WASHINGTON — The Fort Dupont Cannons received the red-carpet treatment Saturday for the Washington, DC premiere of a documentary about the longest-running minority hockey club in North America and its founder Neal Henderson.
A private screening of “The Cannons” was held for 350 guests at THEARC Theater in Southeast Washington, not far from Fort Dupont Ice Arena and the neighborhoods where much of the 90-minute film’s story takes place.
“The fact that it’s here being played in this community, there’s really no words to describe it,” the documentary’s director, Steven Hoffner, said. “There are things that we shot here. We literally shot footage across the road from here and to have it being played here for people to see is tremendous.”
Henderson, a former semipro player and United States Air Force Veteran, founded the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, in 1978 with the objective of using hockey as a tool to instill teamwork, integrity, discipline, perseverance and a sense of community among boys and girls ages 8-18. Ice time and equipment are free and no child who wants to play is turned away. Henderson became the first Black inductee into the US Hockey Hall of Fame in 2019 for his work.
The film follows Henderson, Cannons alumnus and assistant Ralph Featherstone and teenage players Rayvon Hall and Robert Lynch and their families throughout the 2018-19 season while they face challenges on and off the ice in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the US
“It’s a lasting memory forever and it only shows that people think highly of what I’ve done,” Henderson said. “I thought it didn’t mean that much because I was working with kids trying to keep them on a level feeling of life and knowing that they can have something to aspire to and letting them know that playing the game is a part of life so that they can see the difference in people, difference in color, difference in lifestyles and be able to be a person that can be communicated in this life instead of being segregated from it.”
The documentary made its US premiere at the DOC NYC film festival in New York in November and has since had screenings at the Cleveland International Film Festival, the North Carolina Black Film Festival in Wilmington, North Carolina, the Thin Line Festival in Denton, Texas and the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Concerns surrounding the coronavirus delayed screening the film in Washington until the film’s producers, with an assist from the Washington Capitals, arranged the viewing Saturday.
“To have the story unfold in Southeast DC, this is the home of the program, and now here we are in this beautiful theater, THEARC Theater in Southeast, to debut it for everybody in the community, and to get a chance to watch it together, that’s special,” Capitals director of young hockey development Peter Robinson said. “Some of us have been able to see sneak peeks of the film whether it through a screener on a link or watching it on a phone, but that’s not the same.”
More than 1,500 players have played for the Cannons and several current players and alumni were at THEARC Theater for the Washington premiere. Dramatic moments and appearances on the silver screen of faces familiar to them brought cheers and applause from the crowd throughout the screening.
Sometimes a hardline coach and often a father figure, Henderson is the film’s undeniable star. The 82-year-old was also popular on the red carpet, greeting many of the attendees with a hug and granting many requests to pose for photos.
“I love him,” film co-director/producer AJ Messier said. “What do you say about a man who is pretty close to being perfect? In a world where we’re not friendly with each other, we don’t engage because we have masks on or we can’t hug each other, there’s not one kid that coach doesn’t come up to and hug and make them feel welcome. It’s inclusive, it’s all-inclusive and that’s the most beautiful part about what their program is. No one is left behind.”
“The Cannons” will make its Canadian premiere at the NorthwestFest International Documentary Film Festival in Edmonton on May 8. Hoffner and Messier hope to find a provider to distribute the documentary throughout North America so many more viewers can learn about Henderson and the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club.
They also hope increased publicity can help jumpstart plans to replace the Cannons’ aging home. The Fort Dupont Ice Arena, the only indoor ice rink in Washington, was scheduled to close at the end of February for demolition followed by construction of a replacement arena slated for completion in fall 2023.
But concerns about the size of the project and an estimated cost of more than $31 million have put it on hold.
“That is key, to have a facility, have a space in which to teach the game of hockey,” said Featherstone, who went on from playing for the Cannons to captain to the US Naval Academy’s club hockey team and now serves on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. “Hopefully the city will understand the importance of getting something long term. We’re probably one of the only major cities in the US with only one indoor rink, and that really hasn’t been upgraded in decades.”