He’s helped Baltimore youth find a purpose through ice hockey, and more. The NHL honored him with a community hero award. – Baltimore Sun.

Even though he was one of three finalists for the National Hockey League’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, Noel Acton was not certain he would receive the honor – given to an individual who makes a positive impact on his community through the sport of ice hockey .

The same could not be said for the members of his Baltimore Banners hockey team, a group of inner-city youth from East Baltimore that he has taken off the streets and placed on the ice.

“Everybody was so sure that I was going to win it beforehand. They were like, ‘How can you not, Mr. Christmas? We know you. You’ve got to win, ‘”Acton said with a laugh. “I was not making a big deal because I like the fact that I get to work with the kids.”

The players’ prediction became true Saturday when Acton was named the 2021-22 recipient of the award that recognizes former NHL forward Willie O’Ree, who became the first Black player to compete in the professional league on Jan. 18, 1958, as a winger for the Boston Bruins. O’Ree, who lost his vision in his right eye after a puck struck him in the face while he was competing in the minor leagues, has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador since 1998 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.

“Noel gives back to his community in so many ways, on and off the ice,” O’Ree said in a statement. “He embodies what this Award represents: generosity, selflessness, and altruism. He has built his organization from scratch and for two decades he has positively impacted hundreds of lives, for no reason other than wanting to build a stronger, healthier community. ”

Acton, 78, said he is grateful for the attention generated by the award.

“I think it’s a recognition of what we’ve done, but being able to help kids can be duplicated not just in this city, but all over the country,” he said. “One of the things with the NHL is they would like to be able to start similar type programs in every city where they have a franchise. It’s not that hard to do. You just have to find the right nonprofit and motivated people to do it. ”

For a pair of Banners players, Acton is long deserving of the accolade.

“When he won that award, it’s recognition that is due,” said Daryl Fletcher, a 20-year-old defenseman. “For a while, we could only skate every Saturday, but he took his time and got donors and sponsors, and now we can have games and ice time. I’m glad he won. “

“He was a winner to us. That [award] was a plus, ”said Jay’Quan Washington, a 19-year-old right wing. “It hasn’t made a difference around here because he was always a hero.”

Fletcher and Washington said they want to launch a business called AP Art Squad. The A and P honor Abraham “Abe” Luden and Davon “Peanut” Barnes, two members of the Banners who were shot and killed last September.

After years of playing Little League baseball and high school football at Mervo (Fletcher) and Patterson (Washington), they admitted that they never considered ice hockey. But after joining the Patterson Park Stars, an entry-level ice hockey team, they were hooked.

“Once I became a Banner, everybody grew together,” Fletcher said. “It was a family, more like brothers.”

Washington said hockey opened his eyes to other options available to him and his peers.

“Everyone as a kid has had that football or hoop dream,” Washington said. “Once I got on the ice, it was just as competitive as any sport I’ve played. A lot of people do not believe me when I tell them I play hockey. They think I’m lying, but when I put my stuff on, they know. “

Acton, who lives in Parkville, will receive $ 25,000 with the prize going to the charity of his choice. Two runners-up will get $ 5,000 each.

Jeff Scott, the NHL’s vice president of community development and growth, said one interview that resonated with the award panel entailed one Banners player sharing that when he and his family were evicted from their home, the first person they contacted was Acton. Scott added that the panel was impressed by Acton’s work in a city lacking an NHL franchise.

“For a city like Baltimore where the closest team is the Washington Capitals, it’s amazing to see just the power of our sport. No matter where you are, no matter your proximity to the next NHL club, you’re able to see the impact this sport can have on a community, and that’s the beauty of it. ”

Acton is also the founder and executive director of The Tender Bridge, a nonprofit organization that has been aiding at-risk youth since 2002 by introducing them to sports and even apprenticeship programs. He estimated that he has mentored about 500 boys and girls over the years.

Recently, Fletcher and Washington were working on the basement of The Peale Museum in the 200 block of Holliday Street in Baltimore. Since last November, they have helped install a number of exhibits there, including two of the three that are currently in the building; constructed a protective crate for a sculpture that can run about $ 4,000; and repainted pedestals used by artists.

F. William Chickering, who chairs the board of directors at The Peale Museum, enthusiastically endorsed Fletcher and Washington’s work and The Tender Bridge’s work in developing its members.

“This program has been wonderful because most people do not have the skills to create when they first start,” he said. “But this program does not just teach about restoration project. It teaches life skills. ”

Besides ice hockey in the winter, The Tender Bridge offers mountain biking and football in the spring, sailing in the summer and football in the fall. Acton, who said 47 of his athletes have been killed in Baltimore since he started the organization, said the mission is to keep the youth active so that they do not go astray.

To help encourage more interest, the Banners provide all equipment to the players and take care of expenses associated with ice time at the Mimi DiPietro Skating Center in Patterson Park. The players and coaches share meals after every practice, and Acton drives a minivan to pick up players for practice. He will drive a small bus to take the Banners to Philadelphia where they will practice and scrimmage against the Jr. Flyers on Saturday.

“I’d love to be able to help more kids, and hockey is just a great way of doing it,” he said. “Anybody can play hockey and be successful as opposed to football and basketball. In basketball, you have to be a certain height. In football, you have to be strong. In hockey, we have all sizes. ”

Scott, the NHL vice president, said he hopes Acton and the Banners continue to build on their platform in ice hockey.

“When you think about hockey – especially from a social-impact space – you want to think about it with a growth mindset that is able to bring communities together and not only bring communities together but create an environment that is safe and welcoming,” he said. “So when you think about Noel and his work, that’s one of the things that we will continue to support and support all of the other finalists who have made it this far so that they feel supported and know that the NHL is in their corner because this work is definitely worth doing. ”

Acton, who has no children and whose wife died several years ago, said he views his players as family. To that end, he wants them to use the Banners and The Tender Bridge as a springboard to something greater.

“I know where they would have been,” he said. “So to see them be something where they can support themselves is gratifying.”

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