The NHL’s next step for di­ver­sity

St. Thomas Times-Journal - - SPORTS - STEPHEN WHYNO

Shan­dor Alphonso never en­vi­sioned his hockey ca­reer tak­ing him to of­fi­ci­at­ing. He didn’t have to look far to see it was pos­si­ble.

As a young, black player, all Alphonso had to do was watch Hockey Night in Canada or the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal and he saw fel­low mi­nor­ity Jay Shar­rers work­ing as a li­nes­man.

“To be able to see some­one who kind of looked like me work­ing at the big­gest stage of his job, it was un­real,” Alphonso said.

The 34-year-old Alphonso is the NHL’s only black of­fi­cial, and Cal­gary Flames as­sis­tant Paul Jer­rard is the league’s only black coach. With the sport’s ex­pan­sion to some non­tra­di­tional mar­kets across the United States, there are al­most two dozen black play­ers in the NHL, but Shar­rers, Alphonso and Jer­rard serve as in­spi­ra­tion for more to fol­low into po­si­tions of au­thor­ity.

“I think it’s an evo­lu­tion­ary process,” said Shar­rers, who re­cently re­tired. “It’s def­i­nitely moved slowly, but I think when you just look at the amount of black play­ers that are now in the league and the fact that that has in­creased, it would stand to rea­son that hope­fully the op­por­tu­nity for of­fi­cials would present it­self.”

Sixty years af­ter Wil­lie O’Ree of the Bos­ton Bru­ins broke the colour bar­rier as the NHL’s first black player, the league is still tak­ing steps to in­crease its di­ver­sity. Alphonso is an am­bas­sador for the “Hockey is for Ev­ery­one” cam­paign this month, which is Black His­tory Month.

Shar­rers ac­knowl­edged the ex­pense of play­ing hockey has been a hur­dle for mi­nor­ity chil­dren for years, but said he is op­ti­mistic that more will not only lace up their skates but move into other roles.

“It just stands to rea­son that that would be a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion, that there would more of­fi­cials of colour,” Shar­rers said. “The league has been very proac­tive since they part­nered with Wil­lie and cre­ated the di­ver­sity task­force al­most 20 years ago to ex­pose and to present to peo­ple of colour that hockey is a great game and it’s a vi­able op­por­tu­nity.”

Op­por­tu­ni­ties have ex­isted for mi­nori­ties to get into coach­ing and of­fi­ci­at­ing, though the ma­jor­ity have ended up as goal­tend­ing coaches like for­mer NHL goalie Fred Brath­waite. Jer­rard played five games in the NHL and then went into coach­ing, where he’s a vis­i­ble role model — even if that’s not a role he was look­ing for.

“I’m just an­other coach who’s try­ing to do a good job in the league and stay in the league,” said Jer­rard, 52, who has been an as­sis­tant with the Colorado Avalanche, Dal­las Stars and Flames along with sev­eral Amer­i­can Hockey League teams. “I guess I am now in a lit­tle bit of a po­si­tion of a role model, but my drive to be a role model isn’t due to the colour of my skin. It’s just the way I wanted carry my­self as a hu­man be­ing, the way I want to be looked at: Do­ing the right thing and work­ing hard.”

Jer­rard hopes kids see­ing mi­nori­ties on the ice play­ing or of­fi­ci­at­ing or be­hind the bench coach­ing shows that “if they ’re skilled, driven and pas­sion­ate, there’s an op­por­tu­nity for them.”

That’s what hap­pened for Alphonso, who knew he wasn’t go­ing to make it to the NHL as a player and wanted to stay in the game. He thought to him­self, “If Jay Shar­rers can do it, I could do it” and fol­lowed him up the ranks.

Now Alphonso is the one kids can look up to, and Shar­rers — who be­came the NHL’s first black ref­eree in 2001 — be­lieves his younger coun­ter­part can have an even big­ger im­pact.

“Be­ing that his skin is a lot darker than mine and I’m very light­skinned, it wouldn’t reg­is­ter nec­es­sar­ily with some­one un­less they knew my back­ground to know that I was a per­son of colour,” Shar­rers said. “I think for him hav­ing both par­ents be­ing black and be­ing much more of a vis­i­ble mi­nor­ity, if you will, I think that’s def­i­nitely a role that he will now as­sume.”

Alphonso wel­comes that po­si­tion and would love to one day meet a fel­low of­fi­cial he in­spired to go that route.

“It’s huge for younger kids to see there are way more things to hockey than just be­ing a hockey player,” Alphonso said. “That’s hope­fully what we can in­spire these kids to do and get them more in­volved with the game down the road.”

JULIO CORTEZ/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cal­gary Flames’ as­sis­tant coach Paul Jer­rard, left, fist-bumps left winger Ryan Lomberg af­ter a win against the New Jer­sey Devils on Feb. 8. The NHL has al­most two dozen black play­ers but just one black of­fi­cial in li­nes­man Shan­dor Alphonso and one black coach in Jer­rard.

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