So Abercrombie found himself in gymnastics, swimming, violin, ice skating — “activities that weren’t the norm for a Black boy,” he said.
As a result, it wasn’t the streets that took her oldest boy last week. It was the National Hockey League.
“Right now, I’m dreaming with my eyes open,” said the Toronto Maple Leafs new coaching development associate, who joined a handful of Black coaches in the NHL. He fulfilled the #NHLBOUND hashtag he attached to all his communications, the line he put in allcaps on his résumé: “MY GOAL IS TO COACH IN THE NHL”
Coach Neal Henderson cried when Abercrombie called to tell him. He cried again when I called him.
“It’s a dream and a pleasure,” said Henderson, who is now 85 and getting ready for his 45th season running the hockey program that got Abercrombie started, and, he said, saved his life—the Fort Dupont Cannons.
A hockey coach spent decades saving lives. Let’s save his ice.
“I told Duante’ he would go far when I met him,” Henderson said. “He was 6 years old. I used to carry him around in my hands around the ice to teach him how to skate and how to stand.”
Henderson was the first Black man elected to the US Hockey Hall of Fame in 2019 for his role in founding and running the Fort Dupont Cannons. It’s the nation’s longest-running, minority-oriented hockey team and has shown thousands of DC kids that yes, they can be anything — even what they can’t see.
Abercrombie is now there for them all to see — the Black boy who couldn’t skate when he got to the rink; now coaching pros in North America’s hockeyland.
“I want to be there for them to know they belong, they deserve to have as many opportunities as the other players around them,” he said, remembering how hard it was for him to believe his talent and drive was enough as he shared locker rooms full of White players who had been on travel teams, who trained with special coaches and did summer clinics. All he had was the free program in the city.
“Look at me,” he said. “This is possible. I want kids to ask me, ‘what was it like when I was 10? When I was 15?’ ”
Abercrombie’s mom took him to the Fort Dupont Ice Arena’s free learn to skate program when he was 6. Skating is messy your first few times, the wobbles, those insane knives you’re supposed to stand on, the wet clothes after all the falls. It wasn’t love at first wipeout for Duante’.
But right after his lesson, the young boy watched the hockey team take the ice.
“They were moving so fast, the puck was flying,” he remembered. “What is this magical thing that’s happening on the ice?”
His mom, of course, walked straight up to the front desk and asked them if there was any way her little boy could learn this insane sport. And the front desk introduced her to Henderson.
“If it wasn’t for Coach Neal, for Fort Dupont those Monday and Wednesday nights, when he was my dad, who knows what would’ve happened to me?” said Abercrombie, who did not know his father growing up.
He remembers waking up Saturday mornings — his mom had a cosmetology license — to a house full of women getting their hair done. She worked hard to afford all the special programs and private schools that she sent Duante’ and his little brother, Devan, to.
Henderson remembers that Abercrombie was athletically talented, but more importantly, “he was a highly coachable kid.
“He was always asking for more,” Henderson said. “Asking me for more ways to do something better: ‘Is this the way to make myself skate faster?’ ‘Is this the way to hold my stick better?’ ”
His time with the Cannons propelled Abercrombie to Gonzaga College High School, the all-boys Jesuit school with a fierce hockey program. When he toured it, much of the campus was under renovation, scaffolding and boards, nothing as complete as the other schools. And that appealed to him, realizing he can be part of “what it’s going to become.”
He helped lead the hockey team to four Maryland Student Hockey League/Mid-Atlantic Prep Hockey League championships. Then he played three seasons professionally in New Zealand, as well as in New York and Pittsburgh. Most of the time, he was the only Black player in the locker room, in the arena. He could outscore and outskate others, but he had to keep convincing them he was serious.
When he became a dad, he knew it was a good time to start his life as a coach. And he coached locally, the Little Caps, Georgetown Prep, individual sessions and clinics.
He became one of four black coaches in NCAA hockey when he was hired as an NCAA assistant coach at Stevenson University in Pikesville, Md.
But he still had that goal, #NHLBOUND. So when a coaching job opened in Toronto in May, he got the résumé ready and spent the whole summer sweating, even in those cold ice rinks, waiting to hear back.
He moved to Toronto last week.
It felt right to head to Canada. It’s where Henderson learned to play hockey while his father was stationed there as a Merchant Marine during World War II.
It’s where Graeme Townshend, the first Jamaican-born hockey player to compete in the NHL, who once coached for the Leafs, took Abercrombie to the public housing complex where he was raised, after his family moved to Canada. It was Townshend — who took pride in talking about a tough upbringing — who convinced Abercrombie to get back in touch with his dad, who since got out of prison.
“He showed me that he grew up in the projects and ended up coaching at the Leafs,” Duante’ said. “He showed me it can be done.”
Now that’s he’s achieved the hashtag, what’s next?
“I want to be a head coach on that bench,” he said. “And I want my name on that Stanley Cup four times. The dream keeps changing. It has to.”