|John Paris Jr. was the first black man to coach a professional hockey team, the Atlanta Knights.
It’s fitting, then, that the man behind the first championship in Atlanta hockey history was a pioneer in his own right.
Atlanta is far from “Titletown, USA.” In fact, its sporting history reads more like the pamphlet the stewardess from Airplane gave to the passenger who wanted to do some light reading.
Atlanta only can take credit for two professional team sports titles.
Most know the Atlanta Braves’ 1995 World Series team. But what’s notable is that the Braves of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Chipper Jones weren’t the first to bring banner glory to town.
No, that would have happened a year earlier, when the Atlanta Knights of the International Hockey League won the 1993-94 Turner Cup.
And leading the Knights was the first black man to coach a professional hockey team, John Paris Jr.
In reminiscing on the event, Paris says simply; “It was quite an experience.”
Paris coached the Knights -- at the time the top minor-league affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning -- for parts of three seasons. Never, though, was it better than his first campaign, 1993-94, when he arrived in Atlanta with just 17 games left in the regular season to replace Gene Ubriaco, who was shifted to a scouting role for the Lightning.
Paris was no coaching novice, but he saw a similar theme to all the stories that followed his hiring.
“What they always say is he’s the first black coach in the history of the game,” Paris told NHL.com. “That’s for media knowledge, and that’s the first thing that’s brought up.”
Farther down the story, though, was that when he was hired at age 47, he already had 25 years of experience coaching and running clinics at all levels throughout North America and Europe. His resume includes working as a scout for the St. Louis Blues, directing hockey schools for Mario Lemieux and Pierre Mondou, and coaching at all levels of Quebec youth hockey, including stints with the Granby Bisons and St. Jean Lynx of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Joe Bucchino, the Knights’ general manager, already had hired Paris for a summer job, coaching the Atlanta Fire Ants roller hockey team, which was owned by the same group that owned the Knights. But when Ubriaco left, Knights President Richard Adler considered Paris the ideal replacement. That the new coach was black had exactly zero bearing on his decision.
“John had a pretty good resume out of Quebec,” said Adler, who today is the vice president, sales and marketing, North America for U-Turn Media Group. “At the end of the day, we’re here to win hockey games and color’s not important. We just want to win. At the end of the day, success is measured by banners on the ceiling.”
And Paris helped hang the first championship banner from any ceiling over any Atlanta pro sports team.
Paris guided the Knights to a 9-5-3 finish to cap a season that saw Atlanta go 45-22-14, and their 104 points earned them the Midwest Division title. They followed the regular season with a four-game, first-round sweep of the Milwaukee Admirals, followed by a six-game series victory over the San Diego Gulls in the league semifinals. They capped the run with a six-game victory over the Fort Wayne Comets for the IHL championship.
“He came in and he was very positive,” recalled Stan Drulia, who captained the Knights. “He came in with a lot of energy. We were already in a decent place in the standings. He just brought a different energy to us. … He wasn’t pushy, he let things take their course, but he put his mark on our team by changing a couple things with systems. But more important was his energy that he brought to the table.”
While coaching hockey in the south made for a unique experience, Paris said almost none of it had to do with the color of his skin.
Not long after landing in Atlanta, he told a reporter, when asked about his job and skin color; “It goes to show: ‘So what? I can coach.’ ”
“I have never, in the pros or major junior, had a player or management (comment on his race),” Paris said. “I’ve had fans get on me, but that goes with coaching, and it goes with winning and losing. When it comes to fans, 99 percent of the fans have been respectful to me, and the ones that haven’t, the players have always been there for me.”
Hockey already is a strange idea in a place where the only ice most people see is in their drinks. It gets even stranger when fans see a black man in a mostly white sport. But what might seem strange elsewhere actually fit in just fine in Atlanta, with its large African-American population.
“I looked at it from a marketing perspective and said this could be pretty good,” said Adler.
“I would say we drew a different crowd when John took over,” said Drulia, today the coach of the Port Huron IceHawks of the newly reborn IHL. “There was a different demographic. John brought some black folks into the building and brought them into hockey. I went with John a number of times to Boys and Girls Clubs in downtown Atlanta, trying to teach these kids street hockey. I know John was very prominent in the black community in Atlanta and he brought the players with him.”
