WASHINGTON -- The unveiling of the refurbished Watkins Rush Rink brightened a dreary Friday morning in southeast Washington, D.C.
Twelve Watkins Elementary School students slipped on the deep red sweaters that the Washington Capitals will wear against the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2015 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic on Jan. 1 over their raincoats.
With navy blue toques on their heads, the kids, who sat through a 15-minute dedication presentation, grabbed multicolored sticks and played an impromptu street hockey game officiated by Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Rod Langway.
The renovated rink, located at the Watkins Elementary School and Recreation Center, is less than two miles from where the Winter Classic will be played at Nationals Park.
The event Friday was part of the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic powered by Constellation Legacy Initiative, in which the League works in conjunction with the team hosting an NHL event to support community organizations.
With the assistance of the Capitals, NHL sponsors, Washington D.C. Parks and Recreation and Washington D.C. Public Schools, Watkins Rush Rink underwent $115,000 in restorations.
"We think that this was an opportunity to give back to the city of Washington, D.C. and to partner with the Washington Capitals," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "We know, and this is something that [Capitals owner] Ted Leonsis and the Caps organization stands for. It's not just enough to put a great hockey team on the ice night in and night out and excite the community about the sport itself, but it's important to use sports to give back to the community, to make a difference."
Among the changes to Watkins Rush Rink are new team benches, repaired netting and boards, updated energy-efficient lighting, new goalie nets and new rubber matting surrounding the rink made from recycled Bridgestone tires. In addition, 21 local schools received new street hockey equipment, which will benefit more than 8,000 students.
"It will spread the 'Rock The Red' spirit throughout our neighborhood every single day for these children and many other families," said Amy Caspari of D.C. Parks and Recreation.
Bettman cited the Capitals' philanthropic endeavors and the success of the on-ice product as reasons for the area's substantial growth of interest in hockey. Since the 2002-03 season no market has seen a higher participation growth rate than Washington's 642 percent, according to Bettman.
For Leonsis, the neighborhood around Watkins Rush Rink reminded him of the one in which he grew up. He spoke of how his after-school participation in sports developed relationships and interpersonal skills that aided him in his life.
The focus Jan. 1 will be on the Capitals and Blackhawks, but it was important to Leonsis to leave something behind past New Year's Day that will have a positive impact on the community.
"I have some friends who didn't do well in their lives because they didn't get inside the walls," Leonsis said. "If we help a couple of kids go this way instead of that way, that's an incredibly meaningful legacy."