Graeme Townshend could only dream about going to the Olympics during an 11-year professional ice hockey career that began with the old Maine Mariners.
“In my playing days, I used to joke that my only chances of getting into the Olympics were if Jamaica had a hockey team,” said Townshend, who was born in Kingston but moved to Canada when he was 3.
A Saco resident since 2002, Townshend is now doing his part to make that unlikely dream a reality for youngsters of Jamaican heritage with similar aspirations.
Last weekend in a suburb of Toronto, he helped run an identification/tryout camp for players with family ties to Jamaica or the West Indies to gauge the level of interest. About two dozen players took part.
“Quite frankly, I was blown away by the level of talent, especially by some of the younger players,” said Townshend, who has been hired by the Jamaican Olympic Ice Hockey Federation as head coach of its fledgling men’s ice hockey program. “It was exciting to see that.”
Known primarily in Olympic circles for sprint stars like Usain Bolt, Jamaica nevertheless produced a bobsledding team for the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary and inspired the movie “Cool Runnings.” The Caribbean island nation of about 3 million people has no ice rink nor any hockey development program, but that didn’t stop Townshend from becoming the first Jamaican-born player in the NHL.
He played in 45 NHL games over five seasons, with the Bruins, New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators. Jamaica also claims current NHL players: P.K. Subban in Montreal, Wayne Simmonds in Philadelphia, Chris Stewart in Buffalo, Devante Smith-Pelly in Anaheim and Trevor Daley in Dallas.
“The next step for us is to get in some summer tournaments,” said Townshend, who is volunteering his services. “We’re trying to raise awareness that we’re serious, that we’re not just a flash in the pan. We’ve been approached by investors who’ve said, ‘Show us a team and we’ll talk.’ ”
E.J. Phillips, a coach and former junior hockey player whose grandparents were born in Jamaica, co-founded the program and became CEO of the fledgling project. He made inquiries to Townshend by Christmas 2011.
“Here we are, three years later,” said Townshend, 48, who runs hockey camps and clinics, is co-founder of the Maine Hockey Academy and formerly served as skating coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Once we get the team, it would take at least five years to even qualify (for Olympic competition),” he said. “It’s going to be hard.”
Indeed, the International Ice Hockey Federation accepted Jamaica as an associate member in 2012. Full status requires a country to at least have a rink and a development program. Olympic qualification requires a country to work its way up the world rankings, through two lower levels before reaching the championship division, from which only 12 countries advance to the Winter Games.
The mission statement of the Jamaican Olympic Ice Hockey Federation lists its short-term goal as assembling a team competitive enough to take part in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Townshend acknowledges that goal is probably unrealistic.
Then again, he points to Slovenia’s surprising quarterfinal run in the 2014 Sochi Games. A country of 2 million people and seven hockey rinks, Slovenia split off from Yugoslavia in 1991 and had only one NHL player – Anze Kopitar of Los Angeles – on its roster.
“They went and beat the odds and they were very competitive,” Townshend said. “In Slovenia, they believe in themselves.”
Among the advisory board members of the JOIHF is Devon Harris, one of the bobsledders who made Jamaica famous for more than tropical beaches and reggae singers.
“Man, I can’t tell you how excited I am to be part of this amazing project,” Harris says in a video clip on the federation’s website, “and what I believe it means to the Olympics, to the sport of ice hockey itself, to Jamaica, even the rest of the world.”
Besides Townshend, the coaching staff includes Paul Jerrard (a former NHL assistant in Dallas), Tony Martino (a scout and former player), Cosmo Clarke (a coach and former player) and Cyril Bollers (a Toronto-based coach).
On Thursday afternoon, Townshend slipped on his gray windbreaker bearing the insignia of the Jamaican Olympic Ice Hockey Federation and spoke about the possibility of a synthetic ice surface on the island; of a training base outside of Boston in Marlborough, Massachusetts, where he directs a hockey program; of the flood of emails and voicemails from other players and coaches interested in signing on after last weekend’s tryout.
“There’s a lot of possibilities,” he said. “We’ve got guys coming from everywhere.”