Duante' Abercrombie, Fort Dupont Ice Arena, Graeme Townshend, Neal Henderson, USHL, Washington Little Capitals
As a kid, Duante’ Abercrombie dreamed of playing for the Washington Little Capitals, a youth hockey program with a track record of developing players for junior, college and professional hockey teams.
Almost after each practice with the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club – North America’s oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program – Abercrombie would ask his mother if he could join the Little Caps, too.
“We just didn’t have the money,” he recalled. “Coming from a family that knew absolutely nothing about hockey, it was hard to justify paying as much as it cost to play hockey when I was already doing the same thing with Fort Dupont.”
Abercrombie, 31, finally joined the Little Caps last week as the new head coach of the Washington Little Capitals 16U National Team. The appointment fulfills the Washington, D.C., native’s dreams of being affiliated with the program and pursuing a career in coaching that he hopes will lead a National Hockey League job someday.
“It’s just amazing how I’ve come from a time and place when I couldn’t even afford to try out for the team to now being the head coach of arguably the most critical age group they have in the U16’s,” he said. “It’s an opportunity that I don’t take lightly.”
Neal Henderson, founder and head coach of the 41-year-old Fort Dupont hockey program, was all smiles about Abrercrombie joining him in the head coaching fraternity.
Fort Dupont is part of the NHL’s “Hockey is For Everyone” initiative that provides support and unique programming to some 30 nonprofit profit youth hockey organizations across North America, offering kids of all backgrounds the opportunity to play the game.
“It’s an honor to have had the opportunity to work with Duante’, and teach him, and put him on his first pair of skates,” Henderson said. “It’s an honor to see him progress the way he has, play hockey the way he has, and climb the ladder the way he has, and to stick with a trade that’s very difficult to maneuver through.
The Little Caps, a member of the Atlantic Youth Hockey League, has a proven record of developing players who go on to NCAA hockey programs, American Collegiate Hockey Association club teams, and junior leagues like the USHL.
Its most notable alum is Jeff Halpern, who had a lengthy NHL career with the Washington Capitals, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Los Angeles Kings.
“It was a no brainer deciding that this was something that I had to be a part of,” Abercrombie said. “My plan is to teach my players how to use their individual skills within a team structure that not only leads to eventual team success on the score sheet, but also prepares them individually for what’s expected at the next levels.”
With his appointment, Abercrombie begins a journey to one of the final frontiers for people of color in hockey – the head coaching ranks.
There were no minority head coaches in the NHL in the 2017-18 season. Calgary Flames Assistant Coach Paul Jerrard was the only black NHL coach working the bench during games.
The NHL’s other minority coaches can be found on the practice ice or in the video room. Fred Brathwaite is the New York Islanders‘ goaltending coach and Sudarshan Maharaj tutors netminders for the Anaheim Ducks. Frantz Jean is the Tampa Bay Lightning’s goalie coach and Nigel Kirwan is a video coach for the ‘Bolts.
Little Capitals management considers Abercrombie “a rising star in the hockey development scene.”
“Talk to him for five minutes and you can feel his excitement and energy for this job,” said Little Capitals Hockey Director Matt Thomas. “His ability to develop players is a great asset to our organization, and particularly for our 16U team during this critical stage. I look forward to working with Duante’ to help our talented group of 16U players advance in their careers.”
A graduate of Gonzaga High School, Abercrombia had a brief professional career playing for the West Auckland Admirals in New Zealand, the Steel City Warriors of the Federal Hockey League, and the FHL’s Brewster Bulldogs.
He’s even skated for the Jamaican ice hockey Olympic team effort coached by
Graeme Townshend, the NHL’s first Jamaican-born player, and Cyril Bollers, director of player development for Canada’s Skillz Black Aces program.
He developed an appreciation for hockey training and coaching through participation in rigorous conditioning programs like BTNL and Twist in Ontario and serving as an instructor for three years in a hockey school in Maine run by Townshend.
For the last two seasons, Abercrombie served as a hockey coach for Georgetown Preparatory School.
“Having scouted and been a skills consultant at the ACHA and NCAA levels, I will spend time developing the skills and habits that junior programs and colleges look for, and my ultimate goal is to teach (players) how to play the game with a ‘Winning Attitude’ all the time,” he said.
Abercrombie said he stands on the shoulders of other black coaches who’ve mentored him – Townshend and Henderson – and credit them for his progress.
“Duante’ is one of the best instructors I had,” Townshend said. “He comes from a background where there wasn’t a lot of hockey. He’s come a long way just because of that (Fort Dupont) program there. He’s always studying the game, he’s always learning and improving his craft. All those reasons make him a good coach.”
Thompson believes that the sky’s the limit for Abercrombie now that he has his foot in the coaching door.
“He’s now definitely in that realm where he’s going to start meeting people and start working his way up the ladder,” he said.
Henderson predicts that other Fort Dupont pupils will follow in Abercrombie’s path and become bench bosses for teams.
“Coming out of our group, for as old as it is, you’re going to find more doing it, such as Ralph Featherstone, and other men who have gone on in hockey to reach certain pinnacles in it,” Henderson said.
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So thrilled for Duante’. He’s a great guy. He used to come out to Cabin John and run drills with beer leaguers even though he was head and shoulders above us in terms of skill. He’ll make an excellent coach.