Hockey history was made Wednesday when coaches Jason Payne and Joel Martin squared off in an ECHL game in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
It is the first time in ECHL history, and probably the first time in North American men’s professional hockey, that two black coaches have faced each other.
Payne’s Cincinnati Cyclones defeated Martin’s Kalamazoo Wings 2-1 in the matinee at the Wings Events Center in front of thousands of local 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 someone who’s been a friend of mine for a while now after training with him there in the league, Jason Payne. That makes it very special.”
Each coach said they hoped this historic gathering would serve as an inspiration for blacks who aspire to become professional hockey coaches.
“It’s been a long time coming and it’s great for hockey in general and the world in general to see two coaches of color compete against each other taking the leap and making these historic moves,” Payne said. “Joel and I have worked hard to get to where we are now and to make this step and impact in hockey.
“The kids see players of color and say, ‘I can be that player.’ Now they see two guys, as the term goes, “bank bosses,” and they can say, “Oh, there’s another position that I might be able to achieve one day if I work hard enough at it.” That fills us all at most.”
Martin, who was named Kalamazoo coach on Aug. 15, is in his first season leading the Columbus Blue Jackets’ ECHL affiliate as coach and head of hockey. The 40-year-old, who was born in Fort Worth, Texas and is an ECHL Hall of Fame goaltender, has been a 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.
Toronto-born 47-year-old Payne is in his third season as coach and manager of hockey operations for Cincinnati, the Buffalo Sabers’ AHL farm team after succeeding Matt Thomas, of Providence, the Boston’s AHL farm team Bruins, was hired.
Payne was Cyclones’ assistant from 2018-21 after spending 14 years as a minor league forward and defender.
ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin said Wednesday’s coaching match reflected the evolution of hockey.
“There’s a general movement around hockey that’s for everyone and we’re becoming more diverse, unfortunately that doesn’t happen overnight but it’s going in the right direction,” Crelin said. “These are two phenomenal guys who have been in our league for a very, very long time and have worked their way up to head coaching. That’s pretty cool to see.”
Payne and Martin are both members of the NHL Coaches’ Association’s Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) program, an initiative aimed at supporting coaches in a variety of areas including skill 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,” said NHLCA President Lindsay Artkin. “It’s incredibly exciting to see. They have both been members of the NHLCA BIPOC Coaches Program since day one. The primary goal of our program is to build a pipeline of diverse coaching talent ready to make the step into the NHL. and these guys are there. I have no doubt that we will see her behind the bench in the NHL soon.”
Payne and Martin are among the seven black coaches in the history of North American men’s professional hockey. Dirk Graham became the NHL’s first black coach when he managed 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 1994 Turner Cup.
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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