The first black head coach in the history of professional hockey likes what he sees when he follows today’s NHL. Black players starring at forward, on defence, in goal. A black captain. And perhaps this Sunday, a black player selected first or second overall in an entry draft.
The league that turned down Herb Carnegie because of his skin colour has indeed changed, says John Paris Jr., the man who guided the Atlanta Knights to an International Hockey League championship in 1994. But there’s more to be done, more progress to be made.
What Paris is hoping to see are more black coaches and executives. The NHL has its first European general manager, Jarmo Kekalainen of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and once had a head coach of African descent, Dirk Graham. He lasted 59 games with the 1998-99 Chicago Blackhawks. Currently, of the more than 100 coaching jobs in the NHL, there isn’t a single black assistant. (Paul Jerrard worked for the Dallas Stars this past season but was let go.)
With so many black players making it big in the NHL, Paris, currently head coach of the Omaha AAA Lancer U18 team, is counting on them to use their influence to forge new ground, the way he did in the early 1980s long after his minor-league playing days were done.
“When I was playing, it was an oddity to see another black player, but I knew the history,” said Paris, 66, who was born in Windsor, N.S., believed to be the birthplace of hockey. “I knew about the [Mike] Marsons, the Carnegies, the [Art] Dorringtons, the [Willie] O’Rees. What I didn’t have was a coach to look to. My only question was why. It was explained to me it just didn’t happen. That’s why I decided to make it happen.”
Paris faced cynicism and outright hostility as a black coach, first in midget hockey in Quebec, later in the IHL and Continental League in the southern United States. He had coins thrown at him. One fan spit in Paris’s face. Others hung him in effigy from the rafters of a rink with “a sign that had the N word,” Paris said. There was hate mail, death threats.
“It was worse than a banana being tossed on the ice with Wayne Simmonds,” Paris said of the 2011 incident in London, Ont. “That was an isolated case.”
In Paris’s opinion, today’s black NHLers would be spared most of what he endured because of their stardom. That they’re earning millions of dollars all but guarantees their financial security and allows them to branch out into the hockey world, at the minor hockey levels, too. But Darren Lowe isn’t sure the money works to that end.
In 1984, Lowe became the first black hockey player to represent Canada at a Winter Olympics. He has been the head coach at his alma mater, the University of Toronto, since 1995. For him, coaching was both a job and a way to stay connected to the game. Not everyone will feel the same, he argued.
“I don’t know if today’s players want it,” Lowe said. “Do they retire and try to get away from the game? My coaching is my competition. The sad part is I can’t be playing. But coaching, that’s the closest you get to it.”
Jarome Iginla, the NHL’s first black 50-goal scorer, owns a share of his former junior team, the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers. Like any player, he is living in the here and now, not thinking about the future, although he does acknowledge the past.
“I know, growing up, that it made it easier for me to think it was possible, seeing black players in the NHL,” said Iginla, who has never played for a black coach. “It’s not like I want to be done with hockey [after retiring], and my kids are getting into it. I don’t know for sure, but I definitely wouldn’t rule out trying to be involved.”
From P.K. Subban’s perspective, any change takes time, and he offered his situation as proof. Born to parents who immigrated to Canada from Jamaica and Montserrat, the 23-year-old Montreal Canadiens defenceman is a first-generation Canadian, and “there are not a lot of first-generation Canadian kids who are playing hockey, you know what I mean? If you can get more people involved in the sport, whether it’s more minorities, then you’ll see people get involved in other ways.”
And one day, in the best hockey league on ice, Paris is counting on a black GM or team executive opening a door, the way he did so others could follow his credo: “I always say, ‘I’m a coach by choice, black by nature.’”
With a report from Sean Gordon