By Jeff Balke
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More than most guys on ice, hockey player Graeme Townshend has had to choose shrewdly when to throw down the gloves and fight. In February 1990, fresh out of New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the 6-foot-2-inch Townshend was playing for the Boston Bruins, onetime home to hockey legends Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, and on fire to prove himself. Townshend's personality on ice was already well-formed. A looming, powerhouse skater, Townshend to this day calls to mind an armored war elephant -- bulky, deliberate, oddly serene as he sloughs off smaller creatures around him.
But Townshend was also a rookie, and the Bruins' only black player, the day he scrapped for the puck with a New York Rangers player and, he says, heard the man call him a nigger.
In ice hockey, fistfights are a cherished tradition: a well-chosen brawl can sway the game, scare off a rival or switch control of the puck. More often, though, in this sport marked by sprints and Quick substitutions, a player fights out of frustration. Instead of furthering anything, he can skate himself straight into the penalty box to watch his hobbled team go on without him. So fights have to be considered carefully. But on this day, Townshend, who can unnerve an opponent just by veering toward him, didn't think twice: he tackled the Rangers player furiously and tried to pummel him into the boards. By the time he was pulled off by the referees, Townshend's melee had garnered enough attention to prompt a penalty, a sheaf of embarrassing news stories and -- worst of all -- a tying goal for the Rangers.
Bruins coach Mike Milbury defended Townshend's reaction, but what many would remember from the game was a New York Times article in which Kris King, the Ranger Townshend pointed to as the source of the racial slur, fiercely denied the accusation against him. He was two games into his professional career, and to a lot of people Graeme Townshend had come off looking thin-skinned and bullying. "I got a lot of bad press about it. I handled that wrong," the 29-year-old Townshend admits today. But he adds that he has no regrets. "They say that [racial slurs] are just part of psyching a player out," Townshend says. "That's a crock."
Five years later in Houston, Townshend's teammates say they barely recall that National Hockey League episode. The Aeros, an International Hockey League team, is peopled both by big league hopefuls and players either on break or downshifting from NHL careers. Hockey players often bounce back and forth between leagues: Townshend is one such example, and may well play again in the NHL before he retires.
Not that he'd need to get back to hockey's top league to make his mark. Like it or not, his race alone makes him unique; he's one of fewer than 12 black hockey players in recent NHL history. But more than that, his personality has made him a standout. Today, even from The Summit's worst seats, one can see the solidarity for which he is well known: between plays, he talks intently with teammates, a heavily padded arm often draped on someone's shoulder. When a teammate seems outnumbered in an altercation, Townshend may sail over the ice just to stand there, his presence enough to make any fight worth rethinking.
Nevertheless, the scuffle that marked his NHL debut still chagrins Townshend. One recent afternoon inside the Aerodrome, the ice rink in Sugar Land where the Aeros conduct their practices, he perches on a blond wood bench and outlines that 1990 fight's ambiguities. On one hand, he knows that he temporarily short-circuited his reputation as a reliable, seasoned player. At the same time, Townshend says, that game was one of the rare times that, as a black player, he felt his priorities were different. "You can say whatever you want, insult my mother," Townshend says. "[But] for me, calling me a nigger is -- it goes back hundreds of years. It's a word that was used to keep a whole people down for centuries."
Despite his football player's physique and a blue welt on his cheekbone, Townshend's frank, wide eyes exude a startling gentleness. It's those eyes, and Townshend's easy, attentive way in a conversation, that lend the aura of decency often mentioned by those who know him. It's that congeniality, maybe, that makes him sigh wearily whenever he discusses the newsmaking fistfight.
In any case, that long-ago ruckus means little to Houston hockey fans, who leap up joyfully when Townshend slams an opponent and often cheer him by name. In a recent game with the San Diego Gulls, Townshend only played for a few seconds each time before being called back, clearly seething, to the bench. But spectators cheered him anyway, bellowing "Go, Graeme!" each time he clambered over the rink's wall and onto the ice.
In part, their warmth springs from the overall enthusiasm the Aeros have sparked here after only five months. Houston, fans make it clear, likes hockey. And with professional hockey back in town after a 13-year hiatus, Houston spectators already are as much fight fans as hockey fans. "Bull -- shit! Bull -- shit!" they recently howled after a multiplayer brawl with the Gulls earned the Aeros a penalty. In a fit of passion, one spectator hurled a frozen turkey onto the ice.