'Build it and they will come': How a Black Canadian coach inspired a generation of hockey players

·7 min read
Head coach Cyril Bollers draws up a play during a timeout for the Jamaican men's hockey team. (Submitted by Cyril Bollers - image credit)
Head coach Cyril Bollers draws up a play during a timeout for the Jamaican men's hockey team. (Submitted by Cyril Bollers - image credit)

Cyril Bollers' ultimate goal in coaching is to reach the NHL. But for now, he's happy leading Team Jamaica.

Bollers, who holds a top coaching qualification with Hockey Canada, worked with the Edmonton Oilers' Darnell Nurse and Detroit Red Wings' Robby Fabbri when they were younger. These days, he's the head coach of Jamaica's national team and president of Skillz Black Aces, a Toronto-based program that helps bring hockey to underprivileged and BIPOC youth.

But, despite about 22 years of experience, he hasn't landed a job in professional hockey yet.

"I have all the certifications … I just don't know why I haven't been given that opportunity," Bollers said. "But there's other coaches that are in the same boat of colour that haven't been given that opportunity either."

However, Bollers still dreams of coaching in the NHL and for Team Canada.

Born in Georgetown, Guyana, Bollers, who moved to Canada when he was four, now lives in Scarborough, Toronto's east end. He was inspired to become a coach in 1999 when his son was six and playing house-league hockey for a coach who heavily favoured his own son.

"I was told that I couldn't [coach] because of the colour of my skin, which fuelled the fire, which promoted the education in regards to quality certificates."

And that enabled him to prove his detractors wrong.

Soon, coaching became a passion. He spent 12 seasons with the Toronto Red Wings and Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL), and he was the assistant coach with the Pickering Panthers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL).

Bollers, 52, doesn't expect to make a jump straight to the NHL or Olympics, and speculates that the reason he hasn't advanced much, despite some high praise, is that he doesn't know many people at that level of the sport.

"I don't want to say it's colour, especially with hockey being for everyone. Other people may — I don't. I just want to say that the opportunity hasn't arisen yet and I'm hoping it does. So based on that, I'm continuing to network."

During his time with the Panthers he worked with Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, who said Bollers was his first call when an assistant position opened up.

"He is a great communicator, had a passion, wanted to learn, loved the game and he was just nice to be around," Coffey said.

The are currently no BIPOC head coaches in the NHL. Mike Grier of the New Jersey Devils is the only minority assistant in the league.

For the past four years, Bollers has served as head coach of the Colorado-based Team Jamaica, which runs its training in Toronto.

Bollers also works with the Black Canadian Coaches Association as a mentor, in hopes of reaching a broader base of BIPOC coaches and developing the national network.

Legacy with Black Aces

But it was with the Black Aces that Bollers helped inspire a generation of BIPOC players, many of whom followed him to Team Jamaica.

"I guess when they say build it and they will come, that's what it was. Everybody wanted to become a Skillz Black Ace."

The Skillz program began around 20 years ago, partially the brainchild of former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes, to train kids through hockey camps held a few times a year. Bollers created the Black Aces team under the Skillz umbrella. And the team has gone on to win a number of spring hockey tournaments.

A Skillz Black Aces team is seen above at a tournament.
A Skillz Black Aces team is seen above at a tournament.(Submitted by Cyril Bollers)

Bollers also led a group of five Black coaches on the Black Aces bench. The team consistently stunned its opponents with blazing speed and won more often than it lost.

For parents of colour like Mark Francis, whose son Peyton Francis, 21, played for the Aces and now plays centre for the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, the Black Aces are an opportunity to show their children there are other hockey players who look like them.

"And that was the main thing was he was not an outsider or 'that one kid' with this group," said Mark of his son's hockey experience.

Loren Francis heard racist comments from the stands when she watched her son play on predominantly white teams. Since Loren is white, other parents didn't realize she was Peyton's mom. When the Black Aces opportunity arose, Mark and Loren were intrigued.

"I thought this was going to be more like a how-to-play-hockey type of thing," Mark said. "And then we went out and I was shocked because not only were the kids very highly skilled, but [Bollers'] coaching methods, I would say, were top notch."

Bollers leads a player through a drill.
Bollers leads a player through a drill.(Submitted by Cyril Bollers)

Vancouver Canucks forward Justin Bailey is another Black Aces alumnus. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., a 12-year-old Bailey was hesitant about joining a team across the border where he didn't know anyone.

It took some convincing from his mother, Karen Buscaglia, but the move was an instant success.

"People embraced their differences," she said. "They had fun music playing in the locker room. And it was the first time that I could look at him and I could see he just had a blast. And obviously hockey was predominantly white, so he had never been exposed to anything like that."

While a fun atmosphere certainly existed around the Black Aces, both Francis and Buscaglia say Bollers ran a tight ship where discipline among players — things like walking in an orderly fashion and politeness — impacted players' ice-time.

The Black Aces, counting one edition of the team featuring one of Bollers' three children, often faced racism from other teams, including hearing the N-word uttered against them on the ice.

"We used to laugh at it because we were so good we would beat people," Bollers said. "And for me, I would just tell the guys, 'They can't beat you on the ice. They're going to try to beat you with their words. But words are just words.' "

Equal success with Jamaica

As a white player born in the Caribbean, Ethan Finlason had a slightly different experience when he joined Team Jamaica. Finlason played inline hockey in his home country of the Cayman Islands before eventually moving to Canada to pursue ice hockey.

He was met with hostility from other kids on his under-16 academy team on the outskirts of Toronto, who said he should quit because he was Caribbean. Then a goalie from his academy team stayed behind after practice one day to watch one of the Team Jamaica games.

"The Canadian goalie was shocked that Jamaicans could skate," said Ethan's father, Andrew Finlason. "And I don't know where this bias comes from. I mean, most of these kids grew up in Canada. But they're tremendous athletes. They have a tremendous coach. But there's this stigma that they shouldn't be able to play."

Team Jamaica players are seen above in 2014.
Team Jamaica players are seen above in 2014.(Submitted by Cyril Bollers)

In 2019, Jamaica went 5-0 en route to winning the championship at the LATAM Cup, an international tournament pitting top Latin American and Caribbean teams.

But Jamaica can't be fully sanctioned by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) until it builds an official rink, something Bollers said has been in the works for seven years. Once the team is sanctioned he said it should be able to get more funding and could attract NHL players of Jamaican descent, such as the New Jersey Devils' P.K. Subban and Chicago's Malcolm Subban.

"We can just place a call to [P.K. and Malcolm's father] Karl, and then Karl will round up the boys and then we'll take it from there. But I think until it's fully sanctioned, we don't want to put the cart before the horse," Bollers said.

When that finally happens, Bollers said his admittedly lofty goal is to qualify for the Olympics.

Between the Black Aces and Team Jamaica, Bollers' hands are full in the world of hockey, even as he continues to eye a pro position. He can take solace in the fact that if nothing else, his teams simply win.

"[Other teams] used to come and watch [the Black Aces] play because we were fast, we were strong, it was entertaining hockey. But more importantly we could coach, and I think what people forget is I'm a hockey coach by choice, Black by nature."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.