Throughout Black History Month, Sportsnet will release weekly features examining sport’s connection to black communities in Canada and celebrating the lives and accomplishments of black athletes, coaches and executives.
The face of NHL players is starting to better reflect the face of NHL fans. Currently on NHL rosters there are 22 players who identify as black, and the likes of PK Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Evander Kane and Joel Ward are household names.
But that inclusiveness has yet to extend behind the bench and up to the executive box; the idea that “hockey is for everyone” has not yet manifested among the men wearing the suits. Even among diehard fans, any trivia question built around naming minority coaches would be a tough one. There are no head coaches of colour in the NHL, and there aren’t enough minority coaches in the pipeline to realistically introduce an affirmative action-style “Rooney Rule” to make sure qualified coaches get exposure.
Most minority coaching opportunities in the NHL have come in the crease. Fred Brathwaite (for the New York Islanders), Sudarshan Maharaj (Anaheim Ducks), and Frantz Jean (Tamp Bay Lightning) are all goaltending coaches and visible minorities. Nigel Kirwan, a video coach with the Lightning, has a purview that stretches beyond the goal, but the only minority coach currently standing behind an NHL bench is Paul Jerrard of the Calgary Flames.
The 52-year-old Jerrard — whose playing days included just five NHL games, all the Minnesota North Stars — has a coaching career that stretches back two decades. I recently caught up with Jerrard to find out about his life in the game of hockey and ask what it would mean for the NHL to have a black head coach.
Sportsnet: How has the black experience in hockey changed throughout your years in the game?
Jerrard: It has certainly evolved and come a long way. You see more and more people of colour in the National Hockey League and doing things in the sport. I grew up in Winnipeg; there still was quite a bit of racism there. I had to endure a little bit of it, but I don’t think it was quite a bad as what people like Willie O’Ree had to endure when he first started out.
How did you end up choosing hockey over more “traditionally black” sports like baseball, football and basketball?
I did play all those other sports at some point in time. [What drew me in was] the allure of growing up watching Hockey Night in Canada. Every night it was a big event. When I was young, there were only three channels. My dad loved the game and I enjoyed playing the game. It kind of just grew and at the end of the day, I just kept getting better and better. The game has been good to me.
Have you experienced racism while playing or coaching?
I had some, but it wasn’t overwhelming. I’ve been called out a few times, [but] I just remember when my mom said, “Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.” I didn’t let it bother me a whole lot or lament on it. I just moved on from it and stayed away from the people that were calling me things.
Who did the racist taunts come from?
Sometimes it was people I was competing against. When I look back at my game, I was a little bit of an annoyance-type player, I’d get under people’s skin, and sometimes in the heat of the moment they might spout off and say something that they regretted later. It was minimal with fans. I remember one time when was younger I had a conflict with some fans playing in Winnipeg, but it was nothing overly large.
Did the overt racism subside over time?
It certainly progressed, probably on the same parallel that it progressed in life.
What was the toughest part of assimilating in the game of hockey as a minority?
It was financial; the game was an expensive sport. We had four kids in our family and we had to stretch a dollar for everybody and keep everybody involved. It was tough there sometimes. My parents both worked and getting me to and from games I depended on a lot of people for rides. That was the toughest part for us.
How do you think hockey could become more enticing to young black kids?
A lot of it is getting exposure. [The players I’ve seen] getting an opportunity, they earned it. As the game evolves and I watch youth hockey there are kids of all races playing, and I think that’s great.
Black players in other sports have been more vocal about social and political issues. Does the culture of hockey suppress those sentiments from the game’s black athletes?
I think that has a lot to do with it. When I look at all the major sports, hockey is a bit different in the make-up of the athlete. I know it’s growing down in the U.S. now but when you look at kids coming through in Canada it’s mainly prairie kids or kids from rural Ontario who are raised to be wholesome kids. Not saying that they’re bad but it’s just a different environment and a different mentality in our sport than some other sports — the way they do things and the way they express themselves politically.
What is the impact of the fact that more black players than ever are currently excelling in the league?
I think it’s tremendous. For young black kids, watching those guys do well in the National Hockey League will just prove that if you have a dream and you believe in your dream there is hope. Those guys are the forerunners for young kids growing up, and a lot of young kids will emulate what they do as players. For a lot of the young kids growing up playing to know there is hope [is powerful on its own]. When you see guys like that go ahead of you, it opens the door and it might inspire you and push you a bit harder to realize your dream. And not necessarily just black kids, these players can be an inspiration to any kids of colour. In Edmonton, you have the Indian kid Jujhar Khaira who is going to be an inspiration to kids growing up and blaze a trail like Willie O’Ree. Hopefully we can build upon that.
Not every hockey-loving kid is going to have the physical tools or skill to be able to play in the league. What impact would it have if there was a black head coach in the NHL?
Oh, wow! I always wanted to play, and I guess I’m doing the second-best thing [by] coaching. There isn’t anybody of colour I emulated in coaching, I just wanted to push hard and work and see where it would take me. It would be interesting to see what would happen if there was a black coach in the league. There might be one someday, I don’t know.
Do you ever think about the fact that a young black kid could now watch Hockey Night in Canada, just like you did as a boy, and see you — a black coach — on the bench?
I guess that could be a possibility. I just want to make sure that I’m a good coach and a good role model and a good citizen. If by doing that I can be a positive role model for those kids, that’s a great byproduct.
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