Hiring a Black NHL head coach would be most powerful gesture

Wayne Simmonds

In a time when rights movements have taken center stage, what better opportunity than to examine why the National Hockey League remains the only professional sports circuit without a Black head coach.

True, way back in the last century — 1998, to be exact — the Chicago Blackhawks chose to hire Dirk Graham to be the first African-American bench boss in NHL history.

His tenure lasted all of 59 games and guess what? There hasn’t been another Black head coach in the sport since.

While the league consists of predominantly white players, there are about 30 Black players currently competing on the league’s 31 team rosters.

And there have been a number of Black assistant coaches who would seem to be qualified enough for a promotion to someone calling the shots.

Former Flyer Wayne Simmonds hasn’t come right out and said he would want to coach someday but we can’t think of a better candidate.

When he played in Philadelphia, Simmonds commanded respect simply by the way he played the game and represented himself.

What about a future Hall of Famer like Jarome Iginla? Or several others, including Fred Brathwaite, a former goaltending coach with the New York Islanders?

You can offer gestures such as players standing “in solidarity’’ during the playing of the national anthems and post signs and banners all you want.

But having a team hire a Black head coach, one who would be seen on television each night as a sign of true diversity, would make those other public relations moves pale by comparison.

As writer Randolph Charlotin pointed out in an article posted on the Sportskeeda website, former player and New Jersey Devils assistant coach Mike Grier is the only Black coach working on an NHL bench during    games.

Others, such as Brathwaite, work behind the scenes as goaltending, player development or video coaches.

This lack of diversity comes across as rather stark, since there are a growing number of Black players in the NHL, plus a number of qualified candidates “in the pipeline.’’

The National Football League has its Rooney Rule which states all teams must interview minority candidates for head coaching positions before making final decisions.

There is no such protocol in the NHL, perhaps because there isn’t a compelling number of participants in the sport yet, either as players or aspiring coaches.

That said, if a qualified candidate should come along, the hiring should be done on merit, according to former Calgary assistant coach Paul Jerrard, who is of Black heritage.

In theory, race should not be a factor.

“If there is a guy that can do the job, I don’t think teams would be averse to putting someone of color on the bench,” Jerrard said.

But will it happen any time soon?

It will happen, but patience is the key word. “I think it’s going to take some time,” Jerrard said.

Hiring a Black head coach would be a true sign of affirmative action.

Ultimately, seeing a Black man running the show would make him a role model to young athletes of color who might be trying to make up their minds what sport to play as they enter their formative years.

“I guess that could be a possibility,’’ Jerrard told Donnovan Bennett of SportsNet. “I just want to make sure that I’m a good coach and a good role model and a good citizen. If by doing that I can be a positive role model for those kids, that’s a great byproduct.’’

Maybe if things had turned out differently with Graham and he had led the Blackhawks to some small share of glory, the course of history might have changed.

Instead, we are left to wonder what if? At least until the summer of 2020, when the whole world is changing and the NHL is left to look in the mirror.

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About Wayne Fish 2473 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.

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