DeMatha Catholic High School freshman Trevor Jackson has been playing ice hockey since he was 9, and during a few occasions since, he realized he could be blazing a trail.
“I am a black kid playing with a whole bunch of white guys,” said Jackson, who was clearly joking during an interview last week before turning serious. “But for real, race has never been an issue for me. Some of my friends make fun of me, but it is not serious. They joke about it and say, ‘Why aren't you playing basketball?' But the funny thing is, I do play basketball. I'm a point guard.”
Of the four major professional sports in the United States, hockey is by far the least diverse. Since Willie O'Ree of the Boston Bruins became the first black player in the National Hockey League in 1958, 38 black players have retired from professional hockey's highest level, according to NHL.com. This season, just 20 full-time NHL players in a league of approximately 700 are black.
In Maryland, hockey is not an officially sanctioned varsity sport in the public high school ranks. In predominantly black Prince George's County, there are just two club co-op teams (Bowie and Eleanor Roosevelt). The Bowie Hockey Club is in its 41st year of existence and provides a variety of instruction from beginner to competitive travel teams for boys and girls ages 4 to 18.
Hockey is a niche sport, with only 45,934 high school players nationwide during the 2010-11 academic year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Eleven-man football, in comparison, had 1,108,441 participants.
“The school draws from a variety of backgrounds and I think we benefit since we are the only true hockey program in the county,” said DeMatha prep team coach Tony MacAuley. “It is no secret hockey has a very specific audience and it costs a lot of time and money to play. … We just want to mold kids into good hockey players and fine young men regardless of ethnic background.”
At DeMatha, a private school that houses the county's only officially sanctioned varsity program, Jackson, sophomore defenseman Matt Morton and Andrew Donelson are the only black players on a combined roster of 41.
“It was different at first, but it is a non issue,” said Morton, who has a goal and four assists this winter. “You do know you are representing your race, but that has never been a factor for me. We joke around about playing hockey, but it really is a unique opportunity. Hopefully more black kids try to play hockey because it is really a fun time.”
Jackson, a forward who has accounted for 11 goals and 11 assists this season as one of the more experienced players on the DeMatha's Varsity 2 team, began playing hockey in elementary school for the Bowie Bruins.
“I went to an ice skating birthday party and my mom thought I should give hockey a try,” said Jackson, who opted to attend DeMatha instead of Bowie in order to play on a full-fledged high school hockey team. “I didn't like it at first because I had no idea how to skate and none of my friends played. As I learned and watched [Montreal Canadians player] P.K. Subban, it got easier and I just fell in love with it.”
Conversely, Morton, a Clinton resident, and Donelson, of Springdale, are relative novices to the sport.
“In eighth grade, I realized I was too small to be successful in football during high school so I switched sports,” said the 5-foot-9, 140 pound Morton, who learned the game with the College Park-based Wells Warriors and idolizes Washington Capitals' forward Joel Ward. “I was looking for something similar [to football] and hockey has a lot of contact so I learned how to skate.”
DeMatha Varsity 2 coach Greg Ghent has high praise for the trio.
“Trevor has a hockey background and has been able to come in as a freshman and take control of this team,” Ghent said. “Matt and Andrew just wanted to play the game and he learned it on their own over the past two or three years. … They all have worked so hard and it has really shown as the season has gone on. Their understanding of the game and positioning on the ice has made an unbelievable difference.”
Added MacAuley: “It doesn't matter if they are white, black, green or orange. We just want to be proud of them.”