Cyril Bollers – Head Coach, Team Jamaica Men’s Hockey
Written by Dashawn Stephens, PRSVRE
Oftentimes the journey of a sports coach follows the same pattern. The end of a playing career slowly transforms into a love of passing on knowledge and experiences, eventually evolving into a passion for mentorship and ultimately ending the cycle as a coach to the next generation of athletes. That wasn’t the case for Cyril Bollers. The coaching career of the Team Jamaica Men’s Hockey coach was actually sparked by a challenge posed by doubters.
“I remember a parent came to me and said ‘you can’t coach…black people don’t know how to coach hockey’ which fuelled me. I was young at the time and I wanted to prove everybody wrong, and I wanted to do what they said I couldn’t.”
Bollers began coaching house league hockey, but he soon shifted his focus towards the development of players as he realized the power of youth sports. He saw the opportunity to coach as a “vessel”, where he could not only keep youth off of the streets, but also educate them and teach valuable life skills such as accountability, respectability, conflict resolution, and time management. Knowing that the sport traditionally lacked multi-ethnic representation, while also recognizing that hockey could be used as a tool for character growth, Bollers founded Skillz Black Aces in 2004.
Skillz Black Aces was a summer hockey program – based in Toronto, Ontario – that gave young hockey players of color the opportunity to develop while participating in tournaments. Coaching future NHL prospects and stars such as Jordan Subban, Jaden Lindo, Josh Ho-Sang, Josh Burnside, Jerrmiah Addison, Cyril Bollers Jr., Stephan Harper, Cordell James, Justin Bailey, Jonathan Ang, Elijah Roberts, Keegan Iverson, and Darnell Nurse (Edmonton Oilers), Bollers would lead the Black Aces to victories in 33 of 37 tournaments over a 5-year span. Skillz Black Aces continued to evolve as a competitive program, as Bollers coached future NHL talents of Canadian descent such as Robby Fabbri (Detroit Red Wings) and Brendan Lemieux (New York Rangers). In due time, Skillz Black Aces became one of the top youth hockey programs in Canada, as it attracted the attention of hockey fanatics. However, it proved to be more than just talent that brought eyes to Black Ace games.
“Whenever we played, people would leave their [child’s] game to come and watch our game. The reason being is because it was entertaining, It was fast hockey, and you had a team that was mainly kids of color with a coaching staff that was all-black…and that was before it was cool to be black! The statement we were trying to make was that we can coach, we can play, and that we understand the game’‘
Skillz Black Aces was a hockey program that defied the ethnic norms associated with the hockey world. A program that consisted of a large number of players and coaches of color, the Black Aces debunked all misconceptions about black athletes’ abilities to thrive on the ice. Though Bollers took immense pride in coaching a group of talented athletes, the veteran coach considers the biggest achievement at the youth level to be the family and comradery that was built off of the ice.
“I think what was most important was that they had the opportunity to hang out with people who looked like them. Pre-game, Bob Marley was playing in the dressing room. You [had] Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Barbadians, Guyanese…you [had] everybody in the room”
Being Black In Hockey
Being a team of color proved to be special, however, it did come with its challenges. Bollers recalls fans and opposing teams hurling racial slurs towards Black Ace players on many occasions. What many would consider an opportunity to express anger and frustrations, Bollers used as an opportunity to teach his athletes discipline, respect, and the strength behind the act of walking away from confrontations.
“They wanted us to retaliate, but what we did was walk away. It was about teaching the boys how life is. You don’t react to something. You don’t lash out even though you’re angry inside. There is a way of how to go through your emotions, and by doing the opposite of what others thought we would do agitated them even more. It was all about life lessons”
Skillz Black Aces was a program that was well respected on the ice mainly due to their winning culture. Nonetheless, Bollers worked to ensure that players of the Skillz Black Aces program showcased professionalism off of the ice, as well. He enforced team rules that prohibited players from displaying styles such as pant sagging and donning afro picks in their hair. Bollers also enforced rules that made it mandatory for players to say please and thank you, open doors for others, and leave tables clean and chairs pushed in before leaving restaurants.