It worked wonders, as the Knights occasionally would outdraw their co-tenants in the Omni, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.
“When I got there, I thought it was an excellent market,” said Paris. “They had a core group of fans. … It was new, the (NHL) Flames had been gone for a few years and they were hungry for hockey. It’s cosmopolitan, very diverse. There were more knowledgeable fans than I thought. I was surprised the number of people that had a knowledge of (hockey).”
It also helped that the team won. The Knights drew crowds of 10,000 to 12,000 for playoff games.
“We did quite well, I can’t complain,” said Paris. “We had 15,000 fans for the championship (clinching) game. We were quite happy for that. I was very fortunate. I was well-treated in Atlanta. I was treated with respect, can’t complain about that. I loved the weather, and the athletes there.”
Some of those athletes were from his other love – baseball. Growing up in hockey’s birthplace, Windsor, Nova Scotia, Paris was a standout on the ice and on the diamond. When faced with an either-or situation at age 15, Paris stashed his bats and glove in favor of his skates and pucks.
"Hockey was my first love," Paris once told a reporter. "Scotty Bowman of the Montreal Canadiens came to my home and convinced me and my parents that I should take the hockey way."
Unfortunately for Paris, he maxed out at 5-foot-5 and about 135 pounds. His playing career ended following a nine-game stint with the Knoxville Knights of the Eastern Hockey League in the 1967-68 season.
Done as a player at 22, Paris went to school, got a degree and moved into scouting and coaching, and that’s how he eventually found himself sitting in a dugout at Fulton County Stadium with Braves manager Bobby Cox.
“Bobby Cox was very open to me,” recalled Paris. “I had free reign with the Braves. … I was allowed on the field, the dressing room, the batting cages. I’ve always lifted my hat toward Bobby Cox for that reason. I was treated very well by everyone.”
Paris lasted two more seasons with the Knights, but when the team moved to Quebec, he stayed behind in Georgia, coaching the Macon Whoopee of the Central Hockey League.
He left Macon in 2000 to become coach and director of the IMG Hockey Academy AAA division in Florida, where, among other players, he mentored a young Sidney Crosby.
In the summer of 2006, Paris moved back to Nova Scotia, taking over as coach/GM of the Restigouche Tigers of the Maritime Junior A Hockey League. He wanted to be closer to his father, John Sr., who had fallen ill and subsequently passed away. At the same time, he wanted to stay active in coaching.
John Paris Sr. was a hockey player of great local renown in the 1930s, and introduced his son to the game.
“With the hockey world, it’s a difficult situation to see your family,” John Jr. said. “He did pass away, sadly, but he was 87 years old. He was there in Atlanta when we were on the Cup run. I can sleep peacefully at night that I was able to get back and see him.”
Paris says he would like to return to coaching at a higher level, either major junior or minor league hockey.
“I’m going back,” he says sternly, and at age 61, Paris calls himself, “an old young guy.”
Wherever he does end up, the memories of his championship time in Atlanta and his days as a pioneer never will be far.
“I didn’t realize it at the time until one of the reporters asked me if I realized what happened here,” Paris said of winning the title in Atlanta. “I could see people crying, and I had people coming up to me and saying thank you. I couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t black or white, it was fans. One man, a black man, said; ‘I never thought I’d live to see this day.’ An elderly lady who happened to be Caucasian, she hugged him and then they hugged me. And then I realized it and I said thank you.
“As you grow older, you realize afterward what it meant.”
The Turner Cup championship parade took Paris and the Knights along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive – a fitting ride for a pioneer on a street named after a pioneer.
And a pioneer is just what John Paris Jr. has been all through his coaching career. It’s a trail he’s blazed proudly, through all the “firsts” he has encountered.
“Hockey is a different sport,” Paris said. “The National Hockey League is not a racist society. The NHL, and I can say it loudly and proudly, the NHL is the only sport that has respect for individuals.”