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Coleman first 'Diversity' player to reach NHL

Thursday, 02.19.2009 / 9:00 AM / Hockey is for Everyone

By John McGourty - NHL.com Staff Writer

"It gives kids another way out. Before, basketball was the only way I could make it out. This allows kids to learn something different. They don't have to follow one track only. Hockey takes a lot of time. It's not like going down to the court to play basketball. It gets kids off the street for a couple of hours and the education aspect helps you learn more and become a better person."
-- Gerald Coleman

It wasn't easy for Gerald Coleman to make it to the NHL the first time and he knows it won't be easy a second time. But Coleman is familiar with overcoming adversity. He's been doing it all his life.

Coleman, a goalie, is only 23, but he's had an up-and-down career. Fortunately, he's on an upswing and determined to return to the NHL.

Coleman is one of the best feel-good stories in hockey. The Chicago native became the first product of an NHL Diversity program to be drafted by an NHL team when the Tampa Bay Lightning took him in the seventh round of the 2003 Entry Draft.

Coleman then became the first NHL Diversity player to get in an NHL game on Nov. 11, 2005, when he played in relief. He also played another game that season for the Lightning.

"Going to Tampa Bay was so surprising and it was so beautiful," Coleman said. "I came from Chicago, where my school had metal detectors and gang shootings. I had a gym teacher who was always asking me why I was playing a white man's game and telling me I'd never be anything in hockey so why try it. He gave me a lower grade because I wouldn't go out for basketball and drop hockey.

"Five years removed from high school, I got the chance to live my dream and play in the NHL. It took a lot of hard work and I'm grateful to the people who pushed me along and motivated me. They said they would make me a better person and they did. Playing that NHL game took a weight off my shoulders because then I knew I had made the right decision, instead of playing a different sport or being on the streets."

That was an upswing in his career. Downswings preceded and followed it.

Coleman was the starting goalie for the amazing London Knights team that won the 2005 Memorial Cup, but the Knights traded for another goalie, Adam Dennis, late in the season. Coleman and Dennis split duties down the stretch and into the playoffs but it was Dennis that got the call in the Memorial Cup Final, a 4-0 London triumph against Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic.

Coleman then went 14-21 with the AHL Springfield Falcons, sandwiched around his NHL appearances, and went to the Lightning training camp the next fall with a chance to win an NHL job. But he suffered a pair of groin pulls and was sidelined. He rehabilitated the muscles and returned to play for Tampa Bay's affiliates, the AHL Falcons and ECHL Johnstown Chiefs. Then he was traded to the Anaheim Ducks, with a first-round draft pick, for defenseman Shane O'Brien and a third-round pick. Anaheim assigned him to their AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates.

Coleman suffered a concussion in training camp in 2007-08, returned a couple months later and suffered another concussion when a player crashed the net and drove his head into the crossbar. Coleman split a "lost" season between Portland and the ECHL Augusta Lynx. His contract expired, and Coleman was without a team last summer.

"I pulled both groins and I had some concussions," Coleman said. "It's been a battle. I look back at my childhood, everyone knocking me down but I kept going. I know I have the ability to play in the NHL. Injuries have been holding me back."

He attended the AHL Chicago Wolves training camp, but didn't catch on and then played five games with the Phoenix Roadrunners, going 2-1-1 with a 1.48 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage. He was signed to a tryout by the AHL Worcester Sharks when their goalie, Thomas Greiss, was promoted to San Jose during an injury to goalie Evgeni Nabokov. Coleman went 0-2 in Worcester. Phoenix then traded him to Trenton.

The Devils were struggling, but Coleman's solid play and confidence helped turn them around. He went 13-2 in his first 15 starts and is now 18-4-1 with an ECHL-leading 2.08 GAA and .924 save percentage.

Coleman's future looks bright again, but it hasn't been easy. He watched his sister figure skating when he was 13 and decided he wanted to play hockey. He met a lot of resistance in his community and school but persevered through the help of an NHL-assisted program in Chicago, PUCKS, an acronym for Positive Upliftment for Chicago's Kids. The organization no longer exists, but has been replaced by another Chicago-based NHL Hockey Is For Everyone Initiative program.

"I was with PUCKS in Chicago, one of the NHL Diversity programs," Coleman said. "I just got into it and they said they needed a goalie. I was a local kid and they invited me to come out. It was a great opportunity and it had a major influence on me.

"Most kid's families didn't have the money to play hockey and nobody is going to give you a chance to become something. PUCKS gave kids like myself a chance to have fun. We all had the same dream, maybe not to play in the NHL, but for someone who would care for us, give us hope and show us the light at the end of the tunnel."

While with PUCKS, Coleman participated in a clinic conducted by Willie O'Ree, the NHL's first black player and the director of youth development for NHL Hockey Is For Everyone. The experience convinced him that he could be a professional hockey player, even if everyone around him doubted it. Some people even threw obstacles in his way.

"It was exciting for me to meet Willie O'Ree," Coleman said. "I didn't know too much about him, just what I'd read in books I read in the days before I met him. He was an inspirational speaker and I liked listening to his stories. He was giving everyone hope and what he was doing was unbelievable.

"He was trying to open our eyes to other things we can do in the world and that we didn't have to be held down by anything. No matter how bad things are, we can accomplish our dreams."

Coleman realizes that some kids, no matter how dedicated, can't progress in hockey without some assistance. That's why NHL Hockey Is For Everyone programs are so important, he said
"Most kid's families didn't have the money to play hockey and nobody is going to give you a chance to become something. PUCKS gave kids like myself a chance to have fun." -- Gerald Coleman
"The need for programs like PUCKS is huge," Coleman said. "Look at basketball and football, where kids can just go out and play and develop skills. Nobody in the inner-city knows hockey or understands the game, especially how expensive it is. For goalie equipment, you could spend $900-1,000. Plus, there's travel costs. Kids can't afford that so programs like these help kids. They need to know they can go on and play professionally or in juniors or college.

"It gives kids another way out. Before, basketball was the only way I could make it out. This allows kids to learn something different. They don't have to follow one track only. Hockey takes a lot of time. It's not like going down to the court to play basketball. It gets kids off the street for a couple of hours and the education aspect helps you learn more and become a better person."

Coleman knows that continued strong performances could open the door for promotion so he's focused on helping Trenton make the Kelly Cup Playoffs.

"It's been fun here in Trenton," Coleman said. "When I got traded, I didn't know what to think. I was in a nice place in Phoenix and on a good team. The trade was an eye-opener for me. I talked to Rick Kowalsky, the coach here, and to Corey Schwab, the goalie coach I had in Phoenix. He played in the Devils' system and told me that if I play well here, good things will happen. They treat us well."
Quote of the Day

Great players need great players to play with. That's why we'll have a training camp and we'll find who the best two guys are suited to play with Stamkos.

— Tampa Bay Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness on Steven Stamkos' potential linemates for the 2014-15 season