SUNRISE — Three good friends found out about five minutes before puck drop that they would start the Lightning’s regular-season finale against the Florida Panthers.
Moments later, they made history.
With forward Ondrej Palat unable to play, Daniel Walcott was promoted from the taxi squad to make his NHL debut. It’s typical to give players making their debut the start, and coach Jon Cooper thought pairing Walcott with buddies Gemel Smith and Mathieu Joseph (the three played together at AHL Syracuse last year) would provide some quick chemistry to start the game.
But there was greater meaning to the three beginning the game together. They became what is believed to be the first all-Black forward line to start an NHL game.
The league’s data broken down by race only goes back to the 2009-10 season, but it marked the first time during that span that a forward line comprised entirely of Black players started an NHL game.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Joseph said. “You’ve got to thank the coaching staff; it was their call. But it was definitely fun to have some progress, and clearly there is a process over this. ... My goal, I think Wally’s goal and Smitty’s goal and any players of color in this league, obviously we want to showcase our sport to our families or other people of color.
“I don’t know if it was the first time, but I think it was great to see and I’m glad I was part of it.”
Forward Givani Smith and defensemen Trevor Daley and Madison Bowey started for the Red Wings against the Blues On Oct. 27, 2019, according to NHL Stats. Four Black players — forwards Evander Kane and Anthony Stewart and defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Johnny Oduya — started for the Atlanta Thrashers against the Toronto Maple Leafs On Feb. 7, 2011.
On Martin Luther King Day in 2002, a record seven Black players appeared in a game between the Edmonton Oilers and St. Louis Blues.
In a March 21 AHL game, Ontario Reign forwards Quinton Byfield, Akil Thomas and Devante Smith-Pelly formed the first all-Black line in professional hockey since the 1940s, when the “Black Aces” Herb Carnegie, Ozzie Carnegie & and Manny McIntyre skated in pro leagues together.
But there’s no record of a starting forward line comprised entirely of Black players until Monday’s game.
Among North America’s major pro sports leagues, the NHL is the least diverse. According to a FiveThirtyEight.com report from October, less than five percent of the league’s players are Black or people of color. There’s only been one Black coach in NHL history, and there’s never been a Black general manager. Lightning assistants Nigel Kirwan and Frantz Jean are believed to be the only Black assistant coaches to win a Stanley Cup.
“You know, as we move forward here as a league, you hope that this isn’t the story,” Cooper said. “And maybe it’s a story today, but as the league gets more diverse, you hope it’s not going to be a story anymore and it’s just going to be kind of the norm that it’s a league for everybody.”
Both Joseph and Wolcott looked up to Jarome Iginla growing up and drew inspiration from him being one of the league’s top players in a sport that then had even fewer Black players.
“It’s awesome to promote this for the young kids out there, young minority (kids),” said Walcott, who spent six seasons with Syracuse. “I know growing up, seeing Jarome Iginla wear the ‘C’ for Calgary was an inspiration. I always looked up to him and tried to be a great leader on and off the ice. I just hope that I have that same effect on people. Same with Joe and Smitty. It was a great moment, for sure.
“‘Coop,’ I think he did something really special.”
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