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His deep-voiced bark is still matched by its bite, and the tough love he bestows upon the kids of the nation’s oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program remains as strong as ever.

Neal Henderson, founder, coach, and father-figure of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, turned 79 over the weekend.

Through joint surgeries, an ancient ice arena with a sometimes leaky roof, and often with only just enough money to pay the program’s bills, Henderson continues to skate strong –  his passion for the program he created nearly four decades ago unabated by time.

Tough but tender, Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club founder Neal Henderson celebrated his 79th birthday over the weekend.

Tough but tender, Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club founder Neal Henderson celebrated his 79th birthday over the weekend.

Henderson is responsible for producing a generation of black hockey players and fans in the Nation’s Capital. He’s also helped launch a generation of at-risk kids on the right course in life.

He preaches life through the prism of hockey, teaching the value of teamwork, responsibility, punctuality, good manners, and the necessity and value of staying school.

Fort Dupont developed into a model for programs like the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation and similar organizations under the National Hockey League’s “Hockey is for Everyone” umbrella to follow.

“Neal Henderson has been a pioneer in helping develop and shape the lives of young boys and girls and use the core values of hockey to affect other life skills that these children would need as they become adults,” Kenneth Martin, the NHL’s vice president for community affairs told me. “His relentless commitment to children has been a trademark of our ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ program. He has been a true hero and a shining light, not only for the NHL, but for young boys and girls.”

James T. Britt, the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said Henderson’s “impact on his community and hockey throughout the United States has been tremendous.”

“His coaching style and communications are direct – when you hear him begin to address a player in his deep voice with ‘Young man…,’ it makes you feel you’d better take notes because something important is being highlighted,” Britt added.

Born in St. Croix, Henderson founded the program in Southeast Washington’s  Anacostia neighborhood in 1977, in large part to teach his son the game that he played while growing up in Canada.

The Fort Dupont club has no fees or dues. The only thing participants have to pay is attention to Henderson rules: maintain good grades, be respectful, and behave.

 

Henderson has had to beg, borrow – he would never steal – over the years in order to cover the free ice time, equipment, and instruction.

The NHL, members of the U.S. Congress and Washington’s lobbying community  have helped by hosting an annual lawmakers vs. lobbyists charity hockey game, with part of the proceeds going to the Fort Dupont hockey program and rink.

Through the program, Henderson has helped guide his charges to victories on and off the ice. He’s seen alums from his program complete high school and go on to college or serve in the military.

Some, like Donnie Shaw III., have gone on to play hockey in college. Still others, like Daunte Abercrombie, became so hooked on the game through Henderson’s teachings that they’re pursuing professional hockey opportunities.

“Coach Neal is a true living legend and a man with a long list of accomplishments that continue to grow,” said Shaw,  a 2013 NHL/Thurgood Marshall College Fund scholarship recipient who plays for Elmira College in New York. “I cannot thank him enough for all that he has done for me, as well as the devotion that he personally puts into every single kid who joins his hockey program as if they were family.”

Happy 79th,  Coach Neal.