Soul on Ice

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

Two months away from graduating and entering professional hockey, Townshend needed to decide how much to fight. With his sights fixed on joining the Boston Bruins, he had no intention of getting labeled a troublemaker. As an unknown and the Bruins' only black, it wouldn't take much for him to be conveniently, if unmaliciously, pigeonholed. "I know how hockey people are," he says, shrugging. So he decided to confront Addesa in privately, in his office. "I said, 'Don't ever use that word around me,'" Townshend recalls. But by the end of the conversation Addesa had reasserted himself, convincing Townshend he'd played the worst game of his life -- even though Townshend had scored the winning goal.

The Aerodrome lobby starts to crawl with activity as Townshend recalls the event. An Aeros teammate approaches him, wanting to introduce Townshend to his girlfriend. A rink employee offers Townshend a Coke from the nearby machines. After shaking hands with the girlfriend and warmly declining the drink, Townshend returns meticulously to his story. He's clearly recounted it, and thought about it, many times.

"What ensued was a farce," Townshend says. Another player leaked Addesa's comment, and within a month it had spread into the newspapers. Minority students protested, and Townshend was pressed into a public appearance with Addesa, where they conducted a strange masquerade of goodwill.

"The school told me what to say, they told me to hug him," says Townshend, who complied. It wasn't fear, he says, or even concern about his future in hockey that made him do so. It was primarily his mother's counsel and Townshend's memories of the attention, however ambivalent, Addesa had lavished on him during his college career. (Addesa couldn't be located for his view of the events; RPI athletic officials say they have no record of his whereabouts.)

Ultimately, Addesa resigned, though he and Townshend continued to say good things about each other to the press. Since the incident, Addesa has reportedly been unable to find another coaching job, and Townshend says today he's ashamed of trying to help him.

In his soft, low-key Toronto accent, Townshend also admits now to a fury he didn't recognize at the time. Townshend says, after some reflection, "Addesa tried to pass our relationship off as a father/son thing. I hated the guy."

In contrast to his personal hurdles, Townshend's athletic task -- mowing over opponents -- might seem downright simple. And in fact, there's nothing ambiguous about Townshend's gifts. At 215 pounds, he's a bulldozer more than a technician, and his talent has always been his ability to move rival players like sheets of paper in a strong wind. Perfectly at home in an ice brawl, by late January Townshend had clocked 92 minutes of penalty time in 38 games -- more than double the penalty time of any other IHL team leader.

Though he suffered a slump from November through early January, his coach was convinced it was simply a passing problem, and that Townshend's abilities were crucial to the Aeros. "He can turn the game around by making a big hit," says Coach Ruskowski. "He's got a real hard shot. He's a very big man with a real goal-shooting knack."

Townshend's problems seemed to be coming to an end in a game this month against Atlanta. In an edgy, physical confrontation, Townshend decisively channeled the game's electricity toward Houston when he hurtled himself bodily into Atlanta's goalie. The goalkeeper, who had ventured outside the net in pursuit of the puck, flew through the goal and against the boards. He was pulled from the game and sent to the hospital, a rattling setback for Atlanta. The Aeros won the game in a shutout.

Something of an enforcer on the ice, off the ice Townshend parlays his intensity into an earnestness that fans say they like. A self-described straight arrow, Townshend bluntly admits that designation didn't come naturally. As a teenager, he was a petty hoodlum, shoplifting and stealing bicycles. "I don't think I did very terrible things, nothing despicable," Townshend says wryly. "Me and my friends beat up the ice cream man once."

Nevertheless, he says he would likely have kept up his criminal pastimes but for his mother's reaction the one time he was arrested. Given a belt with which to discipline him, she couldn't go through with a spanking. "She just cried," Townshend recalls. "She said later she was so disappointed that her firstborn could have been caught stealing. I probably would have ended up in jail one day if she'd just hit me. But I was Mr. Goody Two-Shoes from then on."

Raised soley by a woman, Townshend laughs, "I guess I'm more in touch with my feminine side." In fact, as he talks about his mother and his wife, Lori-Ann, you get the sense that it's their quiet pugnacity Townshend has absorbed most. "My wife has a lot of my mother's characteristics," Townshend says. "She's a strong woman, was a single mother for four years. She has things she's working on, but she battles through. She never gives up, she keeps battling."

How to fight, of course, is a far more varied proposition off the ice than it is on it. In part because he now has a wife and stepson, and in part because what works in hockey doesn't always work elsewhere, Townshend says he chooses his fights more carefully than ever these days. "I have my own view on politics," Townshend says. "I've always been taught that color will affect my life. But I choose how much I'm going to react."

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