Toronto Metropolitan University's Independent Student Newspaper Since 1967

Ryerson hockey coach
Photo courtesy of TMU Athletics/Alex D'Addese
All Sports

From the Gardens to the Desert: Nathaniel Brooks’ path to the NHL

By Jonathan Reynoso

One late night, Nathaniel Brooks and his wife were trying to put their four daughters to sleep. 

Their bedtime routine—which was never easy—was interrupted when Brooks received an abrupt phone call. 

“I’ve got to take this. I think this is the call,” he told his wife. 

Sure enough, it was the conversation he was waiting for. The NHL’s Arizona Coyotes were on the other line, offering him the opportunity to be on their coaching staff as a player development coach. After a life of working towards making it to the NHL, Brooks’ dream had finally come true. 

“It was a happy moment with some tears of excitement,” said Brooks, remembering his reaction to receiving the news. “It’s a bit of a blur.” 

Brooks was an assistant coach with the Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) Bold, then Ryerson Rams, men’s hockey team for eight seasons before joining the Coyotes in 2022. Though he’s no longer behind the TMU bench, his impact on the team remains—from the players he mentored to the coaches who worked alongside him. 

He was initially introduced to the NHL scene as a guest coach during a Black, Indigenous and People of Colour coaching program with the Coyotes in the summer of 2021. Through his experience there, Brooks saw what it took to be a coach at a higher level. 

“I realized then how much work goes into it behind the scenes,” Brooks said. “All of the different factors and nuances that are involved…was a huge eye opener for me and it made me better as a coach.”

“The only added pressure would be the pressure that you’re putting on yourself”

In 2022, the NHL released a 24-page report that stated 83.6 per cent of the NHL, its clubs and employees identify as white.

However, Brooks said he doesn’t feel any extra pressure to perform as a coach because he is Black.

“The only added pressure would be the pressure that you’re putting on yourself,” said Brooks. “I don’t feel any extra added pressure because of the colour of my skin or who I am. Growing up in the game, you learn how to deal with that, and as we are in 2024, I think the game has taken a lot of positive steps forward.”

Brooks has willingly stepped into mentoring hockey athletes of colour to teach them how to deal with the struggles of being a visible minority in a white-dominated sport. His influence on diverse players like TMU third-year forward Kyle Bollers is evident. 

Bollers said Brooks has helped him a lot in his attempt to become a professional hockey player. “He’s trying to help me get to the next level and I’m appreciative of that,” he said. 

During Brooks’ time at TMU, his relationship with men’s hockey head coach Johnny Duco flourished. 

“He’s certainly become one of my best friends. We’ve worked together for just over a decade now,” said Duco.

Yet, the two weren’t always friends. During their days in the Ontario Junior Hockey League in the early 2000s, they were competitors. Brooks played for the Markham Waxers, while Duco was a member of the Thornhill Rattlers—two teams with a heated rivalry. 

Former men's hockey coach Nathaniel Brooks stands to the left of head coach Johnny Duco behind the Ryerson Rams bench
Photo courtesy of TMU Athletics

In one matchup between the two rivals, the tension boiled over. Near the end of the game, players from both sides hopped over their respective benches and stormed the ice as a full team brawl broke loose.

In the middle of it all were Duco and Brooks, tangled up on the ice wrestling each other. They were both then promptly ejected from the game. 

Shortly after the bench-clearing brawl, the two found themselves at the same Christmas party, where they put aside their differences.

“We’ve had some beef on the ice. But at the end of the day, he’s a good guy,” said Duco.

From that point forward they’ve remained close and Brooks eventually joined Duco as an assistant at TMU under then head coach Graham Wise. 

“[Brooks] kind of set the standard for how we were going to operate,” said Duco. “[His mindset was] we’re going to work with absolutely everybody to bring out the best in them and make sure this is a safe space they can excel in.”

Now, in their separate journeys, Duco doesn’t rule out the possibility of them crossing paths again. “I’m sure at some point we’ll end up back together whether it’s here or somewhere else.”

“We’ve had some beef on the ice. But at the end of the day, he’s a good guy”

Brooks—who still lives in Toronto—maintains a close relationship with the TMU men’s hockey team, attentively watching their games and occasionally attending practices in recent months.

He works closely with TMU first-year defenceman Artem Duda. The Russian defender was drafted by the Coyotes in the second round of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. 

Duda joined the Bold over the winter break after his appeal to play with the University of Maine in the National Collegiate Athletic Association was denied due to playing 14 games in the Russian-founded international Kontinental Hockey League during the 2022-23 season.

The two work together on the ice and constantly go over game footage to analyze Duda’s play—both the good and bad. 

Duda said Brooks is his “best friend from the coaches world,” and also feels like his “fifth or fourth dad.”

“I’m really thankful for him,” said Duda.

Being in the NHL has helped Brooks learn that building relationships and trust with players is important.

“If you’re going to help an athlete get better…they have to know that you care,” said Brooks.

He emphasizes the importance of being open to learning, self-improvement and the constant grind to get to where you want to go. 

“If you’re not trying to get better every day, you’re going backwards.”

Leave a Reply