Detroit’s Rod Braceful makes USA Hockey history as 1st Black director of player personnel

Detroit News

Rod Braceful’s first on-ice hockey experience was at Jack Adams Arena in Detroit after his godmother secretly stepped in and signed him up for learn-to-play lessons at four years old.

Barbara Yancy-Braceful, Braceful’s mother and longtime school educator, didn’t think that he was serious about wanting to play hockey, so she didn’t sign him up.

In true fairy godmother nature, Judy Richardson stepped in, signed him up, and requested that his mother just let him try it out. Now, more than 30 years later, Braceful has made USA Hockey history.

Last month, the 35-year-old Braceful became the first African-American to be named the director of player personnel for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, which has produced more than 200 players in the National Hockey League during the organization’s 27 years based in Ann Arbor and now Plymouth.

“If you’re good to the game, it’s good to you,” said Braceful, who left his job as an amateur and pro scout with the Chicago Blackhawks to take the prestigious USA Hockey position. “I’m just fortunate that the game has still been giving back to me all these years.”

Growing up in a single-parent household near Plymouth and Evergreen and attending Detroit Public Schools through middle school, Braceful was a multi-sport athlete playing basketball, baseball, and football in grade school.

“I was more into baseball and everything else, but hockey for whatever reason I had a liking to it,” Braceful said. “I fell in love with the game.”

It was when Braceful went to a family member’s hockey game at Jack Adams Arena that he gained interest in hockey. That push from his godmother sparked something in Braceful and opened doors for him that he could’ve never imagined.

Realizing how difficult it would’ve been to pursue a career in football, basketball, or baseball, Braceful decided to fully commit to hockey.

“I probably wasn’t going to get a college scholarship that way,” he said. “I liked baseball, but I was no good. You’re playing all these different sports and you kind of just start sticking to what you’re good at, or what you’re having the most fun doing.”

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He continued to play hockey throughout high school and after graduating from Loyola High School, he went to New England College in New Hampshire to further his academic and athletic career.

“I fell in love with the game as a player first, and then I became a fan because I stopped playing and started coaching,” he said. “I’ve still treated the game with the same respect as I did when I played, and I still love the game, if not more now.”

After college, Braceful moved back to Michigan where he coached with Detroit Compuware and Detroit Little Caesars. He also coached for West Coast Selects and served as a scout in the United States Hockey League for the Sioux Falls Stampede before becoming the director of scouting for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

He served as assistant director of player personnel for three seasons with the NTDP from 2018-21 and was the director of player personnel for the 2022 U.S. under-18 team at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.

Before rejoining USA Hockey this year, he traveled four days a week for two years with the Blackhawks. The NHL was never in Braceful’s plans as a player or employee.

“I really didn’t know, I didn’t think that way,” he said. “I was just enjoying the sport.”

While working with the Blackhawks, Braceful received a phone call from Scott Monaghan, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of operations with the NTDP.

Braceful thought it was a regular phone call to catch up because they hadn’t spoken in a while. That was partially the case, but during their conversation, Monaghan asked Braceful if he’d be interested in the director of player personnel position at USA Hockey.

“Because I’ve had a couple of years of being in the NHL and scouted on the amateur side, I thought this would be a perfect time to segue into this position and to run my own shop,” he said.

Receiving the call from Monaghan and congratulating him on getting the job was a full-circle moment for Braceful. He replaces Kevin Reiter, who held the position since 2017 and is now an assistant coach with the University of Michigan.

“Sometimes things happen that you don’t really see or envision that are gonna come up,” Braceful said. “This opportunity came up where I was able to come back to USA.”

Braceful also will be working with USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations John Vanbiesbrouck, who quit as coach of the OHL Soo Greyhounds and the team was fined $50,000 in 2003 when Vanbiesbrouck used a racial slur to former Detroit Red Wings defenseman Trevor Daley.

“A lot of years have passed and I truly believe people should and can learn from their mistakes,” Braceful said. “John Vanbiesbrouck has shown me nothing but respect over the years before and during my time at USA Hockey. He was supportive in the hiring of my position along with (executive director) Pat Kelleher, Scott Monaghan and other higher-ups in U.S. Hockey.”

Braceful hopes to help continue the NTDP’s success and track record with NHL stars Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews and Jack Hughes coming through the two-year program.

“It’s been pretty good so far,” Braceful said. “To be around some of the best players in the world, I don’t take that for granted. I think being involved in all of these things only helps me achieve my goals, and hopefully when I reach them, I’m more successful because of the work I put in.”

When he’s not looking for the best young hockey players in the world, Braceful likes to golf, travel and volunteer with NextGEN AAA Foundation, a nonprofit that provides mentoring, education, and hockey programs to diverse, low-income, and at-risk youth throughout North America.

Braceful hopes to return to the NHL as a general manager, assistant general manager or director of scouting in the near future.

“I’m extremely honored to have the position to impact players and families but also while representing my country is a one-of-a-kind opportunity and experience like no other,” he said.

“Anytime I get to lead and inspire others that are not in the norm or majority, to show them that if you work hard, set goals and do things the right way, you can achieve your own dreams.”

mthompson2@detroitnews.com

Twitter: mackenziethomp

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