Soul on Ice

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

Bryan Webster, an African-American engineer who went to school in New England during the same years Townshend was there, remembers reading about him in the newspapers. "I remember thinking, 'Oh! A black guy playing hockey!' That's why I remember it," he recalls, laughing. Although mildly intrigued, Webster says he wasn't particularly attracted to seeing a hockey game live. "It's got this reputation as a white man's sport, and also as a sport where the crowds get really rowdy," he says. "You don't want to go to a stadium full of drunk guys and be the only black guy among thousands of people."

Townshend says he has noticed a wide range of other deterrents for blacks, ranging from a scarcity of black hockey heroes to pseudo-scientific theories embraced as often by African-Americans as by whites. "It's not on the surface, it's subtle," he says. "It's things from the fans, like, 'You should be playing basketball.' One player once told me blacks had weak ankles. That's like saying basketball is a black man's sport. If that's true, how do you explain Larry Bird?"

But while Townshend's presence in the game naturally inspires comment, he insists that the main battles in his life have been about something different. "I don't want to sound like Don King," Townshend says, "but life is too short to worry about [other people's racism]. I look at other ethnic groups that have worked their tails off and succeeded. I'm determined to succeed. We're all humans, believe it or not. We're all related. I was good at hockey. I felt I was just as good as anyone else."

The truth is, hockey has always welcomed Townshend generously. He began his career-long shuttle between minor and major league teams even before leaving college. Hailing from a country where professional hopefuls fill every junior high school, Townshend, who plays right wing, has succeeded, becoming one of the Aeros' five top players.

Townshend actually saw more prejudice outside the game. Long before he joined professional sports, for instance, Townshend was made to feel unwelcome in his birth country of Jamaica. "I feel Canadian," says Townshend, who has only spent three weeks in Jamaica in the past two decades. "A lot of Jamaicans have animosity to outsiders, especially toward Jamaicans who return. Maybe it's envy. I don't feel comfortable there."

In college, Townshend got an even more disturbing reception, from fellow black students. Speculating that their coldness stemmed from his playing a "white" sport, Townshend says, with a certain studied resignation, "The only time I ever felt people thought I was a sellout was the black students on campus. They wanted nothing to do with me. I was a social butterfly, friends with all kinds of people. But the campus was very segregated. A lot of those [African-American] kids wouldn't give me the time of day."

Eventually, Townshend says, he decided to stop worrying. "It's no sweat off my brow," he says. "I don't get involved with a lot of racially motivated political issues." Instead, he spent his formative years anxious never to disappoint the mother he idolizes and seeking guidance from coaches who also became father figures. "Every coach I had took me under his wing. They knew I was fatherless," says Townshend. "These were white men, by the way." Two such relationships in particular, though, got complicated and, ultimately, bitter. Townshend's mix of talent and need set him up perfectly for tortured, quasi father-son conflicts.

One of those surrogate parents was Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's power-skating coach, Paul Vincent. Vincent informally adopted Townshend for several years. Townshend honed his skills with Vincent, but the man he played under was RPI's then-ice hockey coach, Mike Addesa. Adessa coached RPI to the national championships in 1985, and became another of Townshend's father substitutes. His relationship with Addesa was, Townshend says, a "love/hate" thing. Despite his coaching prowess, Addesa also "mentally abused" his team, according to Townshend. Still, he adds, "all I wanted to do was please him."

For Townshend, hockey became a cycle of adulation and criticism, with Vincent treating him more kindly in the summer and Addesa pouring equal-opportunity vitriol over him during the school year. The intense, emotion-laden attention from both coaches, while improving his playing, also did real damage. "I still struggle sometimes with self-esteem," Townshend says now. "I've been to therapy. Both [coaches] had a lot of power over me. Basically, they were just a couple of power freaks."

Finally, a late season incident in his senior year at RPI undercut Townshend's attempt to be just a hockey player as opposed to a black hockey player. Following a winning game against Brown University, Addesa launched into a locker room tirade that suddenly focused on Townshend. During the game, Townshend had scolded two team members -- one white, one black -- for joking around. Though Townshend had been trying to get their minds back on the game, and Adessa knew that, the coach now lumped him in with the other players. "What I saw between you and [the other black player] really made me sick to my stomach," Townshend recalls Addesa saying. Then the coach added, "If you don't stop acting like a nigger, I'll start treating you like one."

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