DOC NYC 2021: The Cannons – “If You Can Play Ice Hockey, You Can Do Anything”

The longest running minority hockey club in America, the Fort Dupont Cannons are an incredible organization run by an incredible man. In Washington D.C., Neal Henderson has been coaching his hockey team for some 40 years now. The credos for his team is never to turn away any child. Mr. Henderson believes in providing everyone an opportunity to play the great game of hockey, one of the most prohibitively expensive sports that too often is absent entirely from minority communities.

The great game of hockey can only be truly great when everyone gets to play it. That is the goal of the Fort Dupont Cannons. Generations of inner-city players have been granted free gear and free ice time to develop in a sport that so rarely offers those opportunities. The documentary, directed, produced, shot, and edited by Steve Hoffner (and co-directed by A.J. Messier), explores a year in the lives of a community formed around hockey.

The Cannons is a human interest piece first and a hockey documentary second. As such, it is a sociopolitical document, examining two high school hockey players and the Black American Experience, through the lens of inner-city Washington D.C. sports programs. Crucially, the Cannons provide these athletes a tangible connection, a way to give back to each other, and to help uplift the community at large.

There are a lot of hero movies at the cinema. There are few people I admire and are as worthy of the status as Mr. Henderson. His chief goal is to find the best in the youth and to develop — not only good hockey players — but to build people up to be better people. In his world of hockey, everyone gives back, and communal spirit is more important than the numbers on the scoreboard.

There is plenty of value for the hockey fan, too. Of course, the history of minority hockey in America outlasts almost the entirety of the league. Early on when the sport was being developed, there were significant Black hockey leagues, and a great multi-cultural interest in the sport. When trailblazers like Coach Henderson make it their lives work to bring joy and opportunity to a community, they are doing so in a long and proud and too seldom covered tradition. Hockey is for everyone. It hasn’t always been. But that’s how it started. That’s how it has to continue.

There is some good game and practice footage. The best stuff happens off the ice, or in the stands. We see families who live and breathe hockey. We see Coach Henderson in the stands with his camcorder proudly making game tapes. We realize how few opportunities there are after this. This may be the one chance all of the team’s players get to really play hockey. None have gone onto the NHL. But 95% have graduated high school, in an area where that is a majorly significant number. The team is not producing top-shelf hockey players. It’s producing top-shelf people. Is there any better result?

The players breeze down the ice in their black, gold, and white (representing Black soldiers, their yellow buttons, and the White soldiers who fought alongside them). They do not quite belong to a league. The coach has to organize all the games outside of a traditional program. The kids are all up against a lot. There are several through-lines running here: families in grave financial conditions; health problems around the coach’s family and some of the kid’s families, and how they support one another; Coach Henderson’s induction into the US Hockey Hall of Fame. All of it amounts to something bigger to hockey. It’s a story about community and people and how one man has done so much to help create so many other good men. The Cannons simply asks, what are we all doing to help each other?


Leave a Reply