The Arizona Coyotes‘ rookie development camp kicked off Thursday, and though it’s exciting to have the 2021-22 season start to take shape, an even bigger story — one that has potential to impact the league for years to come — has developed behind the bench.
The Coyotes introduced their coaching internship program, the first of its kind in the NHL, which they envision will be a powerful tool to help promote diversity within the sport. Duante’ Abercrombie and Nathaniel Brooks were selected for the inaugural program, and both have outstanding hockey pedigrees.
This is the first of what Coyotes President and CEO Xavier Gutierrez said he hopes “will become an annual program.”
Brooks, Abercrombie Have Incredible Hockey Experience
Both Brooks and Abercrombie have a long history in the sport, and though their early-life hockey paths were very different, the opportunity to coach with the Coyotes during their development camp is mutually beneficial. Abercrombie is entering his third year as an assistant coach with Stevenson University, and will also serve as head coach for the Washington Little Caps U19 AAA team this season.
The program has already lived up to his expectations.
“I’ve already experienced one of the things that I really wanted to experience, and that’s just being in the room where decisions are made of how to run a practice, how to tweak little things here and there,” Abercrombie said. “How you come to a conclusion as a coaching staff, of ‘This is what we want to accomplish on the ice,’ that’s something I really wanted to experience first-hand, in the room, and thank the Coyotes so much for allowing me to have that opportunity.”
Brooks, meanwhile, has been in player development for the last 15 years, training both professional and minor league players. An experienced player himself, he spent time in multiple leagues, including the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), United States Hockey League (USHL), Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL), and the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL).
Brooks’ passion for coaching was evident early in his teenage years.
“When I was 15 years old, at my dad’s camp, I kind of got thrown into the fire to run a session, and the passion started there,” he said. “When I was done playing, it took a couple of years, but I kind of stumbled into it.”
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The program has even brought back memories for Coyotes head coach André Tourigny, who fondly recalled his humble beginnings as a pro scout, and how nerve-wracking it was. In fact, he was a guest coach in a junior camp, which ultimately led to the aforementioned scouting role.
Now, he’s excited to help the pair jump-start their careers in the same manner, while ensuring they understand even if things don’t go according to plan, the team and coaching staff have their back.
“They need to trust themselves and know they belong here, and they are trusted as well,” he said. “Don’t worry if you do make a mistake, go with it, we’re trusting you, and have confidence.”
Paving a Path for the Future
The internship is something that neither of the young coaches are taking for granted, in fact, quite the opposite. In addition to the personal benefits that he’s experiencing, Brooks acknowledged the impact that he and Abercrombie could have on future generations of fans.
“I’m hoping for the young kids coming after us — this is bigger than just Daunte’ and I,” Brooks said. “It’s great for us, but it’s also great for the overall growth of the game, and for kids across all backgrounds.”
Expectations are high, and neither Brooks nor Abercrombie will be let off the hook during camp. Tourigny indicated that, moreso than anything else, it’s critical that both be treated as “part of the family.” That means taking the time to involve them in every step of the process, from discussions on how to run practice, to coaching the prospects in camp.
If anything, he indicated it would be doing the pair a disservice if they were to receive any special treatment.
“Honestly, that’s the last thing I want, changing anything,” Tourigny said. “I don’t want them to think it’s different than what they see … I want them to have a clear picture of what we’re doing, and they have to then take that and tweak it to fit into their style.”
Abercrombie couldn’t help but smile when he thought of what he’d say to a past version of himself, all while reflecting on what the sport of hockey has brought to his life.
“This is something that the younger version of Daunte’ Abercrombie would be proud of,” he said. “There is a young Daunte’ Abercrombie in the world that’s going to say ‘This is a sport that loves me back, and I’m going to stay with it, because I can achieve anything I want.'”
Initiative Spearheaded by Award-Winning Producer/Director
The program was the brainchild of director and producer Kwamé Damon Mason, who produced the award-winning documentary “Soul on Ice: Past, Present, and Future.” In addition to that, he’s also a consultant with the NHL to, among other things, help elevate black hockey history.
Mason took his idea to Gutierrez, who then approached Arizona general manager Bill Armstrong and Tourigny. They collectively jumped at the chance, and Mason has been impressed with how the idea has taken off.
“These guys, they’ve got all the tools, they’ve done all the courses, they have the experience, it’s just this experience, they’ve never had,” he said. “It’s interesting, because they are both polar opposites, but the one thing that’s consistent about them is their passion for the game.”
Moreover, Mason said this initiative by the Coyotes should be taken at much more than face value. This is a program that the team has shown passion for, and truly hopes to help make an impact on the young coaches’ lives – both personally and professionally.
“You can really tell that they care about this,” Mason said. “I could just tell, by just being on the other end from Javier, that this is more than just checking a box. They are really passionate about this.”
Trailblazing For the Future
To further emphasize that point, Gutierrez went out of his way to indicate the Coyotes not only plan to continue the program into the forseeable future, but hope to continue to make it bigger, better, and more impactful.
“We’re going to expand the candidate pool, and we’re going to figure out whether or not we can do this throughout the season, if that’s even possible,” Gutierrez said. “We’re here to win, we’re here to build a team to win, but we’re also here to leverage our platform to make a difference.”
Tourigny, meanwhile, is focused on making sure Brooks and Abercrombie get the most they possibly can out of the experience.
“If they are comfortable in our environment, and they feel like they’re a part of it,” he said, “that’s what I would say is a success.”
Based on how comfortable everyone looked on the ice Thursday, things are off to a dazzling start.
A die-hard hockey fan in the desert, and proud Iowa State alum. Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes contributor for The Hockey Writers.