Monumental Undertaking

Hockey Community In A Race Against Time To Save Washington, D.C., Landmark
Tom Worgo

Javonte Jones prefers to stay away from home. He says his northwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood isn't a safe place to be outside, so he spends as little time as possible there.

Even though the same can be said for the area surrounding the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in the southeast part of the city, Jones considers the arena his home away from home. He's perfectly comfortable there.

The 17-year-old spends up to 40 hours a week there playing on two teams, coaching younger players and also working as a skate guard.

A junior at Dunbar High School, Jones lives with his mother Tonya, but he frequently stays with grandmother Debra Levi because she lives close to Fort Dupont in a safer neighborhood.

"Hockey has helped me because the neighborhood I live in is not very safe," said Jones, whose father Jason was fatally shot when he was 4 years old. "It allows me to get away from my neighborhood. I have games and practices there all the time. I'm just not home a lot."

Like many kids in the area, Jones walked through the doors at 8 years old and signed up for the oldest minority youth hockey program in North America-the Fort Dupont Cannons.

The program provides free and subsidized hockey. More than that, the game gives back to the kids in many ways. For some, it's protection from the dangers out on the streets. There's also the countless benefits that come with playing what many consider to be the ultimate team sport.

So, when the rink's non-profit board, Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena, announced they were in danger of having to close the arena's doors, Jones and many of his friends were understandably concerned. But now, there's hope for both the rink and the future for hundreds of hockey players like him as the facility is poised to undergo a massive renovation that will rebuild the current rink and potentially add a second ice sheet. 

"We are the only full-size indoor ice rink in the city open to the public," said Fort Dupont Ice Arena Executive Director Ty Newberry. "We are home to the Cannons. We also run our program Kids On Ice, where we put 3,000 kids on the ice through hockey, speed skating, learn to skate and enrichment programs. Over half of the kids come from the most underserved parts of the city."

The Washington Capitals, National Hockey League and Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation stepped up with a donation of $300,000 to renovate and expand the arena. The Capitals are helping raise an additional $500,000 through a GoFundMe campaign and another fundraiser that brought in $50,000.

"Youth hockey across our community is very important," said Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. "Fort Dupont is an integral part of Washington, D.C. Youth hockey is a long-standing program there, and it's in a community that we all want to continue investing in. It's basically that the kids love the game of hockey, and the coaches and leagues there are trying to introduce a whole new generation of players to the game."

Every dollar counts because the rink's board must raise $3 million by Feb. 1, 2020, as part of a deal with the D.C. City Council.
If the board hits the goal, the city will sign off on $21 million toward the project. The Friends board will then have to raise another $2 million as the city starts its contribution toward essentially building a new rink.

Those sums indicate the scale of need at Fort Dupont, which used to be the Capitals practice facility. 

If all that happens, nobody will be more thrilled than 81-year-old Neal Henderson, who founded the Cannons program-the jewel of the rink-in 1978 and still runs it today.

The Cannons, also known as the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, are one of 34 programs participating in the U.S. and Canada in the NHL's Hockey is For Everyone Program, emphasizing minority outreach. 

"The goal is to keep kids off the streets and to teach them discipline and life skills," said Henderson, who estimated that he has helped more than 4,000 kids over the years.

"We give them a chance to meet some of the greatest players and to be involved in playing a game that takes many skills in order to perform and have a sense of self-worth."

Henderson's work is one of the reasons Newberry came to Fort Dupont 13 years ago because serving kids in need is a passion project for him.

He has been involved in college and youth hockey for a good part of his life.

Newberry has been a long-time volunteer with USA Hockey, serving as the Southeastern District Coach-in-Chief for 11 years. In the past, he managed several rinks and coached collegiately at Penn State and West Virginia. But it's Fort Dupont where he has put his heart and soul.

"The mission of the Friends of Fort Dupont is something I fell in love with," he said. "I wanted to help remove the cost barrier in the hockey and ice-skating world, where the cost of participation has gone through the roof."

Since he arrived, Newberry has been wrestling with facility problems as much as focusing on programs and fundraising.

Originally opened in 1976 as a gift to the community by the National Park Service for the nation's bicentennial, the park service wasn't keen on maintaining ice rinks. Twenty years later, the non-profit Friends foundation leased the rink from the federal government, saving it from closure. With little funds, the organization did the best it could by making some basic repairs even though much more needed to be done.

Newberry can easily rattle off the facility's challenges. The roof leaks. The 43-year-old concrete floor needs to be replaced. There are worn-out pumps and the sprinkler system is shot. And the list goes on.

Those problems don't take away from the pride the rink's staff has in running the facility.

"It's our home and we are very proud of it," Newberry said. "We do the best with what we have."

Former Washington mayor Vincent Gray is a big fan of Newberry and the rink.

Gray committed $15 million to the rink as mayor in 2013. Now, as a councilmember whose ward includes the rink, he is intent on helping the Friends of Fort Dupont reach its fundraising goal.

"They don't have a track record for raising that kind of money," Gray said. "We are going to do everything we can to help them make it happen. I am going to continue to reach out to the hockey professional community."

That's why Newberry is in regular contact with Gray. He is not only in a race against time to meet the city's schedule, but the building's urgent needs dictate the real deadline.

"I wasn't afraid of the rink closing," Newberry said. "I was afraid of a catastrophic failure. Eventually, we are going to lose the piping under the floor. Then you are shutting down in the middle of the season and have to come up with $500,000 to $750,000 to replace all that."

But Newberry doesn't dwell on facility problems because he has $3 million to raise.

"We could have shovels in the ground by October of 2020." 

Tom Worgo is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md.





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