At the end of the two days, the head coach who had no idea about exactly what he’d gotten himself into sounded pumped.
“The talent level is off the charts,” Graeme Townshend, head coach of the under-construction Jamaican national ice hockey program proclaimed Sunday. “We have a lot of talented kids at our disposal. There are some good players up here, obviously, but I didn’t expect them to be as good as they are.”
The Jamaica Olympic Ice Hockey Federation took its first on-ice strides toward building an Olympics-worthy national team with a two-day tryout at a suburban Toronto rink over the weekend under the watchful eyes of Townshend, a former Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators forward who was the National Hockey League’s first Jamaican-born player, and Cyril Bollers, president and coach of Skillz Hockey.
About 18 skaters – from as far away as Sweden and Washington, D.C., and as nearby as Scarborough, Ont., and Quebec – ventured to the Westwood Arena in Etobicoke, donned practice jerseys with Jamaica’s yellow, black, and green flag on the front, and showed Townshend, Bollers, and the rest of the JOIHF brain trust what they could do. Twenty-five players showed up for Sunday’s sessions. The tryout participants ranged in age from 15 to 28, Townshend told me.
“As the word got around, more and more kids started to find us, I guess,” he added.
The prospect of representing his mother’s homeland is what prompted 17-year-old forward David Southwells to travel to North America for the first time from his family’s current home in Tingsryd, Sweden, birthplace of former Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kjell Samuelsson.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Southwells told me. “It would mean a huge amount, especially to my family because of our heritage.”
Washington’s Duante Abercrombie learned about the Jamaica tryout via Instagram about a week ago. An alum of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, the oldest minority youth hockey program in the United States, Abercrombie happened to be in Whitby, Ont., training for a potential tryout with the Dayton Demonz of the Federal Hockey League when he got the message.
The trip from Whitby to Toronto was a short train ride for Abercrombie, one that also spurred a family reunion in search of his Jamaican roots.
“I didn’t speak to my dad when I was a child, and my mom (Devara Abercrombie) always said my dad had Jamaican (in him) but she didn’t know where it went because they didn’t speak. I was three months old when they separated,” Abercrombie told me. “I didn’t speak to him until I was 18 years old, and maybe just three times. The only other time I spoke to him was this past week when I let him know that he officially needs to find (his Jamaican) descendants and other stuff.”
That conversation led to more talk and a warm catching up between Abercrombie and his father, Michael Armstead.
“He was so excited. He’s kept up with everything that I’ve done,” Duante Abercrombie told me. “This weekend wasn’t just a great weekend for hockey, it also gave me an opportunity to connect with my dad. It was really a powerful, powerful weekend. I just didn’t get a hockey blessing, I got a family blessing out of it, too.”
Abercrombie is only 28 but consider him a hockey lifer. After playing for Fort Dupont Head Coach Neal Henderson and winning a Washington, D.C., hockey championship with Gonzaga High School, Abercrombie set his sights on reaching the pro ranks.
His quest took him to New Zealand in 2011-12 to play for the West Auckland Admirals of the New Zealand Ice Hockey League. Since then, he’s been preparing for his chance, perpetually training on and off the ice should a team come calling.
The closest he’s gotten to the NHL was practicing with Washington Capitals players Mike Green, John Carlson, and Nicklas Backstrom at the team’s Kettler Capitals Iceplex facility in Arlington, Va., during the weeks of the 2012 NHL players lockout.
If Townshend and the JOIHF officials can find more players with Abercrombie’s desire and hockey pedigree, the fledgling program will be off to a good start.
The weekend’s tryout was the first of several to be held in Canada and the U.S. When Jamaica gained associate membership in the International Ice Hockey Federation in 2012, JOIHF officials boldly stated that their goal was to have a team on the ice at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
But JOIHF officials have since slowed their roll on 2018, acknowledging that they have a lot of work to do on and off the ice before even thinking about the next two or three Winter Games.
“It’s premature to shoot for 2018,” Townshend told me. “Logistically, it would be monumental. We’d have to work our way through the different divisions of the IIHF. We don’t have a rink in Jamaica yet, we have to wait until that’s done. There’s a first step in that process, getting funding for that rink.”
“We have to do it right, cross the T’s and dot the I’s. We have to satisfy the International Ice Hockey Federation’s guidelines.” he continued. “My job is to just keep plugging away and try to get us into competition outside of the International Ice Hockey Federation jurisdiction and just get the word out there, start getting more attention to the program, and once we do that I think the funding will come.”
A special Color of Hockey thanks to Damon Kwame Mason, Producer of “Soul On Ice: Past, Present & Future,” for shooting and sharing photos from the tryout. To learn more about his documentary project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/soulonicemovie and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_63win3qQSA.