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Notable players of color span the history of the National Hockey League (NHL), as well as some of the amateur and semi-pro teams that either preceded the NHL or provided early opportunities in the game of hockey in markets that were not a part of the premier professional league prior to the 1960s.
Willie O’Ree is recognized as the NHL’s first Black player. He will have his number 22 jersey retired by the Boston Bruins on January 18, the 64th anniversary of the date of his NHL debut.
Here in Minnesota, Bobby Marshall, better known for his football excellence (he’s a member of the College Football Hall of Fame from his time with the University of Minnesota), was a member of Minneapolis’ championship hockey team, the Wanderers, more than 100 years ago.
Today, the Minnesota Wild organization is expanding its own efforts to grow the game within communities of color, in partnership with their parent League as well as with Minnesota Hockey, the governing body of youth and amateur hockey in the state.
In late December, in conjunction with the NHL’s annual Winter Classic outdoor game coming to Minneapolis, the league debuted it’s Black Hockey History Mobile Tour, commemorating Black players in the game, past and present. The tour will continue throughout the U.S. this winter and spring.
The Wild will host a special Black History Month Celebration as a part of the home game on Friday, January 14 at Xcel Energy Center in downtown Saint Paul. Among the organizations and initiatives to be highlighted that evening are Minnesota Unbounded grassroots hockey, the DinoMights youth development program, and Hockey Is For Me, a new program created as a part of the NHL’s growing diversity and inclusion programming.
Hockey Is For Me specifically looks to integrate kids of color aged five to nine who may not otherwise get a chance to try hockey. About 100 players were a part of the inaugural program this past summer.
They were outfitted with skates, helmets, and gloves prior to taking the ice to learn skating at the TRIA Rink facility in downtown Saint Paul. From there, about 70 moved on to a more advanced hockey skills program, and 45 ended up joining their local youth hockey organizations this fall, all funded with grants from the NHL’s Industry Growth Fund.
“We’re trying to reach out to kids who have never played the game or never been to a Minnesota Wild game,” Kalli Funk, the Hockey Partnerships coordinator for the Wild, told NHL.com’s Tim Campbell. Funk manages the organization’s youth hockey programs and is the director and lead instructor of the Hockey Is For Me program.
“Our hope is to just get them involved in the sport at the very basic level of learning how to skate first, then transitioning into our Little Wild learn-to-play program, then providing them a scholarship to help them get into the Minnesota hockey association of their choice, one that’s closest to their house. So starting off at the basic level and then gradually working into playing the game on a team,” said Funk.
For the January 14 game, Wild players will wear custom warmup jerseys prior to the game. The jerseys were designed in partnership with leaders from the Twin Cities’ Black community and feature a traditional kente pattern integrated with the Wild logo.
Jerseys will be auctioned after the game, with proceeds benefiting the Minnesota Wild Foundation and the Minnesota Hockey Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programming.
The featured elements at the event will be about more than just hockey. Intermission programming will also include a tribute to the Twin Cities own Sounds of Blackness. Gary D. Hines, music director for the three-time Grammy Award-winning vocal and instrumental ensemble, will be on hand to introduce a video, including performance highlights.
To purchase tickets to attend the game, visit the official Minnesota Wild website at wild.com.