SUNRISE, Fla. – Daniel Walcott was looking forward to his first NHL game. He got even more excited when he saw his debut happen.
The Tampa Bay Lightning started three Black Forwards in their regular season finale against the Florida Panthers on Monday night, a rarity in NHL history. Walcott, Mathieu Joseph and Gemel Smith started out together and only knew a few minutes before the game that they would start together.
“First of all, they’re all in the NHL for a reason,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper. “They deserved to be here and they pulled the tails off. To have them all together they had a little chemistry. As you advance in the league, hope it is no longer a story and will be the norm . It was a pretty cool moment for all of these guys. “
Florida won the game 4-0. The teams will meet in the first round of the NHL playoffs, which begin this weekend.
About 3% of NHL players are black, although hockey and its teams have made increased efforts in recent years to increase diversity within the sport through various feeder programs, some of which are league-funded.
The grid was even welcomed by the Panthers. Florida forward Anthony Duclair, who is Black, said he noticed it in the Panthers locker room and moved.
“It’s great to see,” said Duclair. “The way the NHL is developing is great for these guys to see and I’m sure it was a special night for them.”
It’s unclear how many times such a trio of black strikers have been on the ice together in a pro league, but it has happened – at least in the minor leagues.
Earlier this season in the American Hockey League, the Los Angeles ‘Kings’ top partner in Ontario, California donned an all-black line of Akil Thomas, Quinton Byfield and Devante Smith-Pelly. Thomas is one of the best prospects for kings. Byfield, named number 2 on the 2020 draft, was the tallest black player selected in NHL history, and Smith-Pelly was a playoff hero for the Washington Capitals when they won the Stanley Cup in 2018.
Thomas told reporters in March that his father, Khalil Thomas, once played on a team that started five black players – all but the goalkeeper – in the minors.
“Hopefully that will happen one day,” said Akil Thomas.
Smith was in his fifth game of the season and Joseph was in the line-up for all 56 Tampa Bay games in 2020-21.
“It was great, man,” said Joseph. “A step in the right direction. It was fun to make progress and it was great to see and I was glad I was a part of it. … All colored players in this league want to join our families or Present to other people I thank the coaching staff for that. “
Walcott said he hoped young black kids interested in hockey could watch something like Monday night and find hope. He said he learned from Cooper on Sunday night that he was likely to make his debut, but wasn’t told who his linemates would be for the game.
“A whirlwind of emotions that is a long time coming,” said Walcott. “It was great to get on this grid. … Coop has done something very special here to encourage this for young children.”
Stanley Cup Champion Lightning ended the season with three straight losses, two to his opponent in the first round with a combined 9-1 result.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.