Let me take you back to 1997, the first time I truly comprehended the game of hockey in the NHL.
The Detroit Red Wings had one of the most dominating runs in history to capture a Stanley Cup beating the St. Louis Blues, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and Colorado Avalanche, culminating in a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers. I remember wondering if the Leafs would ever be able to attain that glory (and 23 years later, nothing has changed), but it was the first time I truly began to watch.
The next season, like every Leafs fan, I walked in with the hope of a playoff appearance. Unfortunately, the first two games did nothing for that sense of hope. Their first game against the Washington Capitals was a 4-1 loss, while their second was a 3-0 shutout to the New York Islanders. Safe to say Felix Potvin wasn’t getting enough goal support.
Then came the third game of the season. The Leafs continued with their early-season road trip making a stop in Calgary to take on the Flames. It ended up being the team’s first win of the season by a score of 2-1, and as great as that was, there was something else that made it even better: Jarome Iginla.
I saw #12 hop on the ice for Calgary, and I thought there was a colour issue with our TV. When I was told there wasn’t a problem, my jaw dropped. A Black man was playing professional hockey against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Iginla was everything to me when it came to the game. The Leafs lit the spark while Iggy turned those flames from red hot to a scorching blue.
He didn’t play as much as he would later in his career, but I paid attention to every second of his 14:28. When he got a shot on net, I cheered. When he got sent to the box, I booed. And when the Flames wound up losing that game, I was upset for Iginla.
That was a new feeling for me and one that I would never forget. Iginla allowed me to see myself in hockey, he gave me another reason to care, and he made me believe that I could do it too.
Good right? You would think so, yet, there is an issue. The issue was in the limitedness of the variance.
Iginla was the only player of colour on the Calgary Flames. I tried to find those who looked like me throughout the league and couldn't, even on the Leafs.
There were a handful of names such as Andrè Deveaux, Robbie Earl, Jamal Mayers, and Mark Fraser, but the majority of names who donned a Leaf sweater throughout my life were white.
After Fraser was traded to the Edmonton Oilers, the Leafs were scarce as far as representation goes. Then 2020 came. A year where the Leafs did something that I hadn’t seen them do in years: they brought on a Black player. And not just any Black player, Wayne Simmonds.
Iginla and Simmonds are similar in that they’re not only defined by their toughness. They’re remembered for their skill, leadership and those special moments where the team needed something, anything to tide them over to the next challenge.
This is still a relatively new construct in the NHL. We’re used to seeing the white captain lead their team to victory or be a contributing force on a long and draining journey. The idea of the “skilled” black player was foreign, to all, including me. That’s what made Iginla being the player he was so special. That’s what made Simmonds’ 30 goal seasons so significant. That’s what made Joel Ward and Devante Smith-Pelly’s runs in the playoffs so impactful. They changed the story.
Iginla was everything then, and Wayne Simmonds is everything now.
The NHL wants to grow and spread out to connect to various communities in the world. It’s one thing to say kind and supportive words, it’s another thing to turn those words into action, but it’s a special thing to have representative people there to share these messages.
Jarome Iginla inspired young Black kids around the world. Wayne Simmonds on the Leafs is inspiring young black kids in the world. K’Andre Miller is taking the league by storm in New York City as a member of the Rangers. And let’s not forget Quinton Byfield, who was the highest drafted Black player into the NHL. Ever.
These players are paving the way for new and better definitions and significance of the Black hockey player. The Black player can be the leader. The Black person can be the hero.
February is the month where we remember and acknowledge the struggles, hardships, and accomplishments of Black people. It’s a month where we ask ourselves if enough has been done in support of them and what more can be done.
It starts with representation, which can easily be the spark and flame of any young child as, to quote Emmanual Acho, you can’t be something unless you see something.