Duante’ Abercrombie recalls the drill with such detail that you’d think it was part of a recent practice and not one that was run 27 years ago.
Skating in circles, one hand on the ice, keeping a strong edge and maintaining balance.
Granted, the drill did carry some importance. For kids at the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, it was one of the final tasks they had to master before they were allowed to use a stick and begin playing “real” hockey.
“I failed and I failed and I failed and I failed,” he recalled. “And eventually, I was able to get it.”
Abercrombie was 6 when, through the NHL’s Hockey Is For Everyone initiative, he began skating at Fort Dupont in Washington, D.C.
“As hockey can do, it completely grabs you,” Abercrombie said.
That grasp hasn’t let go, in large part because of Abercrombie’s drive, but also due to the manner in which he was exposed to the game.
“I was very insulated in Fort Dupont,” Abercrombie said.
Everywhere he looked there were people like him; the players, coaches, staff, even the Zamboni driver.
“Everybody was Black,” Abercrombie said. “It allowed me to fall in love with the sport without race being an issue.”
Often the issue of race and whether hockey was a “White” sport came up only when Abercrombie was talking to his Black friends at school.
Abercrombie, 33, is now an assistant coach at Division III Stevenson University in Maryland, which makes him one of only a handful of Black coaches at any level in the U.S. college ranks.
He understands what he represents to young Black and Brown kids and their families, all of who wonder if hockey will accept them.
Abercrombie was hungry to develop as a player. During his youth, his family couldn’t afford for him to try out for the local AAA team, let alone pay to attend a high-end summer skills camp.
With funds still an issue in his early 20s, Abercrombie was able to crowdsource enough money to travel to Beyond The Next Level in Oakville, Ontario — the same facility favored by NHL superstar Connor McDavid.
In the summer of 2013, while working out in Whitby, Ontario, at the TWIST skills and conditioning camp, Abercrombie joined Team Jamaica workouts, which were organized by former NHLer Graeme Townshend, the first Jamaican-born NHLer.
After one of these sessions, Abercrombie asked Townshend if he could be dropped off at a train station so he could get back to his lodgings on the east side of Toronto.
Instead, Townshend offered to drive the young player to where he was staying. The two stopped for breakfast, and during the meal, Townshend suggested that instead of paying to come and work out, Abercrombie should instead help out at his summer skills camps in Maine.
And so he did.
“Best breakfast I ever had,” said Townshend, who served as a skills coach for the San Jose Sharks and Toronto Maple Leafs following his playing career.
The next summer, and every summer after, Abercrombie has been working with Townshend and has developed into a top skills coach. His off-ice sessions are known as ‘Duante’s Inferno.’
“The kids love it,” Townshend said.
From the outset, Townshend encouraged Abercrombie to view the process through a coach’s eyes. It was how Townshend was taught — the better Townshend was able to teach a skill or an idea to someone else, the quicker he would learn that skill or idea himself.
“I ate that up,” Townshend said.
And he passed it along to Abercrombie who also ate it up.
“He’s really pursued it,” Townshend said. “He studies constantly. He constantly comes at me with different ideas, different concepts and different ways to look at things.”
Whether it’s on the bench as a coach or as a skills coach or as some other decision-maker in the hockey structure, Abercrombie has the tools to coach at the highest level, Townshend predicted.
“No doubt in my mind,” he said. “Duante’ is very, very intelligent. He just commands respect. The way he carries himself, you look up to him, you can’t help but look up to him.
“He’s going to be in the NHL.”
What is it like to hear someone, anyone, tell you something like that, let alone what it means for a young Black man to hear those words from a Black mentor in a predominantly White landscape?
“It might be bigger than a lightning bolt,” Abercrombie said.
Throughout the coaching fraternity there is a pay-it-forward mentality. That dynamic is especially important when it comes to opening doors for minority coaches, whether it’s through words of advice, encouragement or introduction.
Townshend played for longtime NHL head coach Dave Tippett in Houston in the International Hockey League, and Tippett told Townshend that if he was interested in coaching he needed to go to coaching conferences and seminars, not just to learn but also to meet other people in the business.
“I did exactly as he said,” Townshend said.
At one such event, Townshend saw veteran head coach Ron Wilson and his longtime assistant Tim Hunter at the bar. Townshend bought a round of beers and they began chatting.
