Back in February, the Arizona Coyotes celebrated Black History Month with several initiatives, both within the organization and externally.
One such event, a speaker series through the club’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, brought together filmmaker Damon Kwamé Mason and Xavier Gutierrez, the Coyotes’ President and CEO.
Mason was asked what the Coyotes could do to make a real difference. His response was to bring diversity to the coaching ranks of professional hockey.
Seven months later, the Coyotes are launching a coaching internship program that will allow coaches from diverse backgrounds to learn from and work with head coach André Tourigny and the NHL staff at the team’s prospect development camp that opens Thursday.
Duanté Abercrombie, assistant coach at Division III Stevenson University in Maryland and a juniors coach in the Washington D.C. area, joins skills development coach Nathaniel Brooks of Toronto, a former Ontario (Canada) Hockey League and United States Hockey League player, as the first two coaches to be invited to the inaugural program. Both were headed to Arizona on Wednesday in time for the Coyotes’ development camp from Sept. 9 to 13.
“It’s been a real whirlwind. I’m still kind of in shock,” Abercrombie said Tuesday. “You grow up wanting to be a part of the NHL, obviously as a player when you’re younger because you’re still playing. But I’ve had some very influential individuals come to me and say ‘Duante, you’d do a great job as a coach, so that’s an avenue you might want to test.’ So it’s just been nonstop since I set foot into coaching professionally.”
The major difference this week being that, even if only for a few days, Abercrombie and Brooks will get the opportunity to be in the dressing rooms and on the ice and in coaches meetings at the NHL level.
It was Mason who reached out to Abercrombie and Brooks to connect them with the Coyotes, and both Tourigny and General Manager Bill Armstrong were supportive of the internship program.
Brooks has a few things in common with Armstrong that surely piqued the GM’s interest. Both are from the Richmond Hill area of greater Toronto, and both are former players for the Oshawa Generals of the OHL. Brooks is also familiar with Tourigny’s work as a juniors coach in Canada.
“As someone who played at a high level and never had the opportunity at the NHL level, and someone who has been coaching now almost 10 years, working my way up, this is the opportunity that I’ve been waiting for,” Brooks said. “To be able to come down and learn from the best and be around and see how things are done, to me it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. So honestly it means everything.”
Brooks has been active in bringing hockey to diverse communities in Toronto’s lower income areas, and his work is in line with the mission of a players’ collective born out of social justice movements from last year, the Hockey Diversity Alliance.
Abercrombie, who looks forward to meeting former Coyotes player Shane Doan because he has long admired him, said he’s proud the opportunity has come his way.
“When it comes to being, quote unquote, a trail blazer or one of the first to do something, I’d rather it be me so at least I know I can say to myself, I feel like it was done the right way,” Abercrombie said.
Armstrong said Tourigny and the Coyotes coaches are looking forward to the arrival of the two interns.
“This will be a great opportunity for Duante and Nathaniel to interact and learn from an NHL coaching staff and expand their knowledge about the game and the profession,” Armstrong said in a statement from the club.
“They are both impressive individuals and this will be a great opportunity for them to gain first-hand experience regarding practice and game preparation, communication with coaches and players and time management,” Tourigny said.
Abercrombie and Brooks will, on Sept. 13, serve as assistant coaches and be on the benches for the Coyotes prospects scrimmage at Gila River Arena. That will be the final night of the camp.
The Coyotes have, in the past year, made diversity and inclusion a priority even as the organization looks for a new home in the Valley and engages in a full rebuild of the roster with an eye toward the future.
“We are very focused on using the power of sports and the power of our platform to make a difference,” Gutierrez said. “We think this is just another opportunity for us to make an impact.
“We certainly are excited to be the first organization, and we’re hoping we won’t be the only one,” Gutierrez said of the internship, which the club intends to offer annually going forward. “We’re hopeful that our colleagues across the NHL see the importance of bringing diverse talent to the coaching ranks, and to really use opportunities like development camp to make that opportunity come to life.”