“[It’s] really humbling, believe me,” Henderson tells City Paper of the honor. “It’s very, very humbling to think that your name would be around for a while after you’re gone.”
Being in the hall of fame “never crossed my mind,” he adds. “I was only doing it for the fun with the kids. I never thought it would grow into anything like this.”
In 2018, City Paper featured Henderson in our annual People Issue, which included highlights from our extended interview with him. Below is the full interview with Henderson, conducted late last year. It has been edited for clarity.
WCP: Hockey is still a predominantly white sport, especially the NHL. How did you get into the sport?
Neal Henderson: When I was a child, my dad was in the Merchant Marines, and his port of call was St. Catharines in Canada. At the time, I was an only child along with my mom, so I had the opportunity to travel to Canada during the Second World War, and I learned to do what the kids in the neighborhood did. I enjoyed the game. I enjoyed playing hockey, and it stuck with me from then on.
WCP: This was ice hockey? You played in the rink?
NH: Oh, yes. We played outside in the weather. That was the first place I learned how to play was outside in the weather.
WCP: What did you enjoy about the sport? What drew you to it?
NH: Well, the hypnotism of the stick and puck. You had a language different from any other sport to play. You don’t even have to speak but you understand the language of stick and puck.
WCP: And what is the language of stick and puck?
NH: The way you pass the puck to your partner. The way the puck sounds hitting the stick. The way the puck feels when it touches your stick. The way you control the puck and the different areas of the blade of the stick that touches the puck. The feels in your hand.
WCP: You started the Fort Dupont Youth hockey program. Just this year you were a finalist for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, which honors individuals who “best utilize hockey as a platform for participants to build character and develop important life skills for a more positive family experience.” What’s the mission of your youth hockey program?
NH: It’s to do just that. It’s to teach people of all colors and ages to work together, to understand each other, to form a more perfect union of understanding each individual by means of communication through playing ice hockey.
WCP: The Caps won the Stanley Cup this year. You had some part of that celebration. What was that like for you?
NH: It was a pleasure and an honor to be able to embrace the Cup, after seeing it go to so many other teams, and the joy that they seem to get from it. I have always wanted to see what they felt like to have the feeling of holding the champion of the Cup, and seeing it passed by the Capitals, being so close to it but not actually having it, and this time they made the greatest gift of all by getting it. It gave an extra strength to wanting to touch, to be around it, to be a part of it, and to wish the guys the greatest success of all on something that is a historical figure that will be there forever.
WCP: There’s a really great photo of you hugging the Stanley Cup. What was that like?
NH: That was a hug that meant we finally made it to be able to hold it as the champions, seeing it passed by us so many times.
WCP: How else did you celebrate?
NH: Every time the Caps were around, we had a celebration. The kids were enjoying it as well. The Caps are a very giving organization. They try and make everybody a part of what they’re doing. And I appreciate all of the help that Mr. [Ted] Leonsis and the Capitals have done to help Fort Dupont hockey program grow and the way that their players have assisted in being around us and assisting us on the ice and being a part of what we’re doing.
WCP: What kind of impact has the Caps winning the Stanley Cup had on your program?
NH: It’s given us a greater feeling of importance, that even though it’s a game, it means so much as a part of life to strive for something, to want to be on top with something in mind. And that’s a part of life. You want to do what you can in life to be not only the best you can be, but to be able to do something that you can be admired for.
WCP: Your program is known for being one of the oldest minority hockey clubs. How special is that to you?
NH: It’s a lot to consider, but I think that one of the things that it does is hockey in the United States is just considered a foreign sport. Being considered that way with the small amount of ice rinks that we have, the more ice rinks you get, the more competition you’ll get as far as hockey is concerned, the more competition you’ll have as far as it competing with other sports on the same level. I’m proud that hockey has lasted so long for me as a coach with the kids that have grown up, and now bringing me their children. I’m proud of the fact that they’ve grown up with a sport that has a little more to offer, because it makes you a proud individual, as well as a team individual. And it shows you that you have the opportunity to think while being in motion, as to what your next step might be.
WCP: How do you think we can get more people of color in hockey and playing at a high level?
NH: I think you have to express that by showing more people, letting more people see that. I think more commercials, more people being involved as far as conversation … to enlighten people of this sport. Some people have to believe in what they see and do before they say they don’t know and haven’t tried.
WCP: So it’s a matter of exposing the sport to people who aren’t normally exposed to it?
NH: That’s correct.
WCP: Do you feel Fort Dupont does that?
NH: Oh, yes. Very much so.
WCP: How do you all go about doing that?
NH: I think our young men and young ladies that play the game for me, they wear their T-shirts out. It’s showing them that they play this sport, it’s written on their T-shirts. We travel and they came back and go back to their schools and they write essays about them going on a trip just to play ice hockey. These things account for it.
WCP: How important is it to have an ice rink in Southeast, where kids aren’t normally exposed to ice hockey?
NH: I think it’s important because it’s another avenue to which to travel. You have the basketball courts, you have the football fields, you have the baseball fields. Why not have an ice rink?
WCP: The White House has invited you and your program, how many years?
NH: We’ve gone for quite a few years.
WCP: When did the program start?
NH: We started back in 1977.
WCP: And how many times have you been to the White House?
NH: With President [Barack] Obama I think we’ve gone twice. I think we went with one other president. It usually catches us when we’re in between travels, so it kind of makes it difficult sometimes. I think we were on the road this year quite a bit, so I don’t believe I’ll be making it to the White House this year.
WCP: If you were invited, would you go?
NH: I don’t think that I’d be able to go.
WCP: Why do you think you wouldn’t go?
NH: I think with the turmoil that’s in our country today we all need to sit back and think. We need to think in a way of how we should talk, how we should respect, how we should react, and how we should be with other people.
WCP: So your decision on whether or not to go, is it based on who’s currently in the White House?
NH: I think it would be based on whether or not I can get all of my students and my parents to agree on wanting to go. I’m not putting the blame on anybody, especially because I’m not a politician by any means, and I don’t want to persuade anybody in any capacity that they would have to go, but I have to tell them that it’s within their own heart, and mind, and feeling.
WCP: You mentioned you’re not a politician, but it’s about how we talk to each other, right?
NH: Exactly, how we respect each other, and how we think, and treat, each other.
WCP: You would kind of let that decision be up to the group.
WCP: When you were invited by Obama, what was the purpose of the trip?
NH: He invited us because they were having some youth there from other schools, and other organizations, and we were noticed by him for the work that we do. And I was quite honored by that because I had no idea that we would be asked to go.
WCP: So you met him personally?
NH: We met at a distance. You can only get so close to the president.
WCP: What are you most proud of?
NH: I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve helped so many kids go to college, become respectable, have positions in many different operations of our society that they can be happy, and honored to be in. They’re good citizens for the country and they are well worth the strides that they have made to be where they are.