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‘Home away from home’: Baltimore Banners hockey team offers skills, safe place to play for at-risk city youth

Antoine Green’s coaches peppered him with shots all game on Sunday, but the 18-year-old hockey goalie stood firm between the posts, racking up save after save, several of them coming in quick succession off his stick and pads.

Green’s Baltimore Banners teammates on the bench roared and smacked their sticks on the boards in approval each time he stopped the puck. Only one, a well-placed shot by Mike Conner with two minutes left in the second period, found its way past him into the net in the 50-minute game.

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The Banners’ annual players-vs.-coaches scrimmage — a 2-1 win for the coaches, whose other goal was awarded for a stick-throwing penalty — marked the culmination of the eighth season for the free hockey program for at-risk Baltimore youth at the Mimi DiPietro Family Skating Center in Patterson Park.

About 30 boys and young men, ages 12 to 20, practice and play with donated sticks, pads, helmets and pucks each Sunday from November through March. A younger group, ages 7 to 13, plays Saturday mornings.

The rink is a “home away from home” for many of them, said Green, who is from West Baltimore but now lives in Parkville and attends the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“The main thing that keeps me coming here is watching the kids succeed,” Green said after the game. “With the backgrounds they have, it’s really difficult for them to enjoy life as kids. They have to grow up really quickly.”

Donning white jerseys with a yellow-and-black logo fashioned from the flag of Baltimore, the burgeoning team, which doesn’t play in any particular league, began to branch out this season. The Banners played four games against opponents this year, including the Tucker Road Ducks, a team whose Prince George’s County rink burned down in January 2017, and the Metro Maple Leafs, an Odenton team with a black player who faced racial taunts on the ice in a recent tournament.

Nearly 700 kids and young men have come to one Banners practice or another, but even with coaches driving them to and from the rink, keeping players involved is difficult, said Noel Acton, director of The Tender Bridge, the nonprofit that runs the Banners program, as well as football and sailing programs in the off-season.

In The Tender Bridge’s 17 years, Acton said, 38 of the young athletes have been killed in Baltimore — the most recent last week.

“Our goal is keeping them out of that,” he said. “Keep them involved and off the street, off the corner.”

Driving the youths to practice, helping them put on their pads and coaching them gives the coaches a chance to connect to the kids, and while they’re firm in their instruction, they take pains not to be unnecessarily hard on them. It’s only hockey, after all.

“We never yell at the kids,” Acton said. “You yell at the kids, it’s over.”

On the ice Sunday, goals were hard to come by, thanks to stellar performances by Green and his cousin Ethan Thomas-Green, 19, of East Baltimore, a first-year goalie who suited up for the coaches’ team in the scrimmage.

Thomas-Green, a senior at the National Academy Foundation, said he plans to attend Baltimore City Community College as a culinary student next year. In addition to a group of mentors and teammates, the Banners are a support system, he said.

“This right here is my family, for real,” Thomas-Green said.

Defenseman Damonte “Heavy” Lindsey’s first-period slapshot was the Banners’ only goal of the game.

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Grinning on the bench afterward, Lindsey, 20, of East Baltimore, said he enjoys hockey — “trying to do stuff a lot of people think we couldn’t do.”

The Achievement Academy at Harbor City High School student has been playing with the Banners for four years. The weekly practices and games “keep me out of trouble, for real,” he said.

The casual scrimmage intensified toward the end, when the 1-1 game went to a five-minute overtime period, instead of the traditional penalty shots. While a few of the players competed on the coaches’ team to even out the sides, the five lines of forwards on the players’ team resulted in complaints about a lack of playing time.

Matt Higdon, the referee, who coaches the Tucker Road Ducks, explained to a handful of them afterward that professional hockey is structured around short bursts of speed and seamless substitutions.

Alexander Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals’ captain, scored his 50th and 51st goals of the season the previous night with only 12 minutes of playing time, he noted.

“He’s the best player in the world,” Higdon said. “Keep that in the back of your mind. You didn’t get robbed.”

Michelle Robinson, whose son Drew plays for the Ducks and joined the coaches’ team for the game, became emotional as she described the connection between the two organizations — one without a home rink, the other facing all the difficulties of growing up in the inner city.

After their game, the Banners and the Ducks exchanged medals and certificates of brotherhood and ate pizza together, said Robinson, vice president of the Tucker Road Parents Hockey Organization.

“We had so much fun,” she said. “It started a camaraderie between the programs.”

Daryl Fletcher, 17, who plays defense, said he threw himself into the Banners hockey and other Tender Bridge programs after he lost his father to a shooting in 2013.

“It’s a hockey team, but it’s also a family,” he said. “It’s nothing but peace, having fun, nothing but love. It could change someone’s life.”

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