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BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: Game Changers

Monday, March 1st
BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: Game Changers

BIRD’S-EYE VIEW:  Game Changers

Blog #31 – March 1, 2021

By: John Peterson

Hockey unites us.

We come from different backgrounds, different life experiences and different views of the world. But one thing we all have in common is our love for the game of hockey.

Having said that, the sport has plenty of room for growth and improvement. For too long, hockey has lagged behind other major sports in celebrating diversity and championing inclusivity.

Throughout Black History Month, we’ve celebrated some of the players and coaches who have been an integral part of the Kalamazoo Wings’ 46-year history. Many of these individuals broke barriers, experienced racism first-hand, and continue to make a difference through their leadership to this day.

Today, Bernie Saunders (1981-82) is a caregiver and author. Paul Jerrard (1988-94) is a college coach. Dajon Mingo (2016-17) is a youth hockey director, Kyle Thomas (2018-19) is a new father, and Joel Martin (2004-06, 2008-09, 2012-18) is the K-Wings assistant coach.

All of these men have impacted the game of hockey in this city and beyond.

It’s an honor to share their stories.

‘WE THOUGHT WE WERE WILLIE O’REE’

The Boston Bruins are retiring Willie O’Ree’s number-22 jersey when it is safe for fans to return to NHL games in 2022. The Bruins originally planned to honor O’Ree this season on the 63rd anniversary of the day when O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier, January 18, 1958, when he debuted for Boston against the Montreal Canadiens. Due to the delayed start to the 2020-21 season, the Bruins pushed the ceremony back to February, but ultimately decided to postpone it to January 18, 2022, when fans could attend.

Growing up in Montreal and the outskirts of Toronto in the 1970s, brothers John and Bernie Saunders had never heard of O’Ree. There was no internet in those days.

“John and I thought we were the only Black hockey players on the planet,” said Bernie Saunders. “For most of my formative years as a hockey player, wherever I played, nobody had seen a Black hockey player or heard of a Black hockey player. Eventually we heard whispers that there might have been a Black hockey player who played for the Boston Bruins back in the 50s. The Saunders brothers thought we were Willie O’Ree for the longest time.”

Twenty two years after O’Ree paved the way, Bernie Saunders became just the fifth Black player to pull on an NHL jersey and play at the highest level when he suited up for the Quebec Nordiques against the Chicago Blackhawks on March 19, 1980.

Saunders remembers his NHL debut like it was yesterday, racing down the right wing at the old Chicago Stadium and firing a wrist shot into the glove of Blackhawks goaltender Tony Esposito. He compared his first NHL game to a first kiss or first date—something he’ll always remember.

The euphoria of reaching the pinnacle of professional hockey, however, was marred by the reality that racism in the sport existed beyond the minor leagues.

“I naively felt that when I made it to the NHL, it would be mecca and everything would be pristine and perfect,” said Saunders. “I was disappointed to find that I experienced the same type of racial abuse that I did in the minors. Call it naiveté, but I thought when I made it to the NHL it would stop. If anything it might have accelerated.”

Before turning pro, Saunders followed his late brother John to Kalamazoo to continue their promising hockey careers together at Western Michigan University. John Saunders had just transferred to WMU from the University of Michigan. Highly sought after coming out of juniors, Bernie Saunders received interest from over 15 schools and was leaning toward playing for the Wolverines or St. Lawrence University.

“I literally called [WMU Head Coach] Bill Neal to tell him I was not coming to Kalamazoo,” said Saunders. “On the phone I changed my mind because I wanted to play with my brother. So I came to Kalamazoo to play at Western Michigan.”

During Bernie’s freshman year in 1975-76, John Saunders had to redshirt, appearing in only two games for the Broncos before leaving school at Christmas time. The older brother transferred to Ryerson University where he carved out a path in sports broadcasting and went on to an illustrious career at ESPN and ABC Sports, before passing away in 2016 at the age of 61.

Bernie looks back on his brief time as his brother’s college teammate with a smile.

“So my brother flunks out and goes back to Canada and basically leaves me to play at Western, so I always kidded him: ‘You went on to fame and fortune and left me in Kalamazoo.’”

