TAMPA — A 525-foot rig carries a legacy of black hockey players that dates to 1815.
It carries memorabilia from the legends who broke the color barrier, and the stars who stood on their shoulders. It carries photos and videos of the blacks who have held the Stanley Cup and the players who strive to match that achievement.
It also carries a part of the pride that resonates within the Lightning’s Nigel Kirwan and Frantz Jean, both men of color.
Kirwan, the team’s video coach, and Jean, the goaltending coach, see a bit of their own legacy in the NHL’s American Legacy Black Hockey History Tour truck, which will be onsite at Amalie Arena on Saturday four hours prior to the Lightning’s 7 p.m. game against Montreal.
Kirwan, who has worked with the team since its inception, grew up in Winnipeg with hockey serving as his first love. As a Montreal native, hockey was woven into Jean’s very existence. The former juniors players (Jean also played collegiately in Canada) have added to the hopes and aspirations fostered by the game’s black pioneers and parlayed them into successful NHL careers.
On Friday, after Pierce Middle School students who are part of the organization’s Guide the Thunder program walked through the exhibit, Kirwan and Jean looked on at the exhibit’s collection of history makers with admiration, and a bit of amazement.
“I learned a little bit,” said Kirwan, whose parents moved from Jamaica to Winnipeg when he was a toddler.
Kirwan learned that a Colored Hockey League of Maritimes featured multiple teams and existed from the turn of the century until the 1920s. He learned they descended from the families of former slaves who escaped to freedom in Nova Scotia.
Frantz, who knew of the league because he played collegiately and spends offseason time in nearby New Brunswick. But he was a bit surprised by the number of players in the game today. He never imagined the number is nearly 30.
The son of a Haitian father and white mother, he also appreciated the impact of seeing all the noteworthy achievements together, including the great players he grew up watching.
“These are guys who had legitimate careers,” Frantz said. “These are not just guys who came up for a cup of coffee.”
He also got a charge out of seeing a photo of Bill Riley, the third black player in NHL history and the now-retired general manager who hired him for Moncton Wildcats, a team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Riley now spends time in Florida and Jean hosted him on Thursday night.
The exhibit also highlights Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first player, and Herb Carnegie, who would have been the league’s first but became embroiled in a contract dispute. It includes photos of the five black players who have donned Lightning jerseys, including rookie Mathieu Joseph, and underscores contributions made by black managers, coaches, broadcasters, referees and women players. They’ve touched all parts of the game.
“This is the first year we did a total hockey experience,” said Rodney Reynolds, publisher of the American Legacy magazine that has used their truck to showcase different aspects of African-American history for the last 11 years and partnered with the league for a six-city tour of this exhibit.
“What’s good about the NHL is that they had some great assets that we could put together," Reynolds added. "The reaction of people has been amazing.”
But as much as the exhibit reflects the past and present, its greatest influence may be on the future.
“I think it’s good for young black kids who may not think the league is accessible to them,” Kirwan said. “They’re able to see all the achievements of people who have laid the way for kids of color and minorities. It’s proof of the example that’s been set.
“There’s a story to be told.”
The game may be played on ice, but that doesn’t diminish the warmth generated by hockey’s expanding and inclusive melting pot of athletes.
That’s all I’m saying.