(Main photo credit: Toni L. Sandys, The Washington Post)
Eric Stephens covers the Anaheim Ducks for the Orange County Register. By most accounts, he’s the only black hockey beat writer covering an NHL team. Ironically, his first game on the beat was in Chicago back in 2005, a time when not many people, black or white, came out to see the Blackhawks.
When he was back in Chicago for the Western Conference Finals, he noticed to evolution of black hockey fandom when he went into a barbershop.
“I do get the quizzical look when I mention that I cover hockey to a Black individual that asks what I do but that wasn't the case this time,” said Stephens. “The barber, who I'd say maybe was in his 30s, immediately started talking about Patrick Kane and Corey Crawford and Jonathan Toews and how the Blackhawks would win in five games. I disagreed, told him I had them winning in seven for my newspaper and then he cracked how he wouldn't see me back in Chicago for Game 6.”
Ever since Chicago resident Bill Dodds appeared on television on Monday night to tell the world how he felt about the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup for the third time in six years, black hockey fandom has been a main talking point amongst media members.
Yahoo Sports and the Chicago Tribune wrote stories on the recent trend. According to Scarborough, a national media research company, black hockey fans have the highest growth rate among NHL fans at 1.4 times the overall rate. In Chicago, those fans who identify themselves as very or somewhat interested in the Hawks increased from 12.6 percent in 2011 to 21.9 percent in 2014.
When Dodds said,“You know how awesome the ‘Hawks are? This is going to sound messed up, but it’s true. They’ve got black people loving hockey,” he hit on something many people may not have realized. Black hockey fans are a thing. Even ESPN commentator Bomani Jones quipped, “Black people love hockey but will hockey love them back?”
However, some folks believe that Dodds’ comments were the exception, not the rule.
Earlier this year, ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd said “By the way, African-American men do not watch hockey.” SI writer Richard Deitsch thought that Cowherd was throwing shade at the few of us that do. However, Cowherd was basically right.
I got wind of it and tweeted this photo of me at a rink with a friend.
The numbers on hockey watching by black people nationally hover around 3%. However, little did Dodds, or most people know, black hockey fandom isn’t exclusive to recent events. Some brothers not only are long-time fans of the game, they play the game, and surprisingly, some of them cover the game.
South Side Chicago native and huge Blackhawks fan, Jason Wilson, an Army veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, has been playing hockey since he was 14 years old. Wilson, 33, plays hockey with a non-profit group called “Hockey Saves,” a group that organizes games for military servicemen.
“I was a big Chris Chelios and Tony Amonte fan,” said Wilson. “Most people in my neighborhood didn't know of any black players nor did anyone that I knew play hockey either. For years I was told black people don't play hockey. I immediately wanted to debunk the myth.”
Even though not too many black people play in the NHL, that didn’t stop Chicago native Jay Moore from learning the game. Moore, 34, says he was inspired to play when he saw the Mighty Ducks movie as a kid.
“I started playing roller hockey on a tennis court with a group of kids around that time the movie came out, this was in '91 or '92,” Moore said. “I always wanted to play ice hockey, but never really pressured my parents into signing me up for a league when I was younger…The people I played with, who mostly were my friends would make jokes about me being black and playing hockey. I always remember an older guy that would come to play with us occasionally, we were talking and I said something like I want to or I will make the NHL, he smirked and said, ‘There's no black people in the NHL, you can't make the NHL.’ This upset me, but it did not stop me from playing and enjoying hockey more than any other sport.”
Sidney Brown, an executive producer for a Chicago sports radio show, says his first hockey experience took place in 1992.
“It all started for me when I saw the Blackhawks lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the old Chicago Stadium (on tv) in 1992 and then I started watching the sport a little bit more each year,” Brown said.
Brown, who claims to own over 15 Blackhawks jerseys, eventually attended a game in 1999.
“I was a senior in high school and the Blackhawks were playing the New York Rangers and hall of famer Wayne Gretzky was making his final go around,” he said. “And it was great to see a legend on United Center ice live in person.”
Suburban Chicago high school football coach Dana Robinson’s initial hockey experience dates back to the 1970’s. He says a former neighbor, who later became his godfather, owned some hockey equipment. Also, he worked at the Chicago Stadium as an usher.
“I worked every Hawks game there was for two seasons,” Robinson said. “Second balcony, mezzanine, 100 level, you name it. Got to meet some players too! And I’ve never been ridiculed or made fun of by my black friends about being a hockey fan. As a matter of fact, they're all fans now because of me.”
New York Rangers fan Tacuma Roeback, grew up in Brooklyn, NY. He wasn’t much of a fan growing until he played the EA Sports “NHL '94” video game during his freshman year at Florida A&M University.
“It opened up a new world for me,” said Roeback. “I learned that the NHL was more than just Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. I followed the sport casually for years, but the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs hooked me completely. The tenseness of the games and the sheer unpredictability of it all captivated me. Eighth-seeded teams had as good a chance of winning the Cup as the top-seeded ones.”
It appears that many black hockey fans found the game in ways that most people wouldn’t believe they could. Despite the fact the game is still considered a white man’s sport, that didn’t deter them.
Stephens also loved what Dodds said to the WGN reporter. He believes that hockey fandom has come a long way since he’s covered the game.
“I laughed when I saw the fan saying the Blackhawks ‘…got black people lovin' hockey,’” said Stephens. “I do get a warm feeling inside when I see minorities as I walk into the Honda Center or other arenas to cover games. Hockey is a great sport to watch, particularly live. And the sports’ fans are often the most passionate.”