The last thing we expected from Frank Meeink was a new appreciation for hockey.
Movie buffs may know him as Derek Vinyard, Edward Norton's neo-Nazi character in American History X. The 1998 film was loosely based on Meeink's life.
Loosely, Meeink told us at the Reconciliation Forum in Washington, D.C. The real-life version has no cathartic moment or dramatic ending. The true story begins after the credits. Oddly enough, it involves hockey. Meeink grew up in Philadelphia watching the Flyers. The games were his escape. At home, Meeink was abused by his step-father. At school, he was beaten up for being the only white kid.
"Imagine you shook a pop bottle for 13 years," he said. "But I could always watch the Flyers."
But hockey wasn't enough and the 13-year-old found another escape - a hate group. Using the Bible, the leaders taught Meeink the impossibilities of an inter-racial society. Meeink explains he didn't fully understand. But, they made sense based on his life experience. Plus, the leaders had cars, girls and respect. Meeink wanted that - and an outlet for his frustration.
"It's hard to describe how good it felt to beat someone," he said. "It just felt so good to release that anger."
By 18, Meeink became a leader. He got tattoos displaying his ideology including a swastika on his neck. Then, the violence caught up with him. Meeink was sent to prison for assault and kidnapping. Looking to pass long days in the Illinois prison, Meeink met some African-American ball hockey players.
Meeink says "you couldn't find anyone more racist than me." But, he loved the game and needed the escape. Through his skill, the other skinheads believed he was "representing" their colour. But, Meeink soon found unexpected commonality.
Meeink began speaking with the players after games. The topic always turned to girls. The skinheads were primarily lifers whose wives and girlfriends were gone. Like Meeink, the African-American players were serving shorter sentences. They too had girlfriends on the outside. After games, the egos broke down as they analyzed every word of love letters and anxiously awaited new ones.
Upon release, Meeink returned to Philadelphia. He met with old friends but found his belief system rocked by jail. He saw holes in his ideology and found himself disillusioned by the racist cause. Confused, he turned back to hockey.
In his neighbourhood, the rundown rinks were a gathering place. With players dressed head-to-toe in gear, skin colour wasn't visible - only ability. He saw small guys show off. He saw big guys you normally wouldn't mess with unable to maneuver.
"These guys would step on the ice and crash in a minute," he said.
Thinking back to the prison love letters and ball hockey, Meeink saw his chance to break down egos and help others learn from his mistakes. Starting in Philadelphia and now in Des Moines, Iowa, Meeink founded Harmony Through Hockey. The program teaches children teamwork, athleticism and tolerance.
Kids come from all races and backgrounds. Most have never played so they begin at the same level. They learn teamwork and improve together. Meeink gives them off-ice assignments like doing something nice for someone without saying anything and telling a teammate three things you like about them.
Using positive attitudes and camaraderie, Meeink eliminates what he felt as a child - hate. Through self-esteem and bonds with teammates from different backgrounds, the kids see the holes in hateful ideology sooner.
"They will all fall on their little butts but that knocks the ego right out," says Meeink.
That's a good thing. Falling is what he says offered salvation.
"You hear about some people giving their lives to hockey," he says. "Well for me, hockey owes me nothing and I owe it everything."