As former football players, Kendrick F. Ashton, Jr., and Craig A.A. Dixon never envisioned being on the same line with Washington Capitals super star Alex Ovechkin.
But there the two were, flanking Ovechkin in hockey face-off pose last year. But instead of sticks and hockey helmets, the makeshift line had shovels in their hands and hardhats on their heads.
Ovechkin was on hand for he groundbreaking of The St. James, a recently-opened 450,000 square-foot sports complex in Springfield, Virginia, co-founded by Ashton and Dixon, two young African-American entrepreneurs who dreamed – and succeeded – in building a gym on steroids.
Hockey is front and center at the massive facility that includes a 50-meter Olympic-size pool, a three-story, 50,000-square-foot health club, four full-length basketball courts, eight squash courts, and a field house with a FIFA regulation-sized turf field.
The St. James features two NHL-sized ice rinks that offer an array of hockey, hockey coaching, and leagues for all playing levels in addition to ice-dancing, figure skating, and speedskating.
There are a handful of ice skating rinks in North America named after black people, but there are very few that are black-owned and operated.
Ashton, 42, and Dixon, 43, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., knew little about hockey before building their facility, but they’ve grown to love the game since.
“We walk in there all the time and we see these two gleaming, beautiful rinks, it just makes you want to get out on them,” Dixon said.
Enough for the co-founders and co-executive officers to lace up the skates for a few laps?
“No,” Dixon replied. “I know this is the Color of Hockey – I don’t know how to skate on hockey skates, but I plan to learn.”
“We’ve developed a real appreciation of the game and become quite passionate about it as fans,” Ashton added. “We’ve tempered our desire to hurt ourselves on the ice, we’re taking that slowly, but we will be out there.”
The twin rinks are a godsend in a D.C., Northern Virginia, Maryland area that has a voracious hockey-playing appetite – both youth and adult – and a severe rink shortage, exacerbated by a January 2017 fire that shuttered Maryland’s Tucker Road Ice Arena.
While access to the St. James’ rinks is largely based on facility membership, Ashton said “we are very much committed to and very interested in everybody having access to everything.”
“Whereas having kids of color may not be a particular focus point for other (rink) owners, I don’t know if it is or isn’t, it may not be, it certainly is for us,” Ashton added. “We’re going to do what we can to make sure that kids are exposed to the greatness of this game.”
And the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup, with the help of forward Devante Smith-Pelly’s playoff heroics, has increased the demand for ice time in the area.
“The excitement that that run created in this town was palpable” Dixon said. “And that was across demographics, across races, across ages because everyone loves a champion. When they won the Cup and you looked at the scenes from news broadcasts of people out in the streets, it was the whole city. It wasn’t just one particular group of people out there celebrating that championship, and I think that is the new hockey fan in this town and, I’m sure, in many towns across the country.”
Ashton and Dixon aren’t strangers to rough-and-tumble sports. Ashton played football for The College of William & Mary and Dixon played high school football while growing up in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
The two men developed a friendship while students W&M, forged by their athletic experiences growing up in areas where quality facilities weren’t always accessible. That, and their shared love of business, led to the St. James concept.
“When we were young people, we were multi-sport athletes, and we were fairly serious about it, and we couldn’t quite understand why we very often ran into issues playing sports,” Ashton said. “We’re sure there are many kids of our generation who had trouble getting on ice, had trouble getting in pools.”
So Ashton and Dixon are trying to rectify that 450,000 square feet at a time. The Springfield mega-complex won’t be a one-and-done if its co-founders have their way. They’ve already purchased land in the northern Chicago suburbs and hope to have a similar facility built there in 2021.
“We’re looking at all the major markets in the country,” Ashton said. “We’re actively engaged in trying to lock down great sites in every one of them.”
Follow the Color of Hockey on Facebook and Twitter @ColorOfHockey. And download the Color of Hockey podcast from iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud and Google Play.