families.
Since its inaugural season in 2000, Pittsburgh ICE has provided instruction for over 700 boys and girls in the Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania area, and participation continues to grow each year. More than 150 players registered for the 2009-10 season registered and the program is on target to surpass that number this season.
Kids from the inner-city areas of Pittsburgh learn about the program through community outreach. Members of the ICE staff visit local schools and youth recreation centers to spread the word that social and/or economic reasons should not prohibit children from learning to skate, play hockey or compete in exhibition games.
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The Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club and the Pittsburgh ICE programs offer their players a series of firsts: first time lacing up skates, first time learning to skate with others, first time traveling and competing against other teams in other states and the first time they are able to skate with their heroes -- professional hockey players who not only believe in their ability, but often are wowed by it.
The programs showcase the NHL's "Hockey is for Everyone" initiative that provides support for non-profit youth hockey organizations across the country and has touched thousands of children in just over a dozen years. The initiative is a component of the League's "Biggest Assist Happens Off The Ice" campaign.
"Both hockey programs are national models when it comes to youth enrichment and diversity programming," said Ken Martin, NHL Vice President of Community Affairs and Diversity Programming and Cause Marketing. "The NHL is so pleased to welcome both programs to the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic as we pay homage to the history of children and families playing hockey on frozen ponds, lakes and rivers."
The importance of giving children the opportunity to set and achieve goals, as well as scoring them, is evident in the support and participation shown by the League's teams and players.
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik donated 15 sets of OneGoal starter kits to the Pittsburgh ICE program. Each kit includes a helmet with face shield, chest protector, elbow pads, gloves, pants and shin pads.
The Washington Capitals have a long-standing relationship with Henderson and Fort Dupont. Members of the Caps participate in an annual clinic and members of the Cannons often participate as flag kids at Capitals home games. Defenseman Mike Green and team captain Alex Ovechkin each purchase sections of seats each season that go to deserving kids -- many of whom skate for the Fort Dupont program.
"We are fortunate to have the Fort Dupont Cannons in our backyard," said Elizabeth Wodatch, director of community relations for the Capitals. "Neal Henderson is a pioneer who has dedicated his life to the sport of hockey and making it accessible to underserved kids in Washington, D.C. With his leadership, he has instilled pride, self-esteem and a love for the sport in his players."
In 2008, Ovechkin conducted an exclusive hockey clinic for the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club. Ovechkin, who grew up learning to play in Moscow, understands this inspiration first-hand -- he skated with legendary Russian center Igor Larionov when he was 15 years old.
Additionally, members of Fort Dupont and Pittsburgh ICE sharpened their skating skills with the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins before heading to the White House to see President Obama honor the champion team, where he also emphasized the importance of staying in school and leading a strong, healthy lifestyle.
The journey to today's NHL has been chronicled on HBO's "24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic," with the final episode of the four-part mini-series covering the Winter Classic. However, for the kids from these two special programs, the experience of playing hockey and skating on the Heinz Field youth pond surpasses days and weeks. It is the opportunity of a lifetime.