Color of Hockey: Capitals, Fort Dupont team up on line of branded gear

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William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past nine years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today he profiles the Washington Capitals and Fort Dupont Cannons selling jointly branded merchandise with part of the proceeds going to benefit North America’s oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program.

Peter Robinson wasn’t sure how Fort Dupont Cannons founder and coach Neal Henderson would respond to a Washington Capitals offer to sell merchandise carrying his iconic youth hockey program’s brand.

“The way I was always told was Fort Dupont jerseys, jackets and colors, that’s something that’s earned, not sold,” said Robinson, the Capitals’ director of youth hockey development. “I was kind of concerned about whether Neal would let us do it.”

But Henderson said he was moved that the items would have Capitals and Cannons logos and part of the proceeds would benefit North America’s oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program.

“I thought it was amazing that they wanted to do something as great as this for the club,” Henderson said.

The Capitals and Monumental Sports & Entertainment opened an online merchandise shop last week selling T-shirts, hoodies, pom beanies and patches.

The online shop operates through Jan. 31. The Washington Capitals Impact Fund will also share the proceeds.

Duante Abercrombie, a Cannons alumnus and assistant for the men’s hockey team at NCAA Division III Stevenson University, located outside Baltimore, said the unique merchandising arrangement is more than a gesture.

“The Caps are putting their influence where their mouth is,” said Abercrombie, a member of the Capitals’ Black Hockey Committee that formed last season. “They’re saying, ‘Here’s our name, here’s our logo, we want to put Fort Dupont and the Capitals in the same spot so the Cannons can receive whatever they can receive from it.'”

The proceeds will come in handy for the Cannons; they are navigating being without a home rink beginning March 1, when Fort Dupont Ice Arena, the only public indoor ice sheet in Washington, D.C., closes for demolition.

A new $23 million rink will be built in its place. The project, managed by the Department of General Services, is expected to be completed by Fall 2023.

“With Fort Dupont being down for 18 months or so,” Abercrombie said, “the Caps sort of wanted to do an homage, so to speak, to Fort Dupont to bring awareness and then just raising money to help because everyone knows the cost is going to be a lot higher on the other end of this rebuild.”

The Cannons, an affiliate of the NHL’s Hockey Is For Everyone initiative, will be the latest youth hockey program impacted by a rink closure.

Ice Hockey in Harlem is practicing at Central Park’s Wollman Rink NYC and a facility in Queens, New York, with their outdoor Lasker Rink closed due to a $150 million renovation of the north end of the park that won’t be completed until 2024.

IHIH is getting free ice time twice a week at Wollman courtesy of the new partnership group that operates the facility, which includes Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the New Jersey Devils.

The Tucker Road Ducks, a program based in Prince George’s County, Maryland, were homeless after a two-alarm electrical fire destroyed their rink in January 2017. 

That program was kept afloat by ice time donations from neighboring rinks and contributions from the MSE Foundation and the NHL Players’ Association’s Goals & Dreams Fund. The Ducks began play this season an all-new $28 million Tucker Road Ice Rink in October.

Robinson said the Capitals began thinking about working with the Cannons last season after Washington received positive responses for wearing special black warmup jerseys featuring a shoulder logo of Players Against Hate, an organization founded by local hockey mom Tammi Lynch to help combat racism in hockey.

“We really wanted to highlight and honor the Fort Dupont Cannons this season mainly because of Neal,” Robinson said. “Neal is amazing, the Cannons program is amazing but also this is the last year of the original fort.”

Henderson, an 84-year-old former semipro player and Air Force veteran, founded the Cannons in 1978 to use hockey as a prism to instill teamwork, discipline, perseverance, responsibility and accountability in boys and girls from some of Washington’s toughest neighborhoods, free of charge.

More than 1,500 players have worn the Cannons black, white and gold jerseys since. Some, like Abercrombie and Zachary Ware, a forward for El Paso of the North American 3 Hockey League, are striving to advance in the sport behind the bench and on the ice.

Others have gone on to professional careers, like U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Ralph Featherstone, who serves on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He gives back to the program by helping coach the current generation of Cannons.

Henderson was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2019 as its first Black member. His story and the history of the Fort Dupont program is chronicled in “The Cannons,” a documentary by former NHL video production staffer Steven Hoffner and AJ Messier.

The film debuted at the DOC NYC film festival in New York in November. The film’s producers said they hope to have its Washington, D.C., debut in February.

“I never thought that it would be this rewarding to me and to the kids to be able to have a history that they could be a part of and remembered,” Henderson said in an interview on NHL Network in November, “and they can see themselves in it for what they did to make this history possible.

“If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s the kids who’ve made me who I am.”

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