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US Hockey Hall of Fame

Henderson made difference on way to U.S. Hall of Fame

Pioneer of minority-oriented youth programs first African-American to be enshrined

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Neal Henderson thought it would be a one-shot thing.

When Henderson formed a hockey team in Washington, D.C., in 1978 to coach his son and his buddies in the game that he first fell in love with growing up in Canada, he figured he'd be done once the boys got older and moved on.

"I thought that would be the end of it," Henderson said. "But the kids kept saying 'We're coming back next year for you.' Parents would call me and say, 'My child is going crazy to play hockey' and then the next thing you know it's 'My son's friend wants to play hockey.'"

More than 40 years and 1,500 players later, the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, North America's oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program, is going strong with Henderson at the helm.

The 82-year-old former semi-pro hockey player and Air Force veteran never imagined that his volunteer work with children in an aging indoor rink in Southeast Washington would earn him a place in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

He will be inducted into the U.S. Hall on Dec. 12 with a class of 2019 that includes NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, goalie Tim Thomas, forward Brian Gionta and two-time U.S. Olympian Krissy Wendell-Pohl.

"It's something that sets you back on your heels, I'll tell you," said Henderson, the Hall's first black inductee and third person of color enshrined. "I never knew it would reach the heights that it did just had a bunch of kids who wanted to play hockey."

Since 1978, he has used the sport as a prism to instill teamwork, discipline, perseverance, responsibility and accountability in boys and girls from some of Washington's toughest neighborhoods, free of charge.

He has been a coach/father figure, a taskmaster who takes time to make sure his players are doing well on and off the ice -- doing something decades before it became the mission and mantra of the NHL.

"To me, he's the godfather of the Hockey Is For Everyone program," said Hockey Hall of Famer Willie O'Ree, who was the NHL's first black player and now serves as the League's diversity ambassador.

Bryant McBride, a former NHL vice president of business development, remembered being awestruck listening to Henderson during a meeting in the early 1990s with League and USA Hockey officials and organizers of about a half-dozen minority youth hockey programs that led to the creation of NHL Diversity, the predecessor of Hockey Is For Everyone.

"He was already 20 years in, he'd been doing it for years and we were all, like, 'Wow,'" McBride said. "When he spoke in that room, we all just shut up and listened. He paved this way for the rest of us to follow. And he's been mentoring all these programs for years."

Henderson, through his work with the Cannons, has also helped build a generation of black hockey fans in the nation's capital and beyond. He was one of the first people Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis reached out to when he took over the team in 1999.

"Neal, like Willie [O'Ree], both very consistent, very strong [on] point on view is it's all about the kids," Leonsis said. "It's that sincerity and authenticity over the 20 years I've gotten to know both of them, that's what you admire. They're not in it for the clicks, they're not in it for the recognition." 

It was no surprise that Leonsis and Alex Ovechkin took the Stanley Cup to the Fort Dupont Ice Arena after the Capitals won it in 2018 to share it with Henderson and his Cannons players.

"There's no love of hockey for black brothers and sisters in D.C. and elsewhere without Coach Neal," said George Love, a former Cannons player who teaches third grade in Prince George's County, Maryland. "He's created a whole population of hockey fans from this segment of the population. When you bring up hockey in D.C. it must coincide with Fort Dupont."

Henderson doesn't gauge his success in wins and losses. Instead, he measures it in lives saved or lives transformed positively forever.

"The most enjoyable thing is to see these kids come back and say, 'Thank you' -- not to hear, 'This kid got shot'," Henderson said. "Or he comes back and says, 'I'm a doctor, I'm a pharmacist' when he had no idea as a kid what he was going to do."

The main lessons Henderson has given four generations of Cannons, according to players past and present, is be their best on and off the ice and to get up if they fall, whether it's in a hockey game or in the game of life.  

"Coach Neal, Mondays and Wednesdays 6 to 7:20 p.m. on the ice, that was my dad," said Duante Abercrombie, a former Cannons player who was hired last month as assistant hockey coach at Stevenson University, an NCAA Division III school outside of Baltimore. He's one of only four black coaches in NCAA hockey in all divisions.

"It's that warm Coach Neal hug that, for a lot of us African-American players that grew up in Southeast D.C. or Washington, D.C. in general, we didn't have at home," Abercrombie said. "We had that motherly figure, a grandmotherly figure, but very few of us had a mother and a father in the home. We always knew when we got to the rink, we had Coach Neal there telling us we need to dress presentably, shirts tucked in, pants pulled up; to watch our mouths when we're around adults and women. Those lessons that he instilled I'll never forget."

Video: Henderson on being U.S. HHOF inductee, Fort Dupont

Henderson was born in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands and moved to St. Catharines, Ontario, when his father, a Merchant Marine, was sent there during World War II.

Henderson started playing hockey there because that's what the other kids in the neighborhood did. He quickly found himself mesmerized by what he calls the "language of stick and puck.

"It's the way the puck sounds hitting the stick," he said. "The way the puck feels when it touches your stick."

He went on to play semiprofessional and amateur hockey in Washington and in Utah, where he was stationed at Hill Air Force Base outside Salt Lake City in the early 1960s. 

It was there where the seeds of coaching and helping children were first planted.

"He taught kids hockey out there, and he used to always talk about it," said Neal Henderson II., the coach's son. "It was a burning passion for him."

After hearing his father talk about the experience so many times, the younger Henderson asked his father, who had settled in Maryland, "Dad, why don't you do that here?

"It was like an old 'I could have had a V8' TV commercial moment for him, he hadn't thought about it before then," Henderson II. said. "He was always skating, always working at the [Washington] Coliseum, sharpening his skates, everything hockey.

"Shortly after that conversation, he launched the [Fort Dupont] program, and I guess the rest is history."

These days, Henderson finds himself coaching legacies -- the children of players he's coached over the years. George Love's 9-year-old son, Javier, wears the same No. 1 white jersey his father wore when he was a Cannon in the 1990s.

"It was preordained," said Jennifer Love, Javier's mother. "There's no other place he was going to be. In the couple of years he has played for the club, we have definitely seen the growth in Javier and how much he admires his coaches and how much his competitive spirit, in a positive way, has helped him in school in being focused … so he can continue to participate in this type of sport."

Henderson wants to stick around to see another generation of Cannons hit the ice.

"I hope to get 50 years with the program," he said. "I'm 82 years old now and I'm hoping I'll be in good shape at 90. See, at 90 I want to be able to come, sit in the bleachers and watch hockey."

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