Dominic Garcia wasn't sure what to say, how to say it or whether to say anything at all.
A gamut of emotions flowed through the alternate captain and only Black player on Arizona State University's hockey team after he watched video of George Floyd's life end with a knee firmly on his neck while in the custody of the Minneapolis police.
"I was debating back and forth whether I was going to say something or not," said Garcia, a 23-year-old senior forward from Las Vegas. "I'm not a big name in college hockey. I don't know how much it would get out there if I posted something on my own. Part of the issue for me was putting into words."
Garcia found the words and Arizona State's athletic department found them so poignant and pause-giving that it released his message as a statement on June 17.
"At age 10, I was called a (N-word) for the first time by an opposing player," Garcia wrote. "At age 17, I stayed back on the bus after a hockey game while everyone else got off to grab something to eat because the area we stopped in was known to be racially confrontational. At age 19, while walking back to the locker room at intermission of a junior hockey game, concession snacks were thrown at me while being called a (N-word)."
The statement was a heartbreaking revelation that shocked Garcia's teammates, coaches and family. He said that that his experiences at Arizona State have been positive and never told any of them about the racist abuse that he experienced that began in his first year playing ice hockey after transitioning from roller hockey.
"I had my parents -- but as much as they can help, I'm the first in my family to play hockey so I felt like I was kind of alone in that regard," said Garcia. "It just seemed easier to keep it to myself and battle through it rather than reach out to a coach who might not know about what I'm going through that could really offer anything, or I thought couldn't offer anything. So I decided to keep it within."
Ironically, ASU has one of the more racially diverse rosters in NCAA Division I hockey. Garcia's teammates include forwards Jordan Sandhu, a Canadian of Indian descent, and Peter Zhong, who was born in Beijing and played for China's national team at the IIHF World Championship Division II in 2017-18.
"I think there's kind of like an unspoken respect like we realize we're minorities in the game and so each of us know if anything ever came up we'd be able to talk to each other about it, but it's never come up," said Garcia, a defensive specialist who has scored 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in 97 NCAA regular-season games. "It's unspoken, they know, we've all been through the struggle to be where we are."
ASU coach Greg Powers said his team will talk about the experiences of Garcia, Sandhu and Zhong when players return to campus for the 2020-21 season, "so we can never say again that 'we didn't know.'"
It was Powers and Mitchell Terrell, corporate communications manager and sports information director for men's hockey for Sun Devils Athletics, who reached out to Garcia shortly after Floyd's death to offer the department's platform if he wanted to say something.
"It was really enlightening for me and sobering to read a kid who we love so much talk about what he's gone through because he hasn't talked about it, been open about it," said Powers, whose team was ranked 13th in the nation last season at 22-11 with three ties. "To see that and to see him voice everything that he's gone through to get to where he is on that kind of stage was so many things, but most of all it was awesome."
Arizona State University coach Greg Powers
And it was tough for Garcia, a former junior and Indiana prep school player who struggled for hours and went through drafts to find the right words and tone for his message.
"I wanted something as powerful as I could make it, that was real and honest that just gave my point of view in life and what I've been through," he said. "I'm lucky and fortunate enough to come from a privileged household but even with that I've gone through what a majority of people don't, especially in hockey. Just trying to find a way to present it that people could read it and, like 'Wow, OK, I didn't see it from that point of view.' That was my main goal and that's what I struggled with."
Issues of race in hockey and society were weighing on Garcia's mind before Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis, a tragedy captured on video that sparked worldwide protests and calls for racial justice and equality.
Garcia said he was deeply saddened when New York Rangers prospect K'Andre Miller, a University of Wisconsin defenseman, was racially in April during a Zoom chat with fans. He included a picture of him playing against Miller in his statement that read "To you all, it may look like two players on opposing teams battling for the puck."
"To me, I see a great person and hockey player in K'Andre," Garcia wrote. "But I also see two Black men in a predominantly white sport, who overcame adversity from not only a performance based standpoint, but racial adversity as well. Two men who play at some of the highest levels of hockey but still continue to fight for equality."
Garcia said he and Miller, who was selected by the Rangers in the first round (No. 22) of the 2018 NHL Draft, have become friends.
"He's been good to me," Garcia said. "We've talked briefly in Instagram."
Garcia said he's humbled and grateful for the response he's received from his statement, which was first reported by The Arizona Republic. Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo, one of Garcia's favorite players, contacted him.
Okposo made a similar gesture toward Roshaun Brown-Hall, a then-17-year-old Buffalo-area youth hockey player who endured racist taunts and slurs during a game in January 2019.
"He called me one morning and we talked for 35-40 minutes," Garcia said of Okposo. "He let me speak out, made sure I was OK. We got to know each other a little bit. He said if I need anything to reach out. He's really supportive, a really nice guy."
He said he's also heard from teammates and coaches past and present, including "incoming freshmen that I don't necessarily know."
After being initially ambivalent about speaking out his experiences in hockey, Garcia's now glad that he did.
"It was easy to hide it and move along, but now I think it gives people a chance to understand me better," he said. "It was definitely a weight lifted off my shoulders."
Photos courtesy: Riley Trujillo