This column continues the Only One series in which this reporter shares his experiences as one of the only African American journalists on the scene.
A Black person who watches hockey sometimes feels like a space invader in an all-White puck universe. In five games over three days – three of them finished in overtime, including a 1-0 thriller – it was hard to find a person who looks like the Only One.
But MSR photographer Onika Craven spotted from the press box three stories above the ice Alan Zahui cheering his North Dakota school team to a third-place finish in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul last Saturday. She tracked down Zahui, a UND junior, asked him for an interview and brought him to the hockey press box.
“I’m glad we’re winning,” Zahui said during an intermission. He has been a hockey fan since he was in grade school. “I really got into hockey in the third grade.” He later played high school hockey: “It was me and another Black kid,” he recalled.
But still Zahui gets the occasional “You like hockey?” query. He didn’t say if he also gets the same stares I occasionally get since I began following the puck in my grade school years. “Some people are surprised by my knowledge of hockey,” he admitted.
Zahui this year became the White Shadow in reverse — remember the 1970s show where a White coach took over a mostly-Black urban high school basketball team? Zahui took over coaching a high school junior varsity hockey team in Grand Forks — all his players were White.
His high school coach called him to see if he was interested in coaching. “I’ll give it a shot,” he responded. “I enjoyed it. A couple more losses than we thought we would [suffer], but all in all it was good.”
And of course, he had to show that he indeed knew how to coach hockey – “I had to prove I was knowledgeable about the game.” Of course my skeptical self believes that some of that was because his skin color was different from the typical hockey coach.
Before he went back to his seat to finish watching the game with friends, we asked how many people he had seen who look like him. “You and [Craven] – that’s it,” Zahui reported.
At last weekend’s Women’s Frozen Four, we spotted at least three Blacks in the stands, which was three more than we’d seen a weekend earlier at the WCHA Final Faceoff at Ridder Arena. This doesn’t include Ohio State AD Gene Smith, who sat just below me in the converted media section. He and I watched his Buckeyes lose in overtime 1-0 to eventual champion Clarkson.
Smith duly noted that he usually watches hockey both as a fan and as head of one of Division I’s largest college athletic programs in the country. “I just like the games,” he said as he chuckled about seeing others who look like us.
Whether it’s in downtown Minneapolis or downtown Saint Paul, the NCHC post-season tournament is annually rare in diversity. The league moved the March event to the Minnesota Wild’s home after four seasons in the Minnesota Lynx-Timberwolves arena.
“One of the things we like to do is ingratiate ourselves into the community,” NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton told the MSR prior to last Saturday’s Denver-St. Cloud State championship game. “I think St. Paul as a community is a better opportunity to do that. We would like to expose the NCHC brand to those in and around the community.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.