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Black History Month

New wave of black players ready to make impact on hockey

Five who could follow O'Ree, create own legacy

by William Douglas / Special to NHL.com

To help the NHL celebrate Black History Month, William Douglas, who writes the Color of Hockey blog, is highlighting five players who could have an impact on hockey in the years to come:

 

Watch almost any NHL game and it's easy to see the impact Willie O'Ree has had on the sport since he became the League's first black player on Jan. 18, 1958.

From the dynamic rushes of Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban, to the power moves of San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane, to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final goal-scoring heroics of Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly, today's black players have prominent roles on their teams.

They stand on the shoulders of other O'Ree hockey progeny, a generation that includes fellow Hockey Hall of Famers Grant Fuhr, the five-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie; forward Angela James, who is regarded by many as hockey's first woman superstar; and forward Jarome Iginla, who likely will be the next black player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

But what about the next generation? Here are five players who could add to O'Ree's legacy years down the road: 

 

Quinton Byfield, C, Sudbury, Ontario Hockey League

Photo courtesy CHL Images

 

In an age of advanced hockey analytics, NHL Central Scouting Director Dan Marr offers one simple metric when it comes to Byfield.

"He's worth the price of admission," Marr said. "He's that type of player."

A 16-year-old from Newmarket, Ontario, Byfield was the first pick in the 2018 OHL Priority Selection Draft in April. The 6-foot-4, 214-pound center is third among OHL rookies in scoring with 21 goals and 29 assists in 51 games and his 50 points rank third for Sudbury. 

"I want to be one of the best, if not the best player in the league; I hope we win a Memorial Cup in a year or two," Byfield said. "The next step I definitely want to make is the NHL."

Marr and Sudbury coach Cory Stillman believe that if Byfield's game continues to progress, he'll be a high first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, possibly No. 1.

"A prospect like him doesn't enter the OHL or NHL too often," Marr said. "He is an imposing figure with his size and strength, and he's still developing so he is going to get stronger and more powerful.

"Normally the bigger players need an upgrade with their skating -- he doesn't. He's a strong and powerful skater right now. He's got the acceleration to pull away on the play. He's already at the top end of the 2020 draft."

When Byfield joined Sudbury, he immediately wanted to be the player that the team counts on every game, despite his youth.

"We've given him every opportunity to play on the power play, play on the penalty kill," said Stillman, who played 16 NHL seasons with six teams. "Last minute in a game, I put the puck on his stick. When we design a play, the puck's going to him and we let him make the decision. That just goes to show you the IQ that he has and the ability to make a difference in a hockey game, whether it's at the start or the final play."

Byfield said he thrives on the responsibilities and appreciates Stillman's confidence in him.

"He's giving me a lot of opportunities," Byfield said. "That's an honor for a 16-year-old when a coach has that much faith in you."

 

Isaiah Saville, G, Tri-City, United States Hockey League 

Photo courtesy Tri-City Storm

 

Some big hockey names have come from Anchorage, Alaska, including two-time Stanley Cup-winning center Scott Gomez, Columbus Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky and Montreal Canadiens center Nate Thompson.

Saville is doing his part to become the next one.

The 18-year-old, who is 18-3-1-1, leads the USHL with a 1.78 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.

"I expected to put up pretty good numbers, but not be No. 1 in the league," Saville told the Omaha World-Herald earlier this month. "It's an honor and a privilege to play with this group of guys and to put up the numbers that we are all putting up right now."

Saville's stellar season earned him a spot on the United States team that competed at the 2018 World Junior A Challenge in Alberta in December.

He helped the U.S. to a 2-0 victory against Russia in the championship game and had a 1.30 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage in three games. 

NHL Central Scouting ranks the left-handed Saville (6-1, 193) as the eighth-best North American goalie eligible for the 2019 NHL Draft, which will be held at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on June 21-22. 

Al Jensen, NHL Central Scouting's head goalie scout, said Saville could go anywhere between the third and sixth rounds.

"Excellent quickness and athleticism," Jensen said. "I like how hard he competes regardless of the situation. He plays with a lot of poise and confidence. Very solid stance and controlled body movements. Very quick glove hand and catching with his right hand could confuse a shooter. Capable of coming up with a big game for his team."

Saville is committed to play for the University of Nebraska Omaha next season.

 

Marshall Warren, D, USA Hockey National Team Development Program

Photo courtesy USA Hockey's NTDP/Rena Laverty

 

Warren's mother enrolled him in figure skating lessons at age 3, insisting that he master skating before playing hockey.

"I love figure skating," Warren said. "Honestly, it's kind of weird because I've seen all my buddies playing hockey, but I think it made me a better skater. It was good, but hockey, I like it a little better, obviously."

Warren's skating prowess is a key reason why the defenseman is ranked the 39th-best North American skater eligible for the 2019 draft by NHL Central Scouting.

The 17-year-old from Laurel Hollow, New York, has 22 points (five goals, 17 assists) in 38 games for the NTDP. 