Townshend ended up working for Wilson in both San Jose and Toronto.
Was he the best skating coach in the world?
“Hell no,” Townshend said. “Not even close.”
Last June, at Townshend’s suggestion, Abercrombie was in Vancouver at the NHL Draft taking part in the NHL Coaches’ Association annual clinic, rubbing shoulders with coaches of all kinds of pedigrees and backgrounds.
This year he took part in the event online and, in fact, offered to pay for some of his friends who are interested in coaching.
“I want to make sure that the next individual has an easier time than I did,” Abercrombie said.
He’s spent two years with the Stevenson program and continues to work with young players as a skills instructor.
“I feel like I can grow beyond this,” he said. “And the more I grow, the more I feel I’m capable of accomplishing in this sport.”
Given the paucity of Black coaches at the highest levels of the game, each story is unique and critical in providing some form of road map to those who might follow. The NHL Coaches’ Association has a mentoring program and it’s expected that the league will tap the NHLCA for more specific programs aimed at opening doors to minority coaches. The newly formed Hockey Diversity Alliance, founded by seven current and former NHL players who are Black, is also focused on making the game more accessible at the grassroots level. But to achieve that goal, more coaches of color are needed at all levels because to help encourage inclusion it helps to show inclusion.
Currently there are four Black NHL coaches: goalie coaches Frantz Jean in Tampa and Sudarshan (Sudsie) Maharaj in Anaheim, video coach Nigel Kirwan in Tampa, and assistant coach Mike Grier. in New Jersey. On current coaching staffs, Grier is the only former Black NHL player who has graduated to the coaching ranks.
Grier’s father, Bobby, was for many years the running backs coach, director of pro scouting and vice president of player personnel for the NFL’s New England Patriots.
But Grier gravitated toward hockey, following his brother Chris into the sport, although he admits the early assessment from his mother was not promising.
“She thought that hockey wasn’t going to last too long,” Grier said with a laugh.
“But I fell in love with it.”
Sometimes, though, the game didn’t love him back.
“There are some things that you look back on,” Grier said. “I experienced a lot of things said to me.”
Parents, opposing players and others made racist comments to him when he was young.
“It was hard for me at times,” Grier said.
Sometimes the comments would lead Grier to try to settle things with his fists. But at a young age, his mother told him the best way to shut up those kind of people was by winning, and that meant focusing on putting the puck in the net.
So he did.
The outcome was different for Chris, who is five years older.
Chris was courted by a number of local hockey teams but he also loved football. In the end, the often unwelcoming nature of hockey helped push him into football.
“He didn’t want to deal with a lot of the racial stuff,” Grier said of his brother. “It really kind of soured him on his experience.”
Chris is now the GM of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.
“It was a little bit harder on him,” Grier said. “He dealt with it more internally.”
From youth hockey to the time he joined the Boston University program under legendary coach Jack Parker, Grier was often the only black player on his teams.
But he credits coaches and teammates for their support and in helping him deal with the overt racism he encountered.
He recalled a game at Boston College where there was an incident on the ice.
“Before I could even react to it, Chris Drury was jumping on the guy,” Grier said, referring to the longtime NHLer and current New York Rangers assistant GM.
“Coach Parker was great. He’s a great person, a great mentor and teacher,” Grier added. “He gave me a lot of guidance.”
He was always quick to respond if opposing teams, fans or coaches were discovered making racist comments.
“He was always right by my side dealing with it with me and the other team’s coach right away,” Grier said. “We were very much a family.”
Breaking into the NHL didn’t deliver a reprieve from the racism.
“I was probably naïve,” Grier admitted. “I just thought, this is pro sports now, the highest level of hockey, I probably won’t have to deal with it as much as I’ve dealt with it in the past.”
In November 1997, Chris Simon was suspended three games for making a racist comment to Grier.
Conversely, his time as an Edmonton Oiler where he was joined by other Black players – Anson Carter, Georges Laraque and Sean Brown – was “almost like a shared comfort, almost an unspoken bond,” Grier said.
As his impressive playing career wound down – Grier played 1,060 NHL games – he began taking note of what coaches were doing, drills they favored and why. He credits Los Angeles coach Todd McLellan for sharing his thoughts and insights into coaching to help prepare Grier for what would become a second career in hockey.
