By Scott Blair
After Mike Grier was named by the San Jose Sharks as the first black general manager [GM] in NHL history in July 2022, two mothers from California put together an all-black hockey team. The team participated in an under-18 [U-18] AAA hockey tournament this past June in Minneapolis, MN. AAA is the highest level of U-18 hockey you can play before moving on to the major junior or college level.
Rochelle Popyon and April Scott wanted to bring an all-black hockey team to compete at a high-level summer hockey tournament.
“The more we are seen in the sport, the more comfortable we will be within the space,” Popyon said.
Summer hockey tournaments are often made up of all-star teams from all over the US and Canada. The Minneapolis tournament provides some of the best competition you can find. Popyon and Scott’s mission was and is to engage youth hockey and advance the sport in the black community.
However, it wasn’t a simple task. Putting an all-black team together consisting of 17 players—16 skaters and a goalie wasn’t easy—considering the sport is predominantly played by White children. They were able to make up a team from seven different states, including Minnesota, the state of hockey. In June, the Panthers came together to compete at the Minnesota Showcase Hockey Summer Showdown at Richfield Ice Arena.
“It’s like you’re planning a wedding— all the logistics to it,” Popyon said of the task.
Jayer Luedke, one of the Panthers’ players, said, “It’s honestly been a long time coming. I never thought I’d have the experience to [play hockey] because there aren’t that many black hockey players in the world and I’m just thankful and grateful I’m able to have this opportunity.” Luedke said, “Showing that more Black kids can play hockey and that it’s not just a white person’s sport, that anybody blue, green, indigo can play the sport.” He hopes the Panthers will inspire a whole generation of kids to consider playing hockey.
Black Hockey History
Most people aren’t aware that there was a hockey league with all black players in the Maritimes from 1895-1925. It was founded in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and had 12 teams. It’s said that the “slap shot” was invented out of this league.
On January 18, 1958, Willie O’Ree became the first black player to play in the NHL. After his playing career, O’Ree went on to become a prominent ambassador for black hockey players, both at the professional and amateur levels. He is the driving force behind the “hockey is for everyone” movement and has inspired players like Tony McKegny, Grant Fuhr, Mike Grier, Kevin Weeks, P.K. Subban and more to reach their dreams of playing in the National Hockey League [NHL]. On Jan 31, 2022, the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act was signed into law “in recognition of his contributions to hockey, inclusion and recreational opportunity.”
In 1974, Mike Marson became the first black player to be drafted into the NHL [O’Ree signed as a free agent]. On Nov. 1, 1981, Val James became the first American-born black player to play in the NHL when he suited up for the Buffalo Sabres. On May 19, 1984, goaltender Grant Fuhr became the first black player to hoist the Stanley Cup when the Edmonton OiIers beat the New York Islanders in the final series. On Feb. 24, 2002, former Dallas Stars power forward Jerome Iginla became the first black hockey player to win a gold medal when Canada beat the US in Salt Lake City, UT.
When the Panthers hit the ice for their first game of the tournament, Popyon said, “My eyes started to well because it was very emotional.’ She said, “I was very proud of the effort of the parents and the coaches and everyone with the team to make this happen.”
The Panthers coach and Minnesota native Anthony Walsh said, “To have a team like this come through here is no better way to say, ‘We’ve arrived. We’re here. Hockey is literally for everyone.’ This proves it.” Walsh also said, “bringing an all black hockey team to Minnesota is particularly meaningful in the ‘State Of Hockey,’ where the racial reckoning caused by the murder of George Floyd, has led to an effort to make hockey more diverse and inclusive.” He went on to say, “The images of Black people that you see on TV are not always that pleasant. What is more pleasant, especially in Minnesota than the sight of a bunch of kids on the ice having fun. And guess what? They happen to be black.”
The Panthers finished the tournament 1-2-1, but that’s not the point. The point is that two hockey moms had a vision, saw it through, and proved that hockey “is” for everyone.