The color of hockey: Two Black hockey coaches meet in a historic first

 Paul Jerrard
Paul Jerrard Photo by Mark Kuhlmann, Omaha Athletics

Second of a three-part column

Colorado College (CC) plays the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) this weekend in Omaha. The Friday-Saturday NCHC regular season series has no more significance to most fans, media and others than two clubs meeting for the first time this season, but a closer look will show it is much more than that.

Leon Hayward, in his second year as CC assistant coach, will face UNO’s Paul Jerrard, who is in his first season as assistant coach. Both men are former college and pro players.  Both men are Black.

More than likely the historic, first-ever, regular-season meeting this weekend between two NCHC schools with Black coaches standing behind their respective benches will get scant notice by the mainstream media. Both Hayward and Jerrard in separate phone interviews also tried to downplay it, but they also recognize the significance.

“From a coaching perspective, there weren’t a ton of [Black] coaches,” Hayward recalled. Colorado College hired him in 2017 from Bloomington of the United States Hockey League. The Seattle, Wash. native got his business degree and a master’s degree in leadership from Northeastern, where he had played for four seasons (1998-2002). He’s previously coached hockey as an assistant at a Connecticut prep school for three years and spent three years at a Massachusetts prep school prior to that.

Leon Hayward Courtesy of Colorado College Athletics

His coaching experience includes recruiting and coaching two future NHL draft picks, five players that played for Team USA, and three others that will participate in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program next season.

Jerrard, hired by UNO in May, has been an assistant coach in the NHL, AHL and college hockey for over 20 years. “I started at coaching 21 years ago [in 1997] at my alma mater, Lake Superior State,” he said. After playing at Lake Superior State (1983-87), Jerrard was a ninth-round draft pick by the New York Rangers in 1983 and played pro hockey from 1987 to 1997, including a stint with the old Minnesota North Stars.

The Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada native stressed, “I’m just another player or another coach trying to play hard and work hard and do the right thing. When I started out playing at a high level, there weren’t a whole lot of players [of color].”

After college, Hayward spent six pro seasons, including four in the American Hockey League, and was the 2005 finals MVP of the East Coast Hockey League’s Kelly Cup. “I [once] played against Paul Jerrard” in the minors, Hayward said of his NCHC coaching counterpart.

Both men now are coaching while Black in a historically White sport.

“I think at the end of the day, [when] you get to this level it really doesn’t matter what you look like or your background is — you got to win and be a coach that helps develop players at this level,” Hayward explained.

“I was lucky to coach at the prep school level for nine years, which was great,” he continued. “That really sparked my love for coaching.”

Despite his five seasons of NHL coaching with three different clubs, Jerrard is a college coaching novice, so to speak. “My job here is to help [UNO players] perform and excel at a high level,” he said.

Though both men long for the day when it isn’t so, being Black and in hockey still is “a bit of a novelty,” Hayward said. Nevertheless, “Going into year two [at CC] has been awesome, a lot of fun and hard work.”

Related stories:

Part 1: The current state of diversity in a traditionally ‘White’ sport

Part 3The color of hockey: Diversity on the rise in women’s pro hockey