If there was a common theme to be found among Phil Tupper’s myriad but intense interests, he seemed to want to fly faster than his feet alone could carry him.

An auto mechanic by trade, Tupper loved driving cars in endurance races, traipsing up and down the coast from New England to Georgia. He liked to skateboard, even into his 30s.

And Phil Tupper loved to skate. He loved hockey.

In his Sunday morning group, Harbor City Hockey, Tupper — who did not pick up organized hockey until adulthood — was one of the strongest, fastest skaters. An introvert off the ice, on it, he was contained, cool, never flipped out, his friend Dave Ward said.

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To Tupper, who struggled at times with life’s lows, hockey gave him a place to fit in. He would get on the ice two or three times a week, then linger after with the group, through jam sessions when he played the drums, or postmatch cookouts that often drew out much longer than the games themselves.

“It can be weird to spend that much time with people who aren’t my family, but there’s a core group of us that have been hanging out for years,” Ward said. “To have made so many friends, hockey has become a really special thing in all our lives. We’re all pretty tight.”

So the ragtag, tight-knit hockey community of Greater Baltimore took it hard when Tupper died in January at 40. But it is striving to make something out of it.

On Sunday, a cadre of Tupper’s close friends from his Sunday and Thursday hockey groups are playing an exhibition game against the Baltimore Banners, the East Baltimore hockey program that has helped keep kids off the streets and on the ice for 21 years. The game starts at 11 a.m., and The Tender Bridge — the organization that supports the Banners and other recreational and character-building pursuits for youth — is raising funds for the program in Tupper’s honor.

Tupper had volunteered with the Banners off and on several years ago — many hockey lovers in the area get involved one way or another. Searching to make some positive impact out of their grief, Tupper’s parents contacted the Banners and proposed some way of helping hockey players.

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They saw the community hockey had given Phil, the peers he could draw on for support, the sense of freedom and purpose the sport gave him. They want others to have that, too.

“Phil didn’t open up easily, but hockey gave him guys his own age he could talk to,” his father, Larry Tupper, said. “His guys couldn’t do enough to help him and us. Hockey was a format for believing in himself more than he really did.”

The Baltimore Banners understand what that’s like. No matter who you are, hockey is a niche interest in this region.

The equipment is expensive, and the ice time can be difficult to come by. The Banners are based out of Mimi DiPietro Skating Center, a city-owned rink that could use renovation — last season, a wall collapsed, temporarily forcing the team out to Mount Pleasant, a logistical challenge for the volunteers who shuttle players back and forth from their homes. A huge draw for the players is the food the team provides, for some of them one of the most reliable meals of the week.

The Banners also know loss. In 2021, Davon “Peanut” Barnes and Abraham “Abe” Lund were shot and killed in East Baltimore. A memorial pennant hangs in the arena, honoring their lives, which still resonate in the program 2 1/2 years later.

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Ray Atkins, a 20-year-old who has played in the program for 15 years, says some of his closest friends are on the team. He got his younger siblings in the program, too, once he started seeing what hockey could do for him.

Founder of the Baltimore Banners, Noel Acton, helps adjust the skates of Donteze Branch, before a game at Mimi DiPietro Family Skating Center, in Baltimore, February 5, 2023.
The founder of the Baltimore Banners, Noel Acton, adjusts the skates of Donteze Branch, before a game at Mimi DiPietro Skating Center last year. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

“Everybody here, I’ve grown up with since I was a kid,” he said. “A lot of Black kids playing hockey, it’s not normal. But we made it normal.”

Gesturing out to a bustling, excited locker room with a sweep of his arm, Atkins added: “Look at us.”

The past year has been good to the Banners, relatively speaking. After Noel Acton, who founded the team, received a community service award from the NHL, interest and support grew. The Baltimore Children & Youth Fund gave the program a grant in 2022 that has helped with the significant administrative costs.

More coaches have jumped aboard, including new program Executive Director Jack Burton. Volunteer coach Matt Leone said he spent so much time with the Banners he unwittingly got his wife involved (after a recent practice, she was helping make sure players were fed as he came off the ice). Older players remain involved, too. Ian Thomas, a Banners alum who is now an NFL tight end, has vigorously backed the program, helping fund new jerseys, coats and bags.

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One point of pride for the Banners in Sunday’s game? For one of the first times they can remember, everyone’s outfit will match.

“I feel damn good about this program,” Atkins said. “The coaches, they really are volunteers. And they really take their time out from their weekends, their gas, they feed us. Everything, and even if you need something, you can call the coaches and ask.”

Still, the future of the ice rink might be the biggest looming issue for the Banners, who are always looking for more support.

But the interesting thing is, this weekend, the Banners are the ones who will be helping their opponents. Although the game is a fundraiser for their program, Leone said, the team has bought in to helping Phil Tupper’s friends find some sense of solace on the ice — the place where Tupper himself felt most free.

Ward said he had to limit the number of Phil’s friends who could participate (“otherwise we’d have 30 guys out there” he said, laughing). The Banners are just as ready to compete — and to give Tupper’s friends a sense of community and healing.

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That’s what hockey does for them.

“They finally get to help someone else,” Leone said. “They’re really excited about it.”

Anyone interested can make a donation to The Tender Bridge ahead of the game at the Banners’ GoFundMe page.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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