Soul on Ice

As one of hockey's few black players, the Aeros' Graeme Townshend has had to pick his fights carefully

It's this kind of gusto that brings the Aeros an average of 11,000 fans each game, the highest attendance of any Southern ice hockey team. And that the Aeros have so far ranked well -- hovering around second in their division -- only partially explains the fervor. "Hockey is the fastest team sport in the world, and Texans love action," Aeros coach Terry Ruskowski says. "In hockey you get that fast paced, hard-hitting contact. And the altercations. Once people here see the game they seem to fall in love with it."

As a Canadian, Townshend has been in love with hockey ever since he can remember. And as a star player since elementary school, he knows hockey culture well. Even so, being black in a game with a long tradition of being white, Townshend is still analyzing the difference between routine competitiveness, stupidity and racism.

For most of Townshend's teammates, dealing with the fine points of trash talk isn't an issue. But for Townshend it's not always that simple, even though the 1990 fight is atypical of how he normally deals with perceived racism. In other racial conflicts he's met through hockey, he's chosen to plow through them or walk away.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Townshend moved with his parents to Toronto when he was three. A few years later, his father left the family, leaving his mother toiling at a clerical job and urging her children to further their education. "I must have heard every day of my life, 'You don't want to have to work nine to five in a job you hate, like I do,'" Townshend says. "She said, 'Be a professional.'"

It's unlikely she meant by that to be a professional athlete, but Townshend, whose talent was clear before he was ten, was able to follow her lead in two ways: he used his on-ice skill to win a scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he could showcase his hockey abilities while getting an education. He says he remembers the day he realized hockey could help pay his tuition. "I'll never forget Larry Scarlet," a high school senior who won a sports scholarship when Townshend was a freshman, he says. "I remember seeing Larry walk down the halls with his books. I thought, 'Damn, that's amazing. His education is paid for.' I was 14 years old." Today, Townshend is still studying, pursuing an MBA during the summers to prepare for life off the ice.

Raised with immigrant's optimism, Townshend says he was also taught that, "Maybe I have to be a little better than the next guy. If a white kid's going out for the job or the team, I have to be a little better. I don't have a problem with that." Playing hockey with his friends in Toronto, though, it took several years for Townshend to realize that he was unique. "Growing up in any city in Canada, they'd build a park," he says. "They'd put a wooden rink, and any place you could get an adult willing to freeze his tail off to pour ice, you could play hockey. When I grew up, that's all we did. We'd get out of school and rush home and change. We'd play hockey from four to nine every night, every day of the week. "

By high school, however, Townshend stood out both for his burly, physical play -- and for being the only black on his teams. "There were ten of us who hung out together when we were little, and played hockey," Townshend recalls. "Maybe three were black." By high school the others had dropped away, something he attributes primarily to tradition over any racial exclusion. "I never felt unwelcome in the sport," Townshend says. Still, though a number of his friends seemed interested in the fact that he was playing, they shied away from the game themselves.

Townshend admits this attitude is harder to explain in Canada, where hockey is the number one sport, than in the United States, where the game is played mainly in a few Northern and Midwestern states. But regardless of the reason, an all-white nimbus undeniably surrounds the sport, leading to preconceptions ranging from quaint to perplexing.

"I think it's a matter of exposure," says John Abercrombie, one of about half a dozen African-Americans attending a recent Aeros game. A minor league baseball player and a history teacher at Aldine High School, Abercrombie says that he learned to like hockey while attending school in Oklahoma. "Hockey's like golf or tennis -- it's a little more expensive," he says. "I think if African-American kids had more exposure to it, they'd like it, though. Graeme is the first African-American hockey player I've seen. I'm very happy to see him out there."

"What I admire about Graeme as a player is -- I know this sounds, well, ethnic -- but being black myself, I really admire the way he can skate," says local sportscaster Ralph Warren. "Having grown up here in the South, not having been exposed to ice like people in the North, you know what they say about hockey being a white man's game. Seeing a black man excelling at that particular sport, it's an unreal feeling."

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