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Color of Hockey

Color of Hockey: NHLCA clinic provides steppingstone for black coaches

Weeklong gathering offers opportunities for learning, networking, mentoring

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / Staff Writer

William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past eight years. Douglas joined in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles black coaches and their drive to advance in hockey.


Joel Ward is being coached on how to be a coach.

The former NHL forward, who officially announced his retirement in April after 11 seasons, was hunkered down at his computer last week as a participant of the 2020 NHL Coaches' Association Global Coaches' Clinic.

"I've got to do a lot of prepping, I see," Ward said after watching presentations by New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz, his old coach with the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals, longtime NHL coach Ken Hitchcock and others. "Very interesting stuff. Some stuff I'm kind of familiar with, some stuff obviously I'm picking up."

Ward, who wants to be an NHL coach, joined nine black coaches from all levels of hockey who accepted invitations to participate in the weeklong clinic as part of the NHL and NHLCA's efforts to increase diversity and inclusion behind the bench.

"I was honored to be invited," said Cyril Bollers, who coached Jamaica's national team to the Amerigol LATAM Cup championship last September and has coached summer tournament youth hockey teams that featured Darnell Nurse, Robby Fabbri and Joshua Ho-Sang. "Recognizing my love for the sport, passion for the sport and years involved in the sport, having an invite to attend and give feedback gives me an opportunity to share my voice, which I've never had that opportunity before."

The other invitees were Jason Payne of Cincinnati (ECHL); Joel Martin, Kalamazoo (ECHL); Leon Hayward, Colorado College (NCAA Division I); Nathaniel Brooks, Ryerson University (U Sports); Jason McCrimmon, Motor City Hockey Club (U.S. Premiere Hockey League); Duante Abercrombie, Washington Little Caps Under-18 team and Stevenson University (NCAA Division III); Marquise Cotten, Gonzaga College High School in Washington; and Leo Thomas, the uncle of Los Angeles Kings forward prospect Akil Thomas and former coach of Macon (Southern Professional Hockey League).

They attended the clinic to hear lectures like Trotz's on "Foundational 5-on-5 Defenseman Development" and Anaheim Ducks coach Dallas Eakins' on "Creating Team Culture: How to Build and Cultivate a Strong Dressing Room."

But the black coaches were also there to teach, to share their experiences and give the NHLCA input on why there are so few coaches of color in the NHL.

"That was the reason for not just inviting them to the clinic but to be sort of thought leaders for us and our association in how we can work together going forward beyond just the week of the clinic to create programs to help coaches, whether black, brown, Asian, female," NHLCA president Lindsay Artkin said.

The NHLCA's desire to do more took on greater urgency after George Floyd, a black man, died in custody of the Minneapolis Police Department on May 25. The incident, captured on video, sparked worldwide protests and prompted NHL players, from All-Stars to role players, to speak out.

"We add our voices to those condemning racist behavior wherever it is found, whither among law enforcement officials, within our world of sport, and across our public institutions more broadly," the NHLCA said in a statement. "We are committed to working with all those who want positive change and all those committed to eradicating racism in all its forms."

The association had begun addressing diversity and inclusion issues before Floyd's death. In March, it established the NHLCA Mentorship Program for NCAA, USHL, ECHL and AHL coaches, as well as a Female Coaches Development program.

As part of its mentorship efforts, the NHLCA has paired Ward with Rob Zettler and Dave Barr, his former coaches with the Sharks, to talk about coaching.

"It's really nice of them to spend time with me and kind of showing me the ropes," said Ward, who scored 304 points (133 goals, 171 assists) in 726 games with the Sharks, Capitals, Predators and Minnesota Wild. "Lots to learn, but I'm excited."

The League's small roster of minority coaches includes St. Louis Blues coach Craig Berube, who is president of the NHLCA's executive committee; assistants Mike Grier of the New Jersey Devils and Manny Malhotra of the Vancouver Canucks; player development coach Francis Bullion of the Montreal Canadiens; goaltending coaches Frantz Jean of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Sudarshan Maharaj of the Anaheim Ducks; and video coaches Nigel Kirwan of Tampa Bay and Samson Lee of the Los Angeles Kings.

Michael Hirshfeld, executive director of the NHLCA, said he doesn't know why there aren't more minority coaches in the League and that he looks forward to ongoing conversations with the clinic participants to find out.

A black coach hasn't led an NHL team since Dirk Graham became the first and guided the Chicago Blackhawks for 52 games in 1998-99.

There have been a few black coaches in the minor leagues. John Paris Jr. became the first to lead a professional team to a championship when Atlanta of the International Hockey League won the Turner Cup in 1994.

Graeme Townshend, the NHL's first Jamaica-born player, coached Macon's Central Hockey League team in 1999-00. Leo Thomas became the SPHL's first black coach when Macon hired him in May 2018. He was fired in November 2019.

Artkin said hearing from coaches like Abercrombie -- who began playing hockey with Washington's Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club under Neal Henderson, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame's first black inductee -- to see how the coaches' association can help.

"I think for us it's important to be connected as a first step with the (minority coaching talent) pool and start to build it," she said. "It's also important to get connected to (Abercrombie's) network and that group's network as well so that we can really start to have conversations with as many coaches of color out there as we can get in contact with to hear their stories, hear what their path has been. There's no one path to coaching in the NHL, whether you played or didn't play."

Payne said ways need to be found to change a "it's not what you know, it's who you know" hiring culture to give minority coaches a better shot at coaching positions.

"There's always that 'old boys club,'" said Payne, who played 14 years in six minor leagues. "We've got to keep putting our foot forward and help open eyes, help educate the world and society that there are people out here who are minority, different races, different color that play the sport, coach the sport, are educated in the sport, have good mindsets, have different ways of thinking, can bring a whole different level of approach to different scenarios. They can help bring a whole new, if you want to say flavor or atmosphere, to the game itself."

Hayward said he found the clinic enlightening from a hockey and societal standpoint. He finished it feeling that reaching out to the black coaches could lead to substantive change.

"I think we're in a time that, in a major way, people are talking about race, race and sports, and how to be better and how to include people of color more," said Hayward, who had a six-year minor league playing career and was named most valuable player of the ECHL's 2005 Kelly Cup Playoffs. "There's a greater population of players of color behind me and I'm really excited about those guys who are 25 to 35 years old and where they're going to be in three, four, five, six years."

Photos courtesy of Casey B. Gibson/Colorado College, Cincinnati Cyclones, Cyril Bollers. 

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