The Tampa Bay Lightning continue to blaze new trails and lead the NHL in inclusion as the team set another milestone this past week that got very few accolades.
On Monday night in the Lightning’s 4-0 shoutout loss to the Florida Panthers, the Lightning started the game with Matthieu Joseph, Gemel Smith, and Daniel Walcott as forwards. When you look at these names, they don’t mean anything unless you know them personally or are a Lightning fan.
But they would make history by becoming the first black players in NHL history to start a game as an all-black forward line.
None of the players knew that they would be starting together until just minutes before the opening face-off. However, Lightning coach Jon Cooper shrugged off that this was just some kind of symbolism and said all three are in the NHL because they have earned it.
“First of all, they’re all in the NHL for a reason. They deserve to be here and have worked their tails off. Second, to have them all together, they had a little chemistry. Moving forward in the league, you hope it isn’t a story anymore and will be the norm. It was a pretty cool moment for all those guys.”
Panthers forward Anthony Duclair, a black forward for the Florida Panthers, noticed it during pre-game and was equally moved. “That’s great to see. The way that the NHL is moving forward, it’s great to see for those guys, and I’m sure it was a special night for them.”
The Lightning players were happy to be part of history but hope it becomes the norm rather than the exception.
“It was great, man,” Joseph said. “A step in the right direction. It was fun to have some progress, and it was great to see, and I was glad I was part of it. I thank the coaching staff for doing this. I think it’s a step in the right direction, and obviously, you got to thank the coaching staff for that. It was their call.”
This was Walcott’s first NHL game and was it emotional for him to play in his first NHL game. “A whirlwind of emotion, a long time coming. To get into that starting lineup was great. Coop did something really special here to promote this for young kids.”
Joseph, Smith, and Walcott are trying to make their mark in a league that is 97 percent white.
It’s hard to believe in the 103-year history of the NHL that this had never happened before. Yet, this is what Willie O’ree had been a trailblazer for all these years. O’ree was the first black player in the NHL with the Boston Bruins. He made his debut during the 1957-58 season and played briefly during the 1960-61 season.
O’ree played in 45 games in his NHL career scoring four goals and dishing out ten assists.
There have been some outstanding black hockey players through the years. Grant Fuhr was the first black goaltender in the league. Jarome Iginla and Anson Carter were two of the most prolific black scorers in the NHL.
But there had not been three black players starting a game together on a forward line until Monday night.
The Lightning has employed two black coaches on their staff for years, one of the first teams to have diversity on their coaching staff. Nigel Kerwin is the video coordinator who joined the Lightning in 1992-93, their inaugural season.
Frantz Jean is the goaltending coach and has been a member of the Lightning staff since 2010.
This was a great moment for hockey and a great moment for the Lightning organization.
Now, about winning that second consecutive Stanley Cup.