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By Dan Myers |

Pioneers, parents paved way for likes of Brown, Greenway to thrive as minorities in the hockey world

Wild forward Jordan Greenway doesn't think too much about it right now. He's too busy living out his dream, breaking into the National Hockey League like he always pictured himself doing as a kid in Canton, New York. 

But someday, much further into what he hopes is a long and distinguished career, or when the towering winger decides to hang up his skates, Greenway will have a legacy that no other player in the history of the game will be able to claim. 

Last February in South Korea, Greenway became the first African-American to play on the United States Olympic men's ice hockey team. 

"I've had a lot of people ask me about that, especially around the Olympics time," Greenway said. "I don't think it, even now, has hit me as much as it will. Especially five, 10 years down the road, I think I'll look back and say, 'Wow, that's pretty cool.' 

"I don't think I appreciate it as much as I should now. But I think that's just because I'm living it right now."

There was a time, not all that long ago, when Greenway and fellow forward J.T. Brown would have found the road to the NHL much more difficult.

While black athletes integrated into the National Football League for the first time in 1920, the other three major sports were much further behind. Jackie Robinson was the first black man to play in the Major Leagues in 1947. Earl Lloyd did so in the NBA in 1950.

But it wasn't until 1958 when Willie O'Ree became the first African-American to play in the NHL. 

Last November, O'Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, becoming the first black man to be enshrined in the sport's hallowed grounds.

"What he was able to do throughout his career, and all the challenges he had to face, and he had to overcome just to play the game," said Brown, who was assigned to the Iowa Wild earlier this week. "That in itself is amazing. When I look back and have been able to sit down and talk with him ... to listen to his stories and pick his brain about when he was playing, it just amazes me. I feel so grateful just to be able to play this game for all that he's done to help people like me."

While Greenway and Brown's journeys to the NHL have each been far easier from a racial standpoint than O'Ree's was, each has had to stare down racism and stigma associated with being a black man playing a predominantly white sport.

Greenway said he and his brother, J.D., a third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft by Toronto who plays in the United States Hockey League, were sat down by their Caucasian mother, Shannon, and warned of the challenges they would face because of the color of their skin. 

Canton, a small town in upstate New York about 15 miles from the Canadian border, has just under 7,000 residents. A vast majority are white, which is the background in which the Greenway boys grew up.

"There's under 10 black people where I'm from, let me tell you that," Greenway said with a smile.

That meant the Greenway boys had white friends and white teammates.

"I'd basically grown up in a family that was predominantly white," Greenway said. "My mom's side of the family is white, I grew up in a town where everyone was white, so race was a little different for me. We never really had too many problems."

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But just growing up in a mostly white community didn't stop some from hurling the occasional racial insult.

"It's ridiculous, but it's something I knew I'd come across at some point in my life," Greenway said. "I'm pretty thick-skinned. I mean, I've only ever really gotten it from opposing fans, and they're nobody that I really give the time of day to."

While Greenway grew up without his African-American dad in the picture, Brown had a very famous black father who himself had played professional sports.

Ted Brown played eight seasons in the NFL for the Minnesota Vikings. Before that, he was an All-American running back at North Carolina State University in the 1970s, still a challenging time for African-Americans in sports, especially in the South. 

Ted Brown's NFL career was over by the time J.T. was born in July of 1990, but his father was able to provide him with critical advice about racism that he may experience, even growing up in Rosemount.

"I'd say that anything I've gone through is nowhere near the same as him," said Brown, who's appeared in 35 NHL games this season and ranks third on the team with 68 hits. "Or go back to his dad. So to be able to put it in perspective … you know what? It could have been worse, so I'm not gonna let somebody else dictate how I feel."

In addition to his family, Brown's bantam coach in Rosemount, Rick Saintey, had zero tolerance for racism.

More than once, Saintey would overhear an opponent use a racial slur involving Brown and threaten to pull his team off the ice and forfeit the game if the officials didn't reprimand the player.

"We'd pull the game, and the ref would come over and say, 'I didn't hear it, so I can't do anything,' and he'd say, 'Alright, well we're done playing,'" Brown said. "To have somebody like that to have your back at an early age proved to me that this sport is good for me, and even though I was the only African-American on the team, I felt good, felt welcomed and felt like I was a part of the team."

Brown said the most racism he's ever experienced actually came at the younger levels of hockey, when kids would -- willingly or not -- say things to try and get under his skin.

Brown admitted those kids probably knew exactly what they were saying and what it meant, but said looking back, many of them probably regret saying it now that they are adults.

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As he's climbed the ladder through the collegiate and pro ranks, Brown said he's experienced blatant racism less and less.

"You get into the professional setting, and we're all on the same team, we all have one goal, and that's to win," Brown said. "It really doesn't matter what your race, religion, or any of your views are on things; as long as you come in and work, I think that's the most important thing."

Brown said he can count the number of times on one hand that he's had a black teammate in hockey. With Greenway, he's had someone with whom he can share experiences and talk to about certain topics that his white teammates simply may not understand.

The goal for both Brown and Greenway now is to see African-American participation in the sport increase so that it won't be nearly as rare as it currently is for two or more black men or women to be on the same team.

Both men see themselves as role models for those in minority communities, and both work hard to help grow the game in those communities. 

And while the fruits of their labor may not come for many years -- perhaps well after their pro careers are over -- Brown believes there will come a day when black participation in hockey will greatly increase.

"It's introducing boys and girls to the game," Brown said. "In a lot of the work that I do, the first thing I'll ask is if they watch any hockey or have they ever done it. And it's always overwhelmingly, no, never watched it, never played because it's their first time learning to skate.

"That's the challenge, and that's where working with these kids now pays off. It may not be the 8- or 9-year-olds now that you get to play, but they like the sport, they watch the sport, and someday, they'll introduce it to their kids and now their kids will start playing at a younger age. I think that's the line of how you want to draw it for it to continue to grow." 

And while Greenway hasn't reflected on his legacy as a historic figure in the game of hockey, he does know people are watching him. He knows he has the ability to help make change in the hockey community."There are guys out there who played that I know I looked up to, and they didn't even do anything special, they just looked more like me, so that was my guy," Greenway said. "It's special to know that there are some people out there inspired by what I have done. Even though I'm not doing anything too crazy, to have another kid look at me and say, 'I want to do what he's doing,' that's pretty special and an honor for me."

Becoming Wild: Jordan Greenway

Becoming Wild presented by Toyota: A day in the life of Wild forward Jordan Greenway

  • Jun 17, 2019 • 23:34