SUNRISE, Fla – Daniel Walcott was already excited to make his debut in the NHL. He got even more excited when he got to see how his debut was going to go.
The Tampa Bay Lightning started three black forwards in their regular season finale against the Florida Panthers on Monday night, a rarity in NHL history – if not an absolute first. Walcott, Mathieu Joseph and Gemel Smith were out together for the opening face-off and had no idea they would start together until a few minutes before game time.
âFirst of all, they’re all in the NHL for a reason,â Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. âThey deserve to be here and have worked their tails. To have them all together, they had a little chemistry. As you move up in the league, you hope it’s not a story anymore and it will be the norm. It was a pretty cool time for all of these guys.
Florida won the game 4-0. The teams will meet in the first round of the NHL playoffs starting this weekend.
About 3% of NHL players are black, although hockey and its teams have redoubled their efforts in recent years to add diversity to the sport through various succession programs, some of which are funded by the league.
The starting lineup was even applauded by the Panthers. Florida forward Anthony Duclair, who is black, said he noticed him in the Panthers’ pre-game locker room and was moved.
âIt’s great to see,â said Duclair. âThe way the NHL is moving forward is great for these guys to see, and I’m sure it was a special night for them.
It’s unclear how many times such a trio of black forwards have been on the ice together in a professional league before, but it has happened – at least in the minor leagues.
Earlier this season in the American Hockey League, the Los Angeles Kings’ top branch in Ontario, Calif., Dressed an all-black line of Akil Thomas, Quinton Byfield and Devante Smith-Pelly. Thomas is one of the Kings’ top prospects, Byfield, as the second pick in the 2020 Draft, was the best black player selected in NHL history and Smith-Pelly was a playoff hero for the Washington Capitals when they won the Stanley Cup in 2018..
Thomas told reporters in March that his father, Khalil Thomas, had previously played for a team that had started five black players – everyone except the goalkeeper – in the minors.
âI hope that one of these days we will see that happen,â said Akil Thomas.
Smith was in his fifth game of the season and Joseph was in the lineup for all 56 Tampa Bay games in 2020-21.
âThat was awesome, man,â Joseph said. âA step in the right direction. It was fun to progress and it was great to see and I was happy to be a part of it. … All the players of color in this league want to introduce themselves to our families or to other people of color I thank the coaching staff for doing this.
Walcott said he hopes young black kids interested in hockey watch something like Monday night and find hope. He said he got word from Cooper on Sunday night that he was likely to make his debut, but was not told who his teammates would be for the game.
âA whirlwind of emotions, a long time to come,â said Walcott. âBeing part of that starting lineup was great. … Coop has done something really special here to promote this to young children.
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