“I was, like, ‘Yeah, I’m from Cuba,'” Girod said.
The 26-year-old former defenseman, who was born in Havana, raised in Grenoble, France, and played semi-pro in Sweden, didn’t let negativity derail his dream of pursuing a hockey coaching career.
Girod, an assistant coach/video for SC Bern in Switzerland’s top professional league, is participating in the effort by the NHL Coaches’ Association to increase diversity, equity and inclusion within coaching ranks around the world.
He was one of five coaches in Europe recently selected to participate in the second year of the NHLCA’s BIPOC Coaches and Female Coaches Development Programs.
The international effort is a collaboration with Hockey is Diversity, a nonprofit organization based in Berlin, Germany, with the goal of growing the sport globally.
The two NHLCA programs specifically support Black, indigenous and coaches of color and female coaches in several areas, including skills development, leadership strategies, communication tactics, networking and career advancement opportunities.
“I really hope it will, first, help me learn from some of the best hockey minds on the planet and then just to connect with people,” Girod said. “About 70 percent of where you are is about your knowledge and what you bring, and the rest is connections.”
Current and former NHL coaches, and coaches from the American Hockey League, will provide coaching tips and mentorship to program participants, NHLCA president Lindsay Artkin said.
The international coaches joining Girod in the programs are Kathrin Fring of Eisbaren Juniors Berlin in Germany’s Women’s Bundesliga; Miriam Thimm of Dusseldorfer EG in the Women’s Bundesliga; Murat Pak of the Bad Nauheim Under-9 team in Germany; and Emanuel Beckford of Germany’s Aachener Grizzlies.
“Through these two programs, we aim to support these coaches as they advance through their coaching careers so that ultimately we see more representations from these groups at the professional level of hockey,” Artkin said.
Martin Hyun, CEO and founder of Hockey is Diversity, said: “We need to invest in the development of BIPOC and female coaches to become successful in our sport. Kids need to see people who look like them to know that their dreams are achievable.”
Girod began coaching after he played for Grenoble and Lyon in France and for Norrtalje IK in Sweden from 2009-17. He said he was destined to be involved in the sport because his father, Olivier Girod, and uncle, Wilfried Girod, were players and members of France’s junior national teams.
Girod’s father met Mayte Sanchez Ortiz while vacationing in Cuba. The couple moved to France when Leo was 1. He quickly found himself in a pair of skates, and was playing organized hockey at 9.
“Being Cuban, normally you expect someone playing baseball or track and field,” Girod said. “My mom sometimes went to practices and games and didn’t understand so much, but she was always supportive.”
Hockey became Girod’s obsession. He would watch live NHL games at 3 a.m. in France. He would be Al Montoya whenever he played NHL video games because the goalie, now retired, was the first Cuban-American player when he debuted with the Phoenix Coyotes during the 2008-09 season.
Montoya went 67-49-24 in 168 NHL games (136 starts) with the Coyotes, New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers before retiring after the 2017-18 season.
Girod idolized Tampa Bay Lightning forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, a Black player with the French national team, who played professionally in Sweden before making the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2014-15 season.
“We had a project in middle school, people asked what we want to be, what we want to do later,” he said. “I had a picture of Pierre-Edouard … I just cut [out] his face and I put my face into the picture.”
Girod said he discovered the challenges players of color face early in his hockey career. He said he endured racist taunts and slurs from opposing players, fans, and even from some teammates.
“I would hear crazy stuff, kids making donkey and monkey sounds,” he said. “Some moments I felt I didn’t belong in this club, by that I mean the hockey community. But I had so much fun playing, and my dad was always backing me.”
Girod said he also drew inspiration and strength from watching NHL players of color on TV.
“When I was practicing outside, I would think I was (New Jersey Devils defenseman) P.K. Subban,” he said. “I would be watching (former NHL goalie) Kevin Weekes. I would be watching (former NHL forward) Anson Carter.”
Giord said seeing each of those players achieve success on and off the ice made him want to achieve it too. Now he wants to be a difference-maker in hockey as a coach and role model.
“Hockey changed my life,” he said. “Without it, I don’t think I would be speaking [English], I don’t think I would be speaking the little words of Swiss-German I speak. I really want to push ice hockey all over the planet because I think it’s the greatest sport on Earth.”