Color of Hockey: Coleman rose from diversity program to NHL pioneer


William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past nine years. Douglas joined in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles Gerald Coleman, the first NHL diversity program participant and first United States-born Black goalie to play in the NHL.

Gerald Coleman still remembers the shock he felt when then-Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella looked down the bench toward him and said, “Kid, you’re going in next.”

It was Nov. 11, 2005 and the Lightning were down 4-2 at the Atlanta Thrashers near the end of the second period when Tortorella decided to put his 20-year-old rookie goalie in for the third period.

“I’m sitting next to (Lightning forward) Martin St. Louis and he goes, ‘You got this.'” Coleman said. “I’m, like, ‘Here we go.'”

Tampa Bay lost that game 5-2, but Coleman entered the history books as the first participant of an NHL diversity program and the first United States-born Black goalie to play in the League.

But the Romeoville, Illinois, native wasn’t worried about history at that moment. He was more concerned about Thrashers left wing Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored a goal in the first period and scored a natural hat trick in the second against Lightning starting goalie John Grahame.

“Kovalchuk is playing out of his mind at the time,” Coleman said. “I get on the ice to start the third period and I remember the first shot I get is from (Thrashers right wing) Peter Bondra, a one-timer in the slot, and I made a glove save. He said to me ‘Nice save’ kind of thing. And I’m like, ‘This isn’t a dream anymore. It’s a reality.”

The only goal Coleman surrendered in his 20-minute NHL debut was a shorthanded breakaway goal by Marian Hossa.

“He made me look pretty silly, but he’s a guy that’s going into the Hall of Fame, so I was scored on by a good player,” Coleman said.

Coleman’s NHL career was brief. His only other appearance was 23:16 for the Lightning in a 6-5 overtime loss at the Florida Panthers on March 20, 2006, again replacing Grahame in goal. But his hockey story and journey are noteworthy nonetheless.

Raised in a family that struggled to make ends meet, Coleman didn’t start skating until he was 8 and didn’t play organized hockey until he was 11.

He played on a AA travel team as a teenager and practiced with players from P.U.C.K. — Positive Upliftment of Chicago Kids — which was part of NHL Diversity, a forerunner of today’s Hockey Is For Everyone Initiative.

Hockey Is For Everyone is a network of 26 independent non-profit youth hockey organizations in more than 40 locations across the United States and Canada that use the sport to improve the lives and communities of underrepresented, underserved and marginalized populations.

Coleman said playing with P.U.C.K. provided a respite from the racist abuse he endured in AA hockey from opposing players, parents and fans who taunted him for being a 6-foot-5 Black kid playing in a predominantly white sport.

“I was called so many different names because I was a lot better than the other kids,” he said, “and the parents hated the fact that here’s a kid from where I’m from, that had nothing, that’s better than kids who’ve been playing for 10 years and paying money for all these camps. Once I practiced with the (NHL) diversity kids, I felt like I was back at home, back to normal. It was fun, and that’s what kept me going, seeing that they had as much love for the game as I did.”

Coleman’s play earned him an invitation to the second Willie O’Ree All-Star Game at Chicago’s United Center in 1997, along with other NHL Diversity players from across the country.

Coleman went on to play for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program from 2000-02 and later joined London of the Ontario Hockey League, which selected him in the second round (No. 27) of the OHL Priority Selection draft in 2001. 

He helped London win the OHL championship and the Memorial Cup in 2004-05 and led the OHL in goals-against average (1.70), save percentage (.941) and shutouts (eight).

London coach Dale Hunter said Coleman was a key contributor to a club fans voted as the Canadian Hockey League team of the century in 2008.

That team featured future NHL players Corey Perry, Dan Girardi, Marc Methot, Brandon Prust and David Bolland.

“At an early age, Gerald had a great combination of size and athleticism,” said Hunter, who played 1,407 NHL games for the Quebec Nordiques, Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche. “He had the ability to make a big save when needed and was determined in the big moments to win hockey games.” 

The Lightning selected Coleman in the seventh round (No. 224) of the 2003 NHL Draft, which drew cheers from NHL Diversity’s founders. 

“I was blown away, I went, ‘Oh my God, that’s Gerald Coleman from Chicago,'” said Bryant McBride, a former NHL executive who founded the League diversity task force in 1994. “It was amazing.”

Coleman said injuries stymied his NHL quest. Tampa Bay traded him to the Anaheim Ducks on Feb. 24, 2007. He saw action in preseason games with Anaheim, but he never appeared in another NHL game.

He settled into a successful minor league career playing for American Hockey League and ECHL teams. He played on Kelly Cup championship teams with Alaska in 2011 and 2014.

Chronic hip problems forced Coleman to retire in 2014. His time on the trainer’s table inspired his choice of a post-hockey career — physical therapist.

The 35-year-old is studying at Northern Michigan University in hopes of returning to hockey someday as a physical therapist or trainer.

“It allows me to say in the sports world,” he said. “That’s my biggest thing, I want to stay in hockey as much as I can in any form that I can.”

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