Color of Hockey: Payne debuts, only Black mens pro coach in N. America

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William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past nine years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today, he profiles Jason Payne, the only Black coach in North American men’s professional hockey.

Jason Payne made his debut as the only Black coach in North American professional men’s hockey Saturday with a place in history in the back of his mind and getting a win in the front.

Payne secured each when Cincinnati of the ECHL defeated Indianapolis 3-2 at Indiana Farmers Coliseum.

“Definitely an emotional evening,” Payne said. “I thought the boys played really hard for each other, but it really means a lot to me that they worked as hard as they did. It’s great to come out with a victory, especially my first now. I’m pretty happy with that.”

Payne was promoted from assistant to coach in August after Cincinnati coach Matt Thomas was hired by Providence, the Boston Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate.

“I’m happy, it’s definitely an honor,” Payne said. “I put some time in this game at the playing and at the coaching level constantly learning, constantly developing, proving to people that I deserve to be where I am today.”

The 46-year-old from Toronto, who had been an assistant since 2018, hopes the job will lead him to the NHL, where there hasn’t been a Black coach since Dirk Graham became the first and led the Chicago Blackhawks for 59 games in 1998-99.

Payne joins a small but growing fraternity of Black coaches who have guided professional teams.

Mark Joslin became the first Black coach in the Premier Hockey League, formerly the National Women’s Hockey League, when Toronto hired him in June.

Leo Thomas, a long-time friend of Payne’s and the uncle of Los Angeles Kings forward prospect Akil Thomas, coached Macon of the Southern Professional Hockey League from May 2018 to November 2019.

Graeme Townshend, who was the first NHL player born in Jamaica, coached Macon of the Central Hockey League in 1999-2000.

John Paris Jr. became the first Black coach to lead a professional team to a championship when Atlanta of the International Hockey League won the Turner Cup in 1994.

Cincinnati general manager Kristin Ropp said elevating Payne was an easy decision because he was the best person for the job.

“To be clear, that man earned the position as head coach because of the years he put in at different levels,” Ropp said. “On the hockey ops side, on the coaching side, you have to live hockey, breathe it, eat it, just be obsessed with it to be successful to get to that next level and, I always joke around, drop a letter and get to the three-letter leagues. Jason has that passion.”

Payne’s passion carried him through a 14-year pro career in six different leagues and 25 teams from 1995 to 2009. The former forward said he thinks his career path and role as a physical player more than a scorer will serve him well in guiding Cincinnati, which is affiliated with the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester of the American Hockey League.

“I was never drafted, I was always a free agent,” he said. “I never had the luxury of having a long-term contract or knowing where I’m going to play the following winter. These are things I can share with the players and relate on how I coped with it, dealt with it and help them through it and guide them through it.”

Payne said he has benefited from participating in the NHL Coaches’ Association’s BIPOC program aimed specifically to support Black and Indigenous coaches and other coaches of color in several areas including skills development, leadership strategies, communication tactics and networking.

“It’s given us the platform to communicate with each other, get more out there, relationship-build, get more aware to the NHL community, the coaching community,” he said. 
“It’s helped a lot of people and it’s going to continue to build and we’re hoping that the whole fraternity itself continues to grow.”

NHLCA president Lindsay Artkin said Payne impressed when he spoke at the 2021 NHLCA Global Coaches Clinic in June, which was attended virtually by more than 1,000 coaches.

“We wanted to find a way for Jason to share his expertise with the global community,” Artkin said. “The feedback on Jason’s session was fantastic. We’re excited to see what’s ahead for him this season and the years ahead.”

Leo Thomas said he doesn’t doubt what lies ahead in his friend’s future.

“It’s good to see ‘Payner’ or any Black coach moving up at a high, high level and being in charge,” Thomas said. “He’s not going to stop working until he gets there — we will see him in the NHL one day.”

Photos: Cincinnati Cyclones, Wheeling Nailers

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