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Black History Month

Macon popular hub for developing Black hockey coaches

Former NHL forward Townshend among those given leadership opportunities in Georgia city

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Leo Thomas said he was surprised to learn that he was the first Black coach in the Southern Professional Hockey League when Macon hired him May 23, 2018.

He was more surprised to discover that he wasn't the first Black coach to lead a team from that city, known more for giving the world Little Richard, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers Band than being an incubator for hockey coaches of color.

"I honestly didn't know they had two before I was there," said Thomas, who left the Macon Mayhem on Nov. 19, 2019 after going 29-32-7 in 68 games. "To learn that after I got the job, it was pretty cool to learn the history."

Thomas was the third Black coach to coach a team in Macon, following John Paris Jr., who led the defunct Macon Whoopee of the Central Hockey League from 1996-99, and former NHL forward Graeme Townshend, who succeeded him from 1999-01.

They are part of a small fraternity of Black coaches who've guided professional teams in North America that includes Dirk Graham, who became the first Black coach in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks for 59 games in 1998-99.   

"It's kind of amazing, kind of a strange coincidence having three (in Macon)," said Jay Jarvis, a former Macon Whoopee off-ice official and founder of georgiahockeymuseum.com, dedicated to the state's hockey history. "I don't think it was planned."

Well, not exactly.

Paris took the Macon job in 1996 after guiding Atlanta of the International Hockey League to the Turner Cup championship in 1994 and becoming the first Black coach to win a professional hockey title.

Fired from coaching duties and uninterested in relocating with Atlanta to Quebec City, Paris opted to go down a rung on pro hockey's ladder to get more hockey operations experience in hopes of someday landing an NHL job.

He also said he went to Macon with an eye toward paving the way for others.

"I could have said 'Okay, I'll be an assistant or take a head coaching job at another level, but it would have not benefited the group to follow," the 74-year-old Windsor, Nova Scotia, native said. "If there's no Graeme Townshend or Leo Thomas, then why the heck would John Paris be a coach there? I tried my best to open doors because it's not enough just to be a first if you're not bringing anybody else after you."

Paris quickly became a fan favorite in Macon, where he went 112-74-20 in three seasons. He told fans and the media that he was "a coach by choice and Black by nature."

He said race wasn't issue for him in Macon, although he endured some incidents on the road, including a 1997 brawl in Huntsville, Alabama.

"John came in already a name in the state from what he had done in Atlanta," said Dave Starman, a hockey analyst for NHL Network and CBS Sports Network who coached under Paris in Macon and Atlanta. "I think it took the city of Macon about 10 minutes to really warm up to him. John might be 5-foot-7 but he's like 7-foot-5 when it comes to his personality and charisma."

When Paris' three-year contract in Macon was up, he recommended that Townshend, who was finishing his career as a player-assistant coach with Lake Charles in the Western Professional Hockey League, be hired as his successor.

"That's the kind of guy John Paris is," said Townshend, who played 45 games for the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders and was the first Jamaica-born NHL player. "He's always trying to pull somebody else up with him and help other Black players and coaches."

Macon fans embraced the 6-foot-2, 225-pound former left wing the same way they embraced Paris, said John Radford, a former Whoopee booster club member.

"It was just, 'We love hockey and he's one of us,'" Radford said. "He was larger than life, but he was so down to Earth and nice. He was such a class act, such high character."

Townshend said he thinks fondly of Macon, where he went 57-62-21 before he was fired in 2001.

"I would live there tomorrow if I had to move somewhere," said Townshend, who operates a hockey school in Maine. "It just seemed like the people were inclusive and supportive of everybody. We had two Asian guys on our team, of Korean descent from Chicago, and those two guys still live there."

Thomas, whose nephew, Los Angeles Kings forward prospect Akil Thomas, is playing his first professional season for Ontario in the American Hockey League, said he fell in love with Macon's rich music history and downtown restaurants when he first joined its SPHL team as an assistant in 2016. His appreciation for the city grew after talking to Paris.

"He reached out as soon as I got the job, which just made my day," Thomas said. "It was awesome to hear stories from him about what he and Graeme went through. Those guys paved the way for me to even get that kind of opportunity."

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