For Bollers, impressions mean everything and as an all-Black program, he understood that the impressions that hisplayers left spoke to more than just the thoughts associated with hockey players. It spoke to the thoughts associated with people of color in general. Already playing in a sport where players of color proved to be a rarity at the time, Bollers wanted players to understand that their race made them subject to criticism if the window for negative perception was ever left open; a lesson that Bollers believes goes far beyond the world of sports.
“For us, it was about teaching them how to survive in society as Black men. It was also about teaching them how to behave, teaching them they are under a microscope all of the time, and what they do will get a reaction out of others.
Stepping Into the International Scene
Outside of coaching the Skillz Black Aces program, Bollers embarked on a coaching journey that saw him coach at many different levels with many different teams and programs. Among that list includes the Brampton Capitals and Pickering Panthers (Ontario Junior Hockey League), Toronto Marlboros, Toronto Red Wings (GTHL), and the Gold Medal Team Ontario at the 2015 Canada Winter Games. As Bollers continued to build an extensive resume, the one dream he so heavily coveted was the opportunity to coach Canadian Men’s Hockey at an international level. Before his dream could become a reality, Bollers received an opportunity of similar proportions that he couldn’t refuse.
Graeme Townsend – the first Jamaican-born athlete to ever play in the NHL – contacted Bollers in hopes of recruiting him to help jumpstart a new international men’s hockey program, Team Jamaica. Bollers would go on to join Team Jamaica as an assistant coach before ultimately becoming the Head Coach of the program in 2016. Now entering his 5th year as the Head Coach of the program, Bollers continues teaching the same life skills that have been a staple of his coaching methodologies since his days with Skills Black Aces.
“It’s all about the mental aspect. It’s the team bonding that you do. The trust and the relationships that you build with your teammates. It’s that non-verbal communication that you build with your teammates. That’s why teams are successful”
The experience of coaching a team at the international level has been beyond fulfilling for Bollers, but as Team Jamaica is a growing program in its early years of existence, there aren’t any shortages of trials and tribulations. Sponsorships, funding, and even a permanent facility for the program have all come into question throughout the years. These roadblocks, however, have not stopped Bollers from coaching Team Jamaica to on-ice success. The program currently has an international record of 6-0 and also took home gold at the 2019 Amerigol LATAM Cup.
Expanding Hockey’s Borders
When he was coaching Skillz Black Aces, Bollers played a pivotal role in introducing many young Canadians of color to the sport of hockey. Now as the Head Coach of Team Jamaica, Bollers hopes to help amplify a movement that will spark the interest of hockey among youth within West Indian communities.
As interest in hockey continues to grow within Jamaica, Bollers hopes to one day create ball hockey programs within the country that serve as an initial introduction to the sport for youth. From there, Bollers hopes to see a system of gradual growth as ball hockey evolves into hockey on rollerblades and eventually hockey on ice.
For Bollers, the emergence and growth of youth hockey in Jamaica would prove to be vital in creating a strong national hockey program within the country. With current members of the roster residing in countries such as Canada, the United States, and England, expanding youth hockey in Jamaica could open the door for the national program to create U16 and U18 teams, for both male and female athletes.
For many, the idea of essentially introducing a sport to a nation can seem like a daunting task. But for Bollers, the opportunity to increase interest in hockey within Jamaica and other West Indian communities truly does start with those who are currently trailblazing a path for future hockey stars of color.
“You have to have those who are in the sport and of color, educate those who are of color and aspire to be in the sport. It boils down to the education of both the player and the parent, and having that support to the players and parents in West Indian communities is going to help them further the game, and give them a better understanding of the game.”
Cyril Bollers has been an important figure in the lives of many of today’s most influential hockey stars. A coaching career that began with a simple challenge has flourished into one of the most storied coaching careers in the Canadian BIPOC community. Dominating on the ice, and educating off of the ice, Bollers continues to be a mentor for young athletes throughout the hockey world. For his contributions to the game of hockey, as well as his relentless efforts to ensure athletes experience exponential character growth, Cyril Bollers is indeed a Trailblazer within Canadian Heritage and a Leader through sport.