Soul on Ice

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

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.

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."

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."

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."

Townshend also sees hockey as something more than the dream career of a Toronto schoolkid. Though he admits it only after some prodding, Townshend says he believes there's a spiritual element to his hockey success: he hopes, he says, it will encourage black kids to try fields they may think are closed to them. For the past two summers, Townshend has coached at the Ebony Skills Hockey Camp in Toronto. "When I work at that camp with 100 kids, 90 of them are black," Townshend says. "And I can see the hunger in their eyes, looking at me, [thinking] 'Wow, maybe I can do it, too.' I was surprised, the first time I went, to see that many black kids in one [ice] arena. I almost cried. The camp is a great concept. If I had enough time in Toronto, I'd run it myself."

Instead, Townshend has another goal, one that may take more than a summer to reach. He wants to write a book. "The theme would be to inspire young black kids," Townshend says. "Well -- all kids. But I would have liked to know more about [black hockey player] Tony McKegney when I was growing up. I wish he'd written a book. I think more black men in corporate America would do stuff like that if they knew how much it would mean."

Even today, though, Townshend won't pretend that judging emotional and racial contests ever gets simple. A stepfather who won't spank his child, and a hockey player whom most teammates expect to take trash talk in stride, Townshend says he still doesn't regret decking that New York Rangers player at the very start of his career.

"To this day I'm glad I did it," he says. "Because you know what? I've never heard that word since.

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