As Development Camp got underway this Monday, the Nashville Predators officially welcomed one of the newest members of the Middle Tennessee hockey scene into the fold.

Named the first head coach of the first HBCU hockey program this April, Tennessee State University’s Duante’ Abercrombie was honored to serve as guest coach for the Predators this week.

“It was phenomenal to get the invitation,” Abercrombie said. “[Predators Assistant General Manager] Mr. Brian Poile sent me an email and I said, ‘Absolutely, I have to be here for this. I was in Vegas [for the NHL Draft], I did some stuff with Team USA and I was in Toronto to do some stuff, but I made sure I made time to be here this week.”

Of course, the invite surely pales in comparison to the historic news Abercrombie received this spring, as does his breadth of experience at virtually every level of ice hockey - from NCAA Division III to the NHL.

“It was a dream come true,” Abercrombie said. “My mom went to Howard, I went to Hampton and I met my wife, Melanie, at Hampton. This is honestly what I’ve been doing this for. I wanted to play professional hockey, I wanted to coach at the professional ranks and I've done both of those at different levels, but I wanted to do it so that I would be able to build a platform, to be able to go back to neighborhoods like mine, where I grew up, and help individuals coming from situations like mine. So, getting to bring hockey to an HBCU campus, it's just a full circle moment.”

Abercrombie’s participation at camp has not been limited to the playing surface. On Thursday, the TSU Tigers bench boss had the floor to deliver some inspiring words to the next generation of Predators talent.

“Everybody's backgrounds and journeys are different, but that's how you truly grow as a team and really get to know the individuals sitting next to you,” Abercrombie said. “Because if you really want to win, it's more about the person sitting next to you than it is the person sitting in your boots.”

To be certain, Abercrombie’s message was received with open minds and hearts.

“[My biggest takeaway] was remembering where you came from, and really just taking a step back and seeing the progress you've made,” 2024 second-round pick Teddy Stiga said. “I think for me, it's kind of just looking back to my youth years and how much fun hockey was and just not taking a day for granted. I think it's easy to get caught up in the media and stats, stuff like that, so I think for me it really just brought me back and helped me realize that we’re here playing hockey for an NHL team, and it's not too bad.”

“I think the biggest thing that I took away was just appreciating family and how much they’ve helped get everyone to where they are,” 2023 first-round pick Matthew Wood said. “I can’t even begin to describe it all. My dad coached me growing up and pretty much taught me everything, my mom was always looking out for me and my sisters were there to support me. When I moved to Vancouver Island, I stayed at my grandparents house until we could find a house there, and they were driving me to practices and games. I owe everything that I have to my family, and I'm really grateful.”

Family loomed large in Abercrombie’s life, too, as well as in his decision to pursue hockey from a young age.

“My mom had me when she was a teenager, at 19 years old, and she didn't want her children to be statistics,” Abercrombie said. “She put me in swimming and violin, and learn to skate was another one. I was out there with my toe picks on, just spinning around, and after I got off the ice a hockey game started. I fell in love with it immediately. I said, ‘Mom, I want to try that,’ so she went and signed me up for our inner city program.”

The program Abercrombie had been signed up for was the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, an affiliate of the NHL’s Hockey Is For Everyone initiative and the oldest diversity hockey program in North America. Founded in 1978 by U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Neal Henderson, to this day the Dupont Cannons provide local and inner-city youth in Washington, D.C. an opportunity to learn and play hockey in an organized and competitive setting.

“I didn't grow up in traditional hockey,” Abercrombie said. “My team was all Black. So I grew up looking left and looking right and feeling as if this game was something that was ours. It was only when I was told by somebody from the outside that, ‘Hey, this is a white person sport, and you know, Black people really don't play hockey.’ It was like, ‘What do you mean we don't? Yes, we do.’”

It’s those formative experiences, paired with a lifetime spent in service to the game and those from similar backgrounds, that earned Abercrombie his historical accomplishment at Tennessee State. 

It’s those experiences, too, that saw him honored with another ‘full circle’ moment last season, when his hometown Washington Capitals named Abercrombie - the Capitals Black Hockey Committee member and former lead instructor for the Capitals’ Rising Stars Academy - their 2024 nominee for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award during a surprise in-game ceremony.

“I remember all those Capitals, Mike Grier, Anson Carter and Joel Ward, would come in and do presentations at the rink where I grew up, and now I get to be that individual for other people,” Abercrombie said. “I was completely overwhelmed with emotion, and my entire family was there because it happened to be Black Hockey Night. So to get a chance to experience that with my wife and my kids, they actually pointed to the jumbotron and said, ‘Hey Dad, that’s you,’ so it was just unreal.”

Abercrombie’s children, and surely countless others from similarly diverse backgrounds, will be watching again as the 37 year old heads up not only the first HBCU hockey program in the country, but the first and only Division I hockey program in the Music City.

It’s a responsibility Abercrombie doesn’t take up lightly, nor is it one he hasn’t earned.

“To have the school representing and supporting hockey, it's about making things tangible,” he said. “I didn't truly believe that I could play in the professional ranks or coach in the professional ranks until Graeme Townshend, the former NHL player and coach, spoke it to me: ‘Duante’, you can do that.’ And the power of just seeing somebody that looks like you, that comes from somewhere like you achieve, the doors are literally wide open and you can achieve anything that you want to.”

Tennessee State hockey will take the ice for its debut season in 2025-26. Until then, Abercrombie is enjoying getting to know the Tigers’ future fans at Predators Development Camp and the Future Stars Game finale set for Ford Ice Center Bellevue on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. CT.

“I just can't wait to keep mixing and mingling with Tennessee,” he said. “I was just talking to a few people about this Tennessee hospitality; it's a real thing. I love hugs, I love talking to people, so come say hey, shake my hand. We'll take some pictures… I just want to meet everybody. And for the athletes, they should just soak it all up because you don't get a chance to play this game for very long. So, really enjoy every second of it.”

Click here to learn more about the Future Stars Game finale and click here to view a full Development Camp roster.

Related Content