This is a story about fire and ice, hockey homelessness, and black players in pink jerseys.
The Tucker Road Ducks, a three-year-old team made up of African-American boys ages 11 to 14, had a healthy slate of games this season, its first ever road tournament coming up in March, and tons of practice time at the Tucker Road Ice Rink, its home barn in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Then an electrical spark ignited a two-alarm fire that raged through the roof of the rink on January 4, severely damaging the building, ruining thousands of dollars worth of donated hockey equipment down to the team’s signature pink and black jerseys, and leaving a fledgling minority youth hockey program wondering how it will go on without a place to play.
The rink remains closed more than a month after the blaze. Prince George’s County government officials say it will be rebuilt, but haven’t given a timetable for repairs. In the meantime, Ducks players are among the hockey homeless – nomads in search of ice whenever and wherever they can get it.
The team appears to be down, but they are by no means out. Resolve has kicked in, from players to coaches to parents.
“Tucker Road is the place I call home,” Ryan Hamm, a 13-year-old Ducks center/defenseman told me recently. “I see the fire as obviously emotional,…it’s kind of tragic but it’s also motivation for me to get better at hockey.”
Team Coach Rahman-Rahim B’ath, borrowed a line from the sage Bluto Blutarsky, the John Belushi character in “Animal House,” when he described the Ducks’ fate: “Nothing is over until we decide it is.”
“It’s not going to be ‘Oh well, Tucker Road burned down and that was the end of their program,'” B’ath, also known as Coach Rock, told me recently. “When everything is cut and parents are, like, ‘Alright, we’re done,’ then we’re done. But right now, the kids are pushing, the parents are pushing, the coaches are pushing. We have their backs – no matter what.”
The Tucker Road Parents Hockey Organization, a nonprofit 501c3 entity, started a GoFundMe page to raise $10,000 to help with the sudden expenses that the program dedicated to helping make hockey affordable and accessible to families now faces.
“We’re hanging in there, doing what we can,” parent organization president President Alexandria Briggs-Blake told me. “Our kids don’t know what to do with themselves now on Saturdays and Sundays. They’re, like, ‘Is Tucker Road fixed yet?'”
The Washington, D.C.-area hockey community has pitched in to help. When word spread about the fire, the Knights – an Arlington, Virginia, youth hockey team – offered to share some of its ice time at The Gardens Ice House in Laurel, Maryland.
With a tournament in York, Pennsylvania, looming next month, Ducks coaches hope to supplement the donated ice with rented ice time – if they can find any in the youth hockey-mad D.C., Maryland, Virginia area.
“The times they have to practice are going to be pretty horrible for the rest of the season – 10:45 p.m. to 11:45 p.m. or like 6:30 a.m.,” Coach Rock said.
Still, Koi Hamm, Ryan’s mother and Secretary/Treasurer of the parent organization, is grateful for whatever the team can get and is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the local hockey community.
“We’ve just received so much love from our neighboring rinks…people have been really embracing us,” Hamm said. “It’s just a testament of how closely-knit hockey families are.”
Local rinks and opposing clubs love what the Ducks have accomplished in giving minority and low-income kids the opportunity to play hockey. The team is an offshoot of the Tucker Road rink’s “Give it a Shot” initiative, which provides equipment to kids interested in learning how to play hockey.
The initiative created a critical mass of players three years ago, enough to field a pee-wee/bantam team under the tutelage of Coach Rock and a cadre of parents like Hamm, who skated at Tucker Road in her teen years.
The team makes hockey accessible by making it affordable, charging parents $200 a season, a fee that includes gear. Other youth teams in the area charge two or three times that amount for a season.
“Hockey is one of the most expensive sports, so you don’t see too many low-income kids playing the sport,” said Max Levitt, executive director of Level the Playing Field, a program that’s provided donated equipment to the Ducks over the years. “Tucker Road (rink), like Fort Dupont, is in a unique situation in that you don’t see sheets of ice in generally minority communities. Anytime you go to an ice rink and see 10 African-American players on the ice at one time, it’s pretty unique.”
Ducks players learn about the game of hockey, but they also learn life skills through the sport. They must maintain their grades or they can’t set foot onto the ice. They also learn to interact with others beyond their neighborhoods.
“Hockey’s a predominantly white sport, but I try not to think of it so much as color because when the kids play, they don’t think of it that way,” said Briggs-Blake, whose 17-year-old son, Antonio, skated for the Ducks. “My son, he’s the only African-American on his junior hockey team now, and these kids don’t even look at that. They love each other, talk to each other, hang out, go to each other’s houses.”
Briggs-Blake dreams of the day the Ducks go back to their house – the Tucker Road ice rink. Parents are bird-dogging the Prince George’s County government, trying to insure that the rink is a front-burner issue and will be rebuilt sooner rather than later.
And while the construction workers have their hammers out, Briggs-Blake has one suggestion.
“What about building two sheets of ice?” she said. “We have dreams and visions.”