"His skating ability is second to none," NTDP coach John Wroblewski said. "He's a 200-foot player, he's tremendously active on the offensive side of things, and he's such a good athlete. He's in tremendous shape so if there is a situation where he has to make up ice and get back on defense, he can cover ground. His 5-on-5 impact is all over for us, he's active on our line rush, he's fearless to execute, he's fearless to take chances."

Warren (5-10, 169) describes himself as a two-way defenseman whose biggest asset is his skating.

"I'm a hard-working defenseman," he said. "I think I need to make the simple play sometimes, keep it simple."

Wroblewski said Warren brings more to the game than skating and scoring.

"With Marshall, what ultimately defines him is his tremendous character," Wroblewski said. "There are just no issues with him. He's got a smile on his face when he does his work, he's a good kid, he's funny. There's kind of an electricity about him about him that everyone's attracted to be his friend."

Warren intended to play for Harvard University next season but announced in December that he'll play for Boston College instead. Wroblewski and Marr said playing under legendary Boston College coach Jerry York will help Warren's game mature, especially on the power play.

"I don't think Marshall is going to be on a fast track to the NHL," Marr said. "I'm sure he's going to be a candidate for the World Juniors going forward. Down the road, I think when he gets the opportunity he'll be able make an NHL club. And I think he has the background and development path that once he gets there, he'll stay there."

 

Chayla Edwards, D, Pittsburgh Penguins Elite Under-19 Team, Shady Side Academy

Photo courtesy Hannah Steffey

 

Edwards can't recall a time when hockey wasn't a constant in her family's Cleveland Heights, Ohio, home.

Her older brother, Bobby, plays club hockey at Bowling Green State University. Her younger sister, Laila, plays for Selects Academy at Bishop Kearney in Rochester, New York. And her youngest brother, Colson, is on the Cleveland Jr. Jacks squad.

"We would play mini-sticks all the time, watch hockey highlights, hockey was always on TV," Edwards said.

The 17-year-old has been a mainstay in the Penguins Elite girls program and has four goals and two assists in 35 games.
"She's been one of our top defensemen since she was 8 years old," said Kathy Pippy, the girl's hockey director for the Penguins Elite and Selects Hockey. "I think it's a combination of her size (5-9, 161), she sees the game really well, she can move the puck up the ice. She can also join in the offense when she needs to, and she has really good hands."

Edwards is headed to the University of Wisconsin next season, where she'll follow of one of her hockey role models, forward Sarah Nurse.

One of Edwards' biggest thrills was meeting Nurse, who scored 137 points (76 goals, 61 assists) in 150 games at Wisconsin from 2013-17. Nurse, who plays for the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, is the cousin of Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse.

"It was pretty cool because, as you know, there aren't many black female players in college, so I really look up to her a lot," Edwards said. "She was really nice. She said, 'If you have any questions or anything, you can ask me.' It's really cool to make that connection."

Edwards wants to represent her country, just like Nurse represented Canada at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

She participated in USA Hockey's Under-18 Select Player Development Camp last summer but admitted afterward that she wasn't prepared.

"When I got there, the game, the pace, was so much faster than I had ever played. It wasn't like I was completely lost out there, but I knew I had to be a little quicker," she said. "My biggest goal right now is to make it on the national team, so I really want to work hard in college to make it to that point." 

And Edwards has the ability and will to do it, Pippy said.

"Chayla has that potential to continue to get stronger, and she'll play in a program where she'll be practicing with some of the best players in the country," Pippy said. "That will give her a tremendous opportunity. I think she'll really excel in Wisconsin."

 

Rayla Clemons, C, Pittsburgh Penguins Elite Under-19 Team

Photo courtesy Hannah Steffey

 

Clemons is driven to succeed. Every Sunday, the 17-year-old center travels four hours each way from suburban Detroit to practice with her team in Pittsburgh.

The trek is part of Clemons' drive to "reach the highest goals possible" in the game.

"From a young age, a dream of mine was always to go to the Olympics," she said. "That's still there for me and I'm working hard on and off the ice to get better and to reach my goals."

Clemons (5-2, 119) has 15 goals and seven assists in 34 games with the Penguins. Her play caught the attention of Syracuse University, where she'll play starting in the 2020-21 season. 

"She's a fast, speedy little forward," Pippy said. "She's like the Energizer Bunny -- her motor just goes. She can score, she's gritty, she doesn't mind mixing it up."

To supplement her Penguins practices, Clemons skates during the week with the Little Caesars AAA Under-18 Midget Majors boys team, coached by former NHL left wing Brian Rolston, who won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 1995.

"A lot of times you won't get a male coach of an AAA team like that to allow a girl to come in and practice, and he opened that door which has been a true blessing," Rayla's father Rodney Clemons said.  

Rolston knew about Clemons' practice situation because she was enrolled in a skating academy that he runs in the Little Caesars girls' program.

"At first it was a little intimidating to know that I would be skating with some of the older, stronger guys because I had never really done anything like that before," Rayla Clemons said. "It's definitely a faster pace, so I feel like I can use my speed more in games. And I've definitely become more heads-up because although the boys don't hit me, they'll still put a body on me. I have to make sure I keep my head up and make quick decisions, and that definitely transitions into my game with the girls."

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