BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Noel Acton, the founder of a nonprofit that aims to help at-risk East Baltimore youth through sports, was named as one of three finalists for the National Hockey League’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.

The Tender Bridge was founded by Acton in 2003. According to the organization’s website, he has “devoted his life to helping at-risk kids see and understand the alternative choices they have in life.”

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The organization manages the Baltimore Banners, an ice hockey team based in Patterson Park.

In a video profile of Acton released by the NHL Thursday, Baltimore Banners players and staff reflected on how Acton had impacted their lives and the community.

“I look at hockey as the hook that keeps the kids involved,” Acton said in the video.

The organization doesn’t only facilitate hockey. The Tender Bridge operates year around, recruiting kids from the streets into football, baseball, lacrosse, and even sailing programs. The organization also provides transportation for players to and from practices.

Acton’s mission hasn’t been simple or easy. Last year, the Banners lost two teammates to a triple shooting.

“I lost a lot of friends, they either dead or in jail,” said Banners co-captain Daryl Fletcher in the video. “Without no one to care, to take me in, I’d probably be out there on the streets.”

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“This program right here gave me hope,” said co-captain Ronald Phillips. “I’d probably be somewhere in jail, selling drugs, hopeless and wandering around in life like a ghost, don’t know what my purpose is.”

The mission of the Tender Bridge is to enable Baltimore youth like Fletcher and Phillips bridge to successful adulthood.

In the video announcement, Hockey Hall of Fame member Willie O’Ree told Acton he was a finalist, much to Acton’s excitement. The team celebrated with a group hug.

“I am in awe every day when I look at that guy and what he’s done,” said Banners coach Jack Burton. “It’s really hard to fathom doing that for 28 years. The impact that he’s had across the whole neighborhood – that’s generational.

Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award recognizes “an individual, who like Willie O’Ree, has worked to make a positive impact on his or her community, culture, or society to make people better through hockey,” according to the NHL website.

O’Ree became the first Black player in the NHL in 1958. After a 22-year career, O’Ree spent the last 40 years helping marginalized and disadvantaged youth across North America, according to the NHL.

The two other finalists include Merideth Lang of Minneapolis Mn., who works to introduce young girls of color to hockey, and Ryan Francis of Cole Harbour Nova Scotia, who helped launch a program that encourages young indigenous girls to play hockey.

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Voting is now open for the award and closes on April 17. Fans can vote more than once, but not more than once daily.

CBS Baltimore Staff