“I really liked the way he was presenting the game,” Grier said.
He watched closely how veteran head coach Lindy Ruff conducted himself.
When he retired, Grier began coaching his eldest son.
“I know I just kind of got the bug a little bit,” he said.
It was John Hynes who helped Grier secure his first NHL coaching job, hiring him to be an assistant in New Jersey before the start of last season.
Hynes didn’t need to do much of a background check on Grier. The two were roommates and teammates at Boston University and remained close.
“There’s never a negative word said about him,” Hynes said.
That doesn’t mean Hynes, who was fired by the Devils in early December and hired in January to coach Nashville, hasn’t learned new things about his former roommate while watching him become a top-notch bench coach.
He’s perceptive and has an excellent demeanor, Hynes said, and “people trust him and want to be around him.”
The Predators coach said Grier is primed for a bigger role.
“I think regardless of race or color, he’s equipped for the job,” Hynes said.
Grier says he’d love to be an NHL head coach but understands he’s still got “a lot of learning to do.”
“It’s definitely something I would aspire to and think I would be capable of doing,” he said.
It’s also likely Grier will pave the way for others, especially as the league takes a more critical view of racial equity following the death of George Floyd and the civil unrest that came after it.
He said he’s been buoyed by the response to Floyd’s death, which “made me sick to my stomach and made me angry.” He specifically cited public statements by NHL players including Evander Kane (one of the founders of the Hockey Diversity Alliance), Patrice Bergeron, Logan Couture, Tyler Seguin and Sidney Crosby.
“Supporting black communities and Black Lives Matter, it’s been good for me to see,” Grier said.
But he also feels for black players in the NHL or those hoping to play at the NHL level, like K’Andre Miller, the New York Ranger prospect who was the subject of racist taunts during an online chat in early April.
“That broke my heart,” Grier said. “I don’t want these players that are in the league to feel alone.”
One young aspiring coach who has followed Grier’s career for years is Leon Hayward.
Hayward grew up in the Seattle area in an organization with only one other Black player who was two years older.
If there was a sense of loneliness at times, it was mitigated by the support he received as a stick boy with the Western Hockey League Seattle Thunderbirds.
Hayward watched how hard the junior players worked and was heartened by how well players like Brendan Witt treated him.
He also remembers the first time he saw Jarome Iginla, whose Kamloops Blazers regularly tormented Hayward’s beloved Thunderbirds.
“He looked like me and I loved the way he played,” Hayward said. “I remember how that motivated me to be a better player. I can remember how I felt watching him play and how much it meant to me.”
It wouldn’t be the only time those feelings would visit Hayward during his hockey career.
Hayward played at Northeastern, at least in part because Grier had played at Boston College.
“I could see myself playing in Hockey East because he was doing it,” Hayward said. “Those things are important.”
After college, Hayward found a comfort level playing in predominantly Black communities like Columbia, S.C., Richmond, Va., and Atlanta.
“I remember thinking, all right, I’ve got to play good today because they’re going to watch me and I knew how important that was for me,” he said.
Hayward played five seasons in the minor pros and enjoyed the mentor role as a veteran player. He moved seamlessly into coaching, landing a job as an assistant at the ECHL level. He then coached at the prep school level, including at Avon Old Farms School, where he had spent two seasons as a player.
Several years ago, he reached out to former coach Mike Haviland with whom he’d won an ECHL championship while with Trenton about taking a step forward. Haviland offered to make some introductions at the junior level. But before Hayward could take that step, Haviland called back and asked Hayward if he’d join his staff at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
“I’ve just fallen in love with it,” Hayward said. “I love the grind. I hove how hard it is. I love the preparation. It’s really what I love to do.”
Hayward has been with Colorado College for three seasons now. He is one of two Black coaches in Division I men’s hockey (Paul Jerrard, a veteran assistant at the University of Omaha, is the other). Both are in the NCHC Conference, which last year introduced a diversity and inclusion program under conference commissioner Josh Fenton.
What do these coaches’ stories have in common?
In some ways very little. There is no set path from A to B.
In other ways, their stories are universal, a chronicling of the highs and the lows of being Black in the game of hockey.
But having these men as coaches in the game is helping to show young players that hockey should be for everyone and is pivotal to create an environment where everyone can thrive in the sport.