WASHINGTON — For 40 years Neal Henderson has given underprivileged kids the chance to play hockey at Fort Dupont Ice Arena.
On Thursday, Henderson was honored for his life’s work with induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Henderson was inducted along with NHL greats Tim Thomas and Brian Gionta, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and U.S. Olympian Krissy Wendell. He heard kind words spoken about his program, the Fort Dupont Cannons, from the likes of Bettman, Alex Ovechkin and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and also received a video tribute.
It’s been quite a week for Henderson, who drew a sustained ovation from the crowd at Tuesday’s Capitals-Boston Bruins game when acknowledged on the big video board at Capital One Arena.
“It’s amazing. Something I never believed I could be a part of,” Henderson said. “It’s the zenith of my life other than being married and having a son. I’ve enjoyed what I have done. I didn’t do it for the reasons of being here. I did it for the love of kids and the parents who trusted me with their children.”
Henderson said he “became completely numb” when he got the phone call learning he’d be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. The Cannons developmental program, based at Fort Dupont, is designed to help local underprivileged kids play an expensive sport that is out of reach for many. Fort Dupont features the oldest minority hockey league in North America.
It’s not a route to the NHL. But Henderson has helped kids play high school and college hockey, passing on the lessons he’s learned over decades: That hard work and character matter. That education is crucial. He believes hockey helps forge those traits. The Cannons give kids a chance to travel to other cities to play games. They were an integral part of the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone campaign, which seeks to broaden the sport, make it more inclusive, help better communities.
A clip showed during Ovechkin’s tribute video after being named the Wayne Gretzky International Award recipient at Thursday’s induction dinner, showed the Stanley Cup at Fort Dupont with the Cannons. That was Ovechkin’s idea, according to Leonsis.
“I asked Alex ‘Where do you want to go?’ He said ‘I want to see kids at Georgetown Cancer Center.” And we went there. And then he wanted to pay homage to Coach Neal,” Leonsis said. “And so we went to Fort Dupont. It’s great that he’s here.”
Henderson said he hoped his induction would help encourage more people of color to embrace hockey. He started the program in the late 1970s thinking he’d simply get his son through the program, which works with kids ages 8 to 18. But he just kept going – in part because kids kept coming to the Cannons and in part because he just couldn’t refuse them. Decades later he’s still here working with them.
“A lot of people don’t feel that they have the opportunity when it’s right at their back door,” Henderson said. “If they take just one more step they’ll find that there are people out there that’s willing to help them. All you have to do is be there willing to make sure they get the chance.”
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