There’s a face most people make when Devan Abercrombie says he plays hockey. He has gotten used to it by now, that look of surprise.
“It’s a little unusual for a black guy to say they play hockey or even ice skate,” Abercrombie says.
The 17-year-old learned to skate at the same time he was learning to walk, growing up in Southeast D.C.’s Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, where his older brother also played. He was 3 years old when he balanced himself on skates for the first time, a life before hockey nonexistent in Abercrombie’s memory.
“I used to hold him in my arms to help him stand up,” Fort Dupont coach Neal Henderson says.
But what seems so ordinary to Abercrombie is unusual for hockey. A recipient of the NHL/Thurgood Marshall College Fund scholarship through the league’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative, Abercrombie represents the league’s aim to foster diversity.
The four-year, $25,000 scholarship enables Abercrombie to go to his preferred college, Saint Joseph’s in Philadelphia, where he will major in sports marketing. The Capitals donated an additional $10,000 to the scholarship.
Hockey is for Everyone supports nonprofit organizations committed to offering kids of all backgrounds opportunities to play hockey. Though his hockey career is likely over, Abercrombie is proud of his role in the sport’s diversification.
“When I was growing up in the sport and not seeing a lot of black players, it kind of was a little more motivation for me,” Abercrombie says. “If there’s not a lot of black people, then maybe I could add one more or, with my brother, two more to the mix. Especially from an area like D.C., there are no hockey players that come out of this area that are black, so maybe it could grow the game and give a new perspective on what hockey is.
“It’s not really a preppy white sport, but it’s a sport that everyone can do.”
Through his involvement at Fort Dupont, Abercrombie — who also played basketball at St. Anselm’s — heard about the NHL’s scholarship. He received early acceptance to Saint Joseph’s, but without the scholarship, he wouldn’t be able to afford it.
The Capitals’ Monumental Sports and Entertainment Foundation got involved with the NHL/Thurgood Marshall College Fund scholarship because it satisfied the foundation’s pillars of education and youth hockey, foundation director Liz Wodatch says. Because the foundation is limited in staff, Wodatch says it helped to partner with an established scholarship fund so the foundation wouldn’t have to expend resources to do its own vetting of applicants.
The foundation financially supports Fort Dupont, and Capitals forward Joel Ward, the team’s only black player, has visited the club several times. Wodatch grew up skating there and most remembers a map of the country painted on a wall, dots scattered across it for where former players ended up going to college.
“There’s Harvard and MIT,” Wodatch says. “It’s actually very impressive. It’s much more than hockey.”
When Fort Dupont would play some less-diverse teams outside its familiar walls, Abercrombie says, some opposing players would make derogatory comments about race on the ice. When the team traveled as a group in Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club apparel, it got curious looks. A mostly black hockey team?
It’s a point of pride for the Abercrombie family. Devan’s mom, Devrah Abercrombie, has two solid black hockey-player decals for her car. “My two black hockey players,” she says, one for each son. Devrah skated occasionally growing up, so she took her older son, Duante, to Fort Dupont one day so he could learn to skate. He was drawn to the hockey players he saw there and how fast they skated.
“I did not put it as a white or a black sport,” she says. “It was just a sport that they enjoyed.”
Some fans still see it as a white sport. When Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban scored the game-winning goal against the Bruins in the playoff series opener this year, racist remarks were directed at him by fans on Twitter. Ward went through the same thing after a playoff game-winning goal against Boston in 2012.
Those incidents were not lost on Abercrombie. While he’s seen an improvement in diversity during his involvement with hockey, he knows the sport has a long way to go.
“It gives you a real perspective that you can’t just be in this bubble of diversity,” Abercrombie says. “You eventually have to break out of the bubble, and you’ll be in a world just like every other hockey player where there still are people who feel that hockey is a white sport and that there really shouldn’t be black people playing.”