Black History Month essay: Jamal Mayers

thumbnail

Editor’s note: As part of the NHL celebrating Black History Month throughout February, NHL.com will present first-person essays by some of the game’s key Black players and executives. Today, Jamal Mayers, who played 15 seasons in the NHL and won the Stanley Cup with Chicago Blackhawks in 2013, discusses the importance of representation and role models across race and gender.

 

Every NHL player can tell you what made them fall in love with hockey.

It’s usually a collection of things — the feeling you get when you’re speeding across the ice, the soundtrack of pucks sliding through traffic, the way you can almost smell the coldness of the rink.  

There’s also the unforgettable feeling of lacing up your skates as a kid, thinking about the most dominant and elite players in hockey, and pretending to be just like them. 

The dominant player I wanted to be like?

Her name is Angela James. 

Before she became an all-time great — a superstar who brought Canada four gold medals in World Championships, a leader with multiple MVPs in women’s professional hockey, and one of four Black players and the only Black woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame — Angela was a part-time babysitter for me and my brother. Her mom, Donna, happened to be my godmother. And since our families lived nearby when I was young, my mom sometimes asked for babysitting help from Angela, who was four years older than my brother and 10 years older than me.

Whenever we could, we’d go to our neighborhood rink – in Toronto’s Flemingdon Park. I’d chase my brother around the track, trying to keep up with him, while he was trying to keep up with Angela. We couldn’t do much more than try. She was the quintessential power forward, with complete ability to skate and shoot and stick-handle, plus a driven and battle-ready attitude.

And she was equally dominant whether playing against girls or guys. 

That’s why it’s crazy to me when I see comments or jokes disrespecting the talent of women like Angela in hockey history. Guys who know hockey know that guys aren’t the only ones who play it well. If we’re being honest, the hockey community hasn’t talked enough about the contributions of women — who have influenced and shaped the NHL by inspiring many of the League’s current, future, and former players. 

This is especially true when it comes to Black women like Angela, who dared to carve a path for her race and gender in a sport that is too often presumed to be white and male. When I think of the role models who made me believe a Black kid could reach the highest levels of hockey, pioneers like Willie O’Ree, Grant Fuhr, and Tony McKegney are definitely on the list. But at the top? For me, it was always Angela. I have no doubt she could’ve competed in the NHL if given the opportunity in her prime. And I know I was trying to follow her example when I wore No. 8 at Western Michigan University, just like she wore No. 8 at Seneca College. 

By competing hard at Western Michigan University, I earned a chance to play in the NHL. There are many coaches, family members, and friends who helped along the way, and who deserve credit for putting me in a position to play for 15 seasons.

Most of the credit, though, I am proud to assign to my mom.  

In some ways, hockey moms are another example of women in the game who don’t get the recognition they deserve. The title hockey mom is definitely regarded as a badge of honor across the hockey community, but when you try to describe all the sacrifices involved — like trading sleeping in on the weekends for early morning practices, taking extra jobs to cover the cost of playing, or carrying loads of heavy equipment through snowstorms — it can be hard to capture how important hockey moms really are. I’ve always found it special to watch players right after they win the Stanley Cup, when they’re reflecting on all those times with their mom (and other family members who made their dream possible), and they start getting emotional when they try to put everything into words.

I was definitely one of those guys in 2013, when I hoisted the Cup as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks.

That moment belongs to my mother as much as it belongs to me. In addition to the unbelievable work ethic she taught me as a single mom determined to make ends meet, my mom always empowered me to feel like a path to the NHL was not only realistic, but attainable. From her vantage point, as a white woman with Black sons, she’d often heard other parents say things about me when they didn’t realize we were related. She knew that some people chose to question my skills and disregard my potential because I didn’t look like their definition of a hockey player. And yet, she always reminded me that I could prove them wrong with every shift, every goal, and every win. That’s what I tried to do from youth hockey to the pros: Write my own story based on what I brought to the game and how I could help my teammates.

Without my mom’s constant support and guidance, there’s no way I would have joined the small group of Black players — just 10 — who have their name inscribed on the Stanley Cup.  

Sometimes, I wonder if any kids who are facing similar odds watched me celebrating with my teammates and thought, “If he reached his dream of winning the Cup, then so can I.” If they did, I know it has much more to do with the importance of representation than with anything I personally accomplished. Seeing yourself represented in a place where some people claim you don’t belong can lift a huge weight off your shoulders — a weight you didn’t even realize was there, until you finally see someone who looks like you. I was lucky to see myself in Angela’s story from a young age and have that example from the beginning of my hockey journey. 

I mentioned earlier that Angela is currently the only Black woman in the Hockey Hall of Fame. I don’t think she’ll be alone for very long. There are more Black women and girls involved in the game than ever before (like Blake Bolden and Sarah Nurse), and each of them is playing a part in rewriting history.

At the same time, it’s incumbent on all of us to take actions that accelerate change and remove obstacles related to race and gender in the game. As much as that means promoting diversity and inclusion in the NHL, it also means supporting women’s hockey at the professional level and recognizing the inherent connection of simply playing good hockey. 

Just think of the way the NHL has trended over the past few decades. Compared to the hyper-physicality of the old days, today’s NHL is more speed and skill based. It shouldn’t be controversial to say that women have been playing that game for way longer than the guys. The entire hockey ecosystem would benefit if we found ways to amplify leaders from the women’s game who have great ideas on how to run a power play, who can dial-in on the nuance and the detail of the game from their experience, and whose tactical approach would lend itself to the NHL.

So when we’re talking about what it means to play hockey, we need to include the experiences of women. Just like we need to include the experiences of Black players. And we need to be extra careful to include the experiences of people who identify as both. Any barriers or stereotypes that left these groups overlooked in the past are up to us to shatter. 

We can’t forget the reason why: It’s because there are boys and girls all over the world who are just starting to fall in love with the game. As they’re speeding across the ice, hearing pucks slide around, and getting used to that cold smell in the rink, they’ll be looking for heroes and role models they can pretend to be when they lace up their skates. 

Let’s make sure they have a lot of options, across every race and gender – to inspire them to keep going in the sport we all love.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top
Bitnami