2 Black Head Coaches Face Off Against Each Other for First Time in Professional Hockey History

The presence of Black players in professional hockey is rare and even rarer may be the presence of Black coaches. Well, history was made this week when two Black coaches actually faced each other in a hockey matchup.

According to NHL.com, on Wednesday, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, two Black coaches, Jason Payne and Joel Martin made history when their teams took to the ice. They became the first two Black coaches to face each other on opposite benches during a professional hockey game. This is believed to be the first time this has happened in North American men’s pro hockey.

The history-making feat took place at an ECHL (formally the East Coast Hockey League) game between Payne’s Cincinnati Cyclones and Martin’s Kalamazoo Wings. The Cyclones took home the victory 2-1 in a matinee at the Wings Events Center. The game fell on “Education Day” where thousands of local students were able to witness the accomplishment.

“It’s humbling to be a part of history,” Martin said. “I think it’s super cool to be able to do it with somebody that’s been a friend of mine now for a while after coaching with him in the league there, Jason Payne. So that makes it a little extra special.”

The chance to be a part of history while showing children that Blacks can not only play hockey but can also coach can give some of the kids’ inspiration to look at hockey now.

“It’s been a long time coming and it’s great for hockey in general and the world, in general, to be able to see two coaches of color coaching against each other, making the jump, making these historical steps,” Payne said. “Joel and I, we’ve worked hard to get where we are and to make this step and impact in hockey.

“The kids get to see players of color and say, ‘I can be that player.’ Now they get to see two guys as the term goes, ‘bench bosses,’ and they can say, ‘Oh, there’s another position I can possibly get to one day if I work hard enough at it.’ That’s what’s most fulfilling for all of us.”

Both men are members of the NHL Coaches’ Association’s BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) program. This is an initiative that is trying to support coaches in various areas throughout the league. They include skills development, leadership strategies, communication tactics, and networking.

There have only been seven Black coaches in North American men’s pro hockey history. The first one was Dirk Graham when he had the reins of the Chicago Blackhawks for 59 games in 1998-99.

The remaining three are Shawn Wheeler (Charlotte, ECHL, 1998-2000), Graeme Townshend (Macon, Central Hockey League, 1999-2001, Greensboro, ECHL, 2001-02), and Leo Thomas (Macon, Southern Professional Hockey League, 2018-19).