Color of Hockey: NextGen AAA Foundation set to defend tournament title

William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past nine years. Douglas joined in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today, he profiles the NextGen AAA Foundation, highlighting diversity in elite hockey with two teams of players of color competing in the Beantown Summer Classic.

A NextGen AAA Foundation team of all players of color returns to the Beantown Summer Classic on Saturday looking to defend its title and further highlight diversity in the sport.

The foundation has also entered a second team of younger players in the Aug. 7-10 invitation-only tournament in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and added Asian players and an Asian coach to its rosters.

Former NHL players Mike Grier and Bryce Salvador, and Jeff Devenney, NextGen’s program director, resume coaching duties of the Under-20 team that won the summer classic’s pro division.

“The more diversity we can get in the group and the more exposure for different kids with different backgrounds and everything, I think it’s good,” said Grier, a hockey operations advisor for the New York Rangers who played 1,060 NHL games with the Edmonton Oilers, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks from 1996-2011. “The group last year kind of set the bar pretty high and I think it got a lot of other kids interested … more kids wanted to be involved.”

Besides winning games, the aim of the teams is to showcase the growing diversity at hockey’s elite levels and provide players of color, who in some cases are the only non-White players on their regular teams, an opportunity to meet and form friendships to carry throughout their hockey journey.

The two teams have Asian, Black and Hispanic high school, junior and NCAA Division I players who were recruited by Rod Braceful, the former assistant director of player personnel for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.

The pro division roster includes St. Lawrence University forward Max Dorrington, a distant cousin of Art Dorrington, who was the first Black player to sign an NHL contract when he joined the Rangers organization in 1950; Arthur Smith, a goalie for South Kent Selects Academy who played for the U.S. at the 2020 Youth Winter Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland; and James Hong, a forward born in South Korea who scored 69 points (31 goals, 38 assists) in 42 games for the Anaheim Jr. Ducks Under-16 AAA team last season.

“The Beantown Classic is such a good tournament, and to be on that team with other minority players is pretty awesome,” Hong said. “There aren’t that many Asians playing hockey at a high level. I think being able to play for this team, it’s a really good opportunity and it’s also a good showing for Asian countries, players as well, that they can make it, they can play at high levels.”

Alex Kim, Hong’s Anaheim coach, is one of the coaches of the NextGen team that’s competing in the tournament’s Futures division for Under-17 players.

Kim is also a skills development coach who has trained several NHL and minor-league players, including Dallas Stars forward Jason Robertson and his younger brother, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nicholas Robertson, and San Jose Sharks forward Matt Nieto.

Duante Abercrombie, a coach for Stevenson University, an NCAA Division III team near Baltimore, will join Kim behind the bench.

Abercrombie is a graduate of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, a Hockey Is For Everyone affiliate that’s the oldest minority-oriented program of its type in North America. Neal Henderson, the program’s founder, became the first Black person elected to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2019.

Tim Whitehead, coach at New Hampshire’s Kimball Union Academy who coached at the University of Maine and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell from 1996-2013, rounds out NextGen’s Futures division staff.

Salvador, who became NHL’s third Black captain when he played for the New Jersey Devils, said the most important part of last year’s tournament appearance were the relationships forged among the players who still stay in touch through Zoom calls and group chats.

“Success for me is that we have a second team this year, and they’re younger kids,” said Salvador, a defenseman who played 786 NHL games with the Devils and St. Louis Blues from 2000-15. “Now we can create an emotional environment and experience that’s positive for them. They, hopefully, can take it when they leave here from this one weekend and feel much more comfortable about themselves. If something is not going right for them, now they’ve got 10, 20, 30 other phone numbers that they can text kids.”

Smith said he was eager to play in the tournament this year to have that experience.

“I think it’s great to be in a locker room with people who have experienced hockey through a similar lens as myself being minorities in a sport,” he said. “I’m just excited to just play the game together and network with each other and get to know each other and form relationships.”

The NHL is a sponsor of the two tournament teams. The NextGen AAA Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring, education and hockey programs to underprivileged youth and underserved communities. It was founded in 2017 by Dee Dee Ricks, a philanthropist and hockey mom who has provided more than $1 million to help student-athletes of color at some of the nation’s leading preparatory schools, colleges and travel hockey programs across North America.

While Grier stressed that creating bonds among the NextGen players is the priority for the teams, he said he’d gladly take another Beantown championship.

“When you win, the bond becomes even stronger,” he said.