Programs giving kids chance to play

Gerald Coleman was the first graduate of the NHL Diversity Program to be drafted and play in the NHL. AP Photo/Tom Hevezi

Look around the NHL and the league looks a little different than in the past. The change might be subtle, but the NHL boasts a record 48 players from minority backgrounds who have played this season. Thirty-one of those players have permanent roster spots, and there are 6 or so players from minority groups playing in the AHL or ECHL.

"The number is going up and up and up. It's kind of the changing face of the NHL," said Ken Martin, who has been overseeing the NHL's diversity program for a dozen years now.

But before we can tell that story, we have to tell you this one.

Back in the day, Neal Henderson's dad was in the U.S. Merchant Marines and ended up in St. Catharines, Ontario, during World War II.

"I saw all those kids playing with their sticks and skates and fell in love with the game," Henderson told ESPN.com in a recent interview.

It didn't matter to him that he was the only black kid doing it. And for the most part, it didn't seem to matter to all the other kids, either.

"There were some of the other teams that didn't want me out there, but I was having too much fun," he said.

Later, after he settled down outside Washington, D.C., Henderson flooded his driveway and he and his son and the other neighborhood kids would slide around in their tennis shoes playing hockey with a tennis ball.

"After that, my son said, 'Why don't you start a hockey team?'" Henderson said.

So he found some ice in the southeast Washington neighborhood of Fort Dupont, scraped up the cash, brought his son and the neighborhood kids over and they started playing. Soon, though, the kids in the Fort Dupont neighborhood had their faces pressed up against the glass, and Henderson's son asked, "Hey Dad … can they play?"

They had no money, most of them. But the ice was paid for, so Henderson told them they could play if they brought their parents around. Sure enough, they did.

That was 32 years ago, and the Fort Dupont hockey program, the oldest diversity hockey program in the United States, is still going strong.

"For quite a few years, it was out of pocket. I never wanted the kids to have to beg to play," Henderson said.

A few years ago, he was talking to Will McCants in Detroit about how they ought to get their kids together to play some hockey. But before we can tell you that story, we have to tell you this story.

McCants played pretty good hockey growing up. He played in the Great Lakes Junior League and some college hockey; he was among the only black players on the ice. When his hockey days were over -- at least the playing part -- McCants moved back to the Detroit area where his dad was working. McCants started coaching hockey in Livonia, a Detroit suburb, but his dad suggested he come down to the Jack Adams Memorial Arena and check out the program they had going on there.

"It was just a couple of miles from my home, but I'd never been there," McCants told ESPN.com recently.

He went down and was shocked to find the ice full of hockey players, all of whom were black.

"I was just overwhelmed. I'd never seen so many black kids on the ice at one time," McCants said. "I said, 'I want to help out as much as I can.'"

So he did.

He took a job with the City of Detroit and started volunteering as a coach. In time, he became involved with the Detroit Hockey Association, and now has been its president for close to 15 years.

"It touched my heart," he said. "We've had a lot of adversity and a lot of changes going on, but it's been a real blast."

You talk to McCants and Henderson about their programs, the two oldest diversity programs in the United States, and there's an echo pattern.

Some of the young players who were on the ice when McCants played have returned with their own children in tow. The kids who come out don't just get to jump on the ice; they have to make a commitment to being good citizens. They have to complete their homework and go to school. There's a math tutor that volunteers down at the rink.

"In this city especially, in hard times, we try to make the kids believe in themselves," McCants said.

Kids who play in the program have a high school graduation rate of between 96 and 98 percent. More than half those kids -- about 56 percent -- go on to college, well above the state level for African-American youth, according to McCants.

The motto for the Detroit group: "Where goals are achieved, not just scored."

How cool is that?

"It carries a lot of weight with our kids," McCants said.

Henderson talks about the graduates of his program: professors, doctors, lawyers, pilots. His son is a computer whiz. Many not only bring their kids back to Fort Dupont, but they're also on the ice themselves, coaching.

"You see them coming back and saying 'Thank you. I want you to teach my son to play,'" Henderson said. "You don't feel so old when you're doing that."

The two had been talking hockey and kicking around the idea of getting the two programs together for a weekend of hockey. One year, McCants just said, "Hey, let's make this happen."

The first time, it was one team and three games.

Then they said "Why not invite kids from other programs?" The NHL got involved and, in 2008, there were 22 teams from 11 different organizations around the country.

This year, the numbers for the fifth annual Hockey in the Hood tournament were down a bit, times being what they are and all, but there was still a great collection of young players, including some from as far away as Alaska, and eight other communities plus host Detroit.

For some of these kids, Hockey in the Hood is a series of firsts: first time in a rink other than their own, first time traveling outside their cities and states, first time meeting kids who are just like them.

"You see it in these kids when they jump off their team buses," McCants said.

One story does not necessarily beget another. There isn't a straight line that gets drawn from Fort Dupont to the NHL. Still, the connection is more tangible than one might imagine. There are visits from local players, like Alex Ovechkin and Donald Brashear in Washington.

The number of kids from minor hockey programs who go on to play pro hockey? About one in 40,000. The NHL's diversity program has touched about 45,000 kids in the dozen years it has been in operation, and one player has found himself in the NHL: netminder Gerald Coleman, who is from the Chicago area. Drafted by Tampa Bay, Coleman has played in parts of two NHL games and is currently with the Trenton Devils of the ECHL.

There are other kids who are playing college and junior hockey who might not have had a chance if it weren't for people like Henderson and McCants and folks like them in Columbus and Pittsburgh and Alaska and beyond.

Which is why Hockey in the Hood resonates.

It's not that the tournament will yield the next Coleman or Willie O'Ree or Tony McKegney (McKegney and O'Ree were on hand this past weekend to help celebrate the tournament, the championship trophy of which is called the "Willie O Cup"), but it's that these kids are here at all.

"Obviously, it's a great opportunity for kids that wouldn't normally get this kind of chance," Martin said.

You know what McCants remembers most from these get-togethers?

It's not the scores or the great plays; it's seeing the kids step onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena for a skate-around, or seeing the championship game played on the NHL surface (both made possible by the Red Wings), or looking up at the jam-packed stands at Jack Adams Memorial Arena.

"All those kids that are running through there. The arena's packed. Those moments are just fantastic. You're just like, 'Wow'," he said.

Or it's the dinner at which all the kids and parents gather with other kids and parents, people whom they might not otherwise have met. There will be friendships built that will last well beyond the weekend, perhaps well beyond when these kids stop playing hockey.

"What you find out is that a lot of these parents keep in touch after the tournaments," McCants said. "I tell all my kids, 'Make sure you try and meet all the kids on the other teams.'"

Who knows? Somewhere down the road when these kids are at college or at a conference, they might look at another person and ask, "Hey, did you play at the Hockey in the Hood tournament in 2009?"

The possibilities are endless. And really, isn't that all any young hockey player could ask for?

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.