William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past seven years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March and will be writing about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles new NCAA assistant Duante Abercrombie.
An alumnus of the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone initiative reached the NCAA coaching ranks when Duante Abercrombie was recently hired as an assistant at Stevenson University, a Division III school in Pikesville, Maryland.
The job at the school just outside of Baltimore is a short drive from Abercrombie's home in Washington, but it's part of a long journey that he hopes will culminate in an NHL coaching position someday.
Abercrombie began playing hockey at age 6 with Washington's Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, a Hockey Is For Everyone affiliate that's the oldest minority-oriented program of its type in North America. He dreamed of being in the NHL from Day One.
"My whole goal, even when I was playing, was to try to climb the ranks as high as I could to be able to expand my reach as far as the impact to be able to give back because hockey gave me so much, Fort Dupont gave me so much," Abercrombie said. "My goal is still being NHL-bound to coach now because I've gotten so many messages from players and people in general that to see someone that looks like you achieving at the level that I've achieved thus far is very inspiring and motivational to a lot of people."
Abercrombie is a pupil of Neal Henderson, the Fort Dupont club's coach and founder who is the first black person elected to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. Henderson is a member of a 2019 class that includes NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, former NHL players Tim Thomas and Brian Gionta, and U.S. Winter Olympics women's player Krissy Wendell; all will be inducted at a ceremony Dec. 12 in Washington.
Henderson was one of the first people Abercrombie called after he landed the job at Stevenson.
"You could tell he was very emotional on the phone, as was I when I heard that he made it into the Hall," Abercrombie said. "This is an individual who was a second dad to me. Coach Neal, Mondays and Wednesdays 6 p.m. to 7:20 p.m. on the ice, he was my dad."
Henderson is still beaming that one of his former players has made it to the college coaching ranks.
"It shows that the person who has that much interest in the game has thought to progress himself into the life of hockey and put himself into the position to reach for higher goals," he said.
Abercrombie is one of four black coaches in NCAA hockey. Kelsey Koelzer, a member of the NHL & NHLPA Female Hockey Advisory Committee, was hired in September as the first women's coach for Arcadia University, a Division III school near Philadelphia that will begin play in 2021-22. Koelzer is likely the first black woman to lead an NCAA hockey team at any level.
Paul Jerrard, who served on the coaching staffs of the Dallas Stars and Calgary Flames from 2011-12 to 2017-18, is an assistant at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Leon Hayward, who played six seasons in the American Hockey League and the ECHL, is an assistant at Colorado College.
There's a small fraternity of black coaches in pro hockey that includes Mike Grier of the New Jersey Devils; Tampa Bay Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean and video coach Nigel Kirwan; Leo Thomas of Macon of the Southern Professional Hockey League; his brother, Kahlil Thomas with Greenville of the ECHL; and Jason Payne with Cincinnati of the ECHL.
The 32-year-old Abercrombie has been the coach of the Washington Little Capitals 16U National Team since 2018. He also coaches high school hockey at Georgetown Preparatory School and conducts private clinics and lessons.
He said Stevenson's 25-game schedule and its proximity to Washington will allow him to continue his other coaching activities.
"I said, 'You know what? How many times are you going to get a chance to coach at this level, this close to home? This has to be a Godsend, let me just figure out a way to make this happen,'" he said. "And it works. It fits my schedule perfectly."
Stevenson coach Dominick Dawes said he and Abercrombie began talking during the summer and met a few weeks ago. Dawes said he was drawn by Abercrombie's experience and desire to improve as a coach.
"It seemed like a good fit in terms of what his skill set is, what his goals are as a coach," said Dawes, whose team went 10-15-0 in 2018-19 and lost its last three games of the season. "We're looking for a little help with skills stuff, skills work. The way he carried himself, the way he handles his Little Capitals group, we just felt like he could help us get better. We're excited to have him."
Abercrombie is a graduate of Washington's Gonzaga College High School, where he helped lead the team to four Maryland Student Hockey League/Mid-Atlantic Prep Hockey League championships as a player. He played three seasons professionally in New Zealand, as well as with Brewster (New York) and Pittsburgh of the Federal Hockey League.
Abercrombie developed a passion for training and coaching through participation in rigorous conditioning programs in Ontario during his playing days and by working as an instructor for the past four years at a hockey camp in Maine run by former NHL forward Graeme Townshend.
"He'll be a head coach one day for sure," said Townshend, who was the first NHL player born in Jamaica and went on to coach Macon of the Central Hockey League and Greensboro of the ECHL. "He's the consummate professional, does everything right, cares about his players, he's always well-prepared, always studies. I asked him if he'd be interested in working with me, and he came in and quickly became my best instructor within just a couple of weeks."
Townshend paused, then laughed.
"He's moving on up," he said. "I hope he's available this summer."
-Primary photo courtesy of David McGraw. Secondary photos courtesy of Duante Abercrombie, Babs Leese and David McGraw.