Black coaches make hockey history in ECHL game

Hockey history was made Wednesday when coaches Jason Payne and Joel Martin faced off against each other in an ECHL game in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

It’s the first time in the history of the ECHL and believed to be the first time in North American men’s pro hockey that two Black coaches opposed each other.

Payne’s Cincinnati Cyclones defeated Martin’s Kalamazoo Wings, 2-1, in the matinee at the Wings Events Center before thousands of local school students on “Education Day.”

“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.”

Each coach said they hope that this historic meeting serves as inspiration to people of color who want to become pro hockey coaches.

“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.”

Martin, who was named Kalamazoo coach on Aug. 15, is in his first season leading the Columbus Blue Jackets’ ECHL affiliate, as coach and director of hockey operations. The 40-year-old, who was born in Fort Worth, Texas and is an ECHL Hall of Fame goalie, had been the Wings assistant and goaltending coach for the past three seasons.

He was promoted to replace coach Nick Bootland, who was hired as an assistant for the Hershey Bears, the Washington Capitals American Hockey League affiliate.

Born in Toronto, the 47-year-old Payne is in his third season as coach and director of hockey operations for Cincinnati, the Buffalo Sabers AHL farm team, after succeeding Matt Thomas, who was hired by Providence, the Boston Bruins AHL team.

Payne was a Cyclones assistant from 2018-21 following a 14-year minor league career as a forward and defenseman.

ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin said Wednesday’s coaching matchup reflects the evolving face of hockey.

“There’s a movement across the board in terms of hockey is for everyone and we’re becoming more diverse, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s progressing in the right direction” Crelin said. “These are two phenomenal guys who have been around our league for a long, long time and worked their way up to head coach. To see that is pretty cool.”

Payne and Martin are each members of the NHL Coaches’ Association’s BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) program, an initiative that aims to support coaches in several areas, including skills development, leadership strategies, communication tactics, and networking. Martin also participated in the Boston Bruins Diversity and Inclusion Scouting Mentorship Program last season.

“Jason and Joel are paving the way for Black coaches at all levels of the sport,” NHLCA president Lindsay Artkin said. “It’s incredibly exciting to see. They’ve both been members of the NHLCA BIPOC Coaches Program since day one. The main objective of our program is to develop a pipeline of diverse coaching talent who are ready to make the move to the NHL level, and these guys are there. I’ve got no doubt we’ll see them behind the bench in the NHL soon.”

Payne and Martin are among seven Black coaches in North American men’s pro hockey history. Dirk Graham became the NHL’s first Black coach when he led the Chicago Blackhawks for 59 games in 1998-99.

John Paris Jr. became the first Black coach to win a professional championship when Atlanta of the old International Hockey League won the Turner Cup in 1994.

The others 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) ).

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