Toronto connections run deep with Jamaican National Ice Hockey Team

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(Photo via Jamaican Olympic Ice Hockey Foundation Facebook)

Graeme Townshend’s path to the NHL was unlike any other before him. Born in Jamaica, he became the first player in the league from the island better known in the athletic world for their bobsled and track and field efforts. 

Today, he’s working hard to achieve a dream for many youth players once seemed impossible. As the head coach of Team Jamaica’s ice hockey team, Townshend is among the leaders of a developmental movement looking to eventually ice an internationally-competitive team at the IIHF level. A long journey, perhaps, but one that’s making important progressive steps right in Toronto.

Who is Graeme Townshend?

Townshend’s connections to the Toronto area- and the Maple Leafs- are many. 

Moving to Canada as a small child, Townshend grew up playing in the North York Hockey League with visions of going professional. Discouraged by his shot at playing in the Ontario Hockey League, he opted to travel to Troy, New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to play at the NCAA level. 

Playing 45 games in the NHL with the Bruins, Islanders, and Senators from 1990-1994, Townshend initially entered the coaching sphere operating a hockey school during the offseason throughout his playing career.

Working various head coaching jobs at the CHL and ECHL level following his playing career, Townshend knew his involvement in hockey wasn’t being put to proper use. 

While he had a self-described passion for teaching, controlling a team of professionals wasn’t exactly his scene. Townshend decided to move on from the job, entering the real estate business while still working as a skills coach, focused on skating.

Townshend then was hired in the San Jose Sharks organization in the early 2000s, crediting Paul Vincent- a former Florida Panthers skating consultant- as giving his recommendation to GM Doug Wilson for his first NHL gig.

Eventually moving on to a new role with the Maple Leafs and following former Sharks coach Ron Wilson, Townshend worked almost exclusively with a young Luke Schenn and other prospects. Though he had played for multiple NHL teams including divisional rivals, he described the experience as a “dream come true”. 

In 2011, Townshend was brought into the Jamaican national ice hockey program as the organization’s first-ever head coach. Just five years later, they’re working to create establish grassroots programs and scour the Americas for the world’s top Jamaican-eligible talent.

The Toronto Camp

With a large number of Caribbean descendants, Canada’s become a hockey hotbed for recruits on Townshend’s team. Looking at players in the GTHL and OMHA leagues, the requirements are straightforward for eligibility at the IIHF level: either be born in Jamaica (the easiest option) or have either a parent or grandparent born in the nation. Without a hockey-playing contingent in Jamaica, the team’s forced to look elsewhere for their talent.

Toronto-based coach Cyril Bollers acts as an associate coach for the team and one of Townshend’s biggest recruiters. Head of Skillz Hockey, a developmental team primarily for black minor hockey players in the Toronto Area, Bollers has used his connections to help recruit the best under-20 Jamaican-Canadians he can find.   

Currently living in Maine while working in Boston, Townshend travels to various camps the organization’s held looking for Jamaican youth players: with the most recent of these recruitment camps happening earlier this month in Toronto at York University’s Canlan Ice Sports rink. 

Townshend identified several hurdles in the way of the progress of the team: it currently exists IIHF associate member, but has not yet full member due to lacking a few requirements.

The most obvious one would be no home rink, or more specifically, no rink at all in Jamaica. 

Finding a site for an arena has been a challenge, but Townshend was part of a team who looked at potential locations, including bringing staff working on past Winter Classics and having experience creating rinks in unusual conditions.

While sites have been targeted and given the okay, there’s yet to been construction started on a Jamaican rink. Once the rink is established, there’s hope to fund domestic youth programs and a semi-pro hockey league- both requirements for gaining full IIHF membership.

For now, though, Townshend’s and the organization’s been looking at fielding youth teams before looking at the big show- with much of the main recruitment occurring right in the Toronto area. 

The Future of Jamaican Hockey

Townshend’s visions for the program are major, but about five years in the making, still in the very early stages. It’s not an easy task to field a hockey team in a country where snow is a foreign concept.

26 years after his debut, Townshend remains the lone Jamaican born in the NHL- so it’s clear the team must look elsewhere to find their talent. 

Jamaica’s on-ice debut came last summer at a tournament in a Toronto tournament last July. While they haven’t entered anything officially yet in the future, Townshend says he and his staff have looked at 2016 summer tournaments, many also in the Toronto area.

These events aren’t IIHF-sanctioned, as the team’s still waiting for full membership. Townshend says the building of the rink is the biggest step, and will be crucial before any major steps can be taken. 

While the team looks to build itself, Townshend said he’s also looking to give exposure to scouts at these tournaments to the OHL and NCAA levels in order to give the highest quality opportunities for these players.  

Eventually, though the federation’s goal is the same as that infamous bobsled team- to one day compete in the Olympics.

Even if now it’s just a dream, it’d be pretty cool one day to see Jamaica in the running for ice hockey gold.

All info from Jamaican Olympic Ice Hockey Federation and an interview with Graeme Townshend.