Bernie Saunders finished his four-year college career as Western Michigan’s all-time leading scorer and briefly stayed in town, appearing in three games for the IHL’s Kalamazoo Wings at the end of the 1978-79 season.

‘TRYING TO FIT IN’

Growing up near Winnipeg, Manitoba in the 1970s, Paul Jerrard fell in love with the game of hockey at an early age. He excelled at every level of youth hockey, despite challenges as one of the only Black players in his hometown.

“Back in those days it was trying to fit in,” said Jerrard. “I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood playing a predominantly white sport, and there weren’t many people who looked like me around.”

Jerrard credits his mom for preparing him for some of the racial comments he might hear at a young hockey player.“My mom taught me to stand up, be proud and be strong,” said Jerrard. “One of the most valuable things she taught me is how you carry yourself as an individual, not the color of your skin. I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind.”

The summer before Jerrard moved to Sault Ste. Marie to begin his freshman season at Lake Superior State University, the New York Rangers selected him in the ninth round of the 1983 NHL Draft.

Jerrard shined at LSSU, scoring 40 goals and 113 points in 156 games for the Lakers before turning pro. After one season with the IHL’s Colorado Rangers, New York’s minor league affiliate, the big club traded his rights to the Minnesota North Stars in 1988.

The North Stars affiliated with the K-Wings at the time, and Jerrard racked up 40 points and 195 penalty minutes in 68 games during the 1988-89 season, his first of six in Kalamazoo.

PAVING THE WAY

In many regards, Saunders and Jerrard helped pave the way for Black hockey players and coaches of the modern era.

Jerrard finished an 11-year playing career with a Calder Cup Championship in 1997 as a member of the Hershey Bears and immediately went into coaching. What started as a return to his alma mater to coach the Lakers turned into a 23-year coaching journey—and counting. The 55-year old made stops with Lowell, Hershey, Iowa, Texas and Utica in the AHL, as well as Colorado, Dallas and Calgary in the NHL.

He’s currently enjoying success as the assistant coach in his third season at the University of Nebraska-Omaha in the NCHC conference. Jerrard also sits on a group within the NHL Coaches Association and BIPOC committee which meets regularly.

“For me, it’s a bit of an honor to have a platform and to have gone before some of these guys,” said Jerrard. “We talk about a lot of things, like how to advance in the game and how to get ahead. I just try to be a good example and maybe a beacon of light for those guys to say anything is possible.”

One of the coaches on the committee is K-Wings assistant coach Joel Martin. The former goaltender is one of just two Black coaches in the ECHL and is preparing for his third season on Head Coach Nick Bootland’s staff.

“It’s definitely an honor to be in a leadership role in this organization and to be one of the few Black coaches in professional hockey,” said Martin. “It’s an honor to try to help pave the way and follow the guys who have gone before me, and now try to pave the way for guys after me.”

One of those examples is Jerrard, someone who Martin first met as a player in Utica’s AHL training camp when Jerrard was an assistant coach with the Comets. The two met again down the road in Orlando at the PHPA’s annual meetings, where Jerrard was a guest speaker.

“It’s been great to grow my relationship with Paul as a coach, especially the way we both started [in Kalamazoo] as players,” said Martin.

When Jerrard looks back on how reached some of his goals as a player and a coach, he emphasizes all the hard work he put in to get there.

“I didn’t really have a timeline of when I’d get there or even how I’d get there, but when I look back now at some of the things I’ve done, some of the things I’ve learned, some of the people that I’ve been around, it just helped me along the way,” said Jerrard. “I put in a lot of hard work and it was rewarded, but I hope it was rewarded because I was a good coach and not because of the color of my skin.”

Another former K-Wings player who is making an impact teaching the game to youth hockey players is Dajon Mingo. The Canton, MI native appeared in 67 games for Kalamazoo in 2016-17 and was set to begin his first veteran season in 2020-21 with the ECHL’s Norfolk Admirals. When the Admirals opted-out due to the pandemic, he signed with the Cincinnati Cyclones right before they too chose to sit out the current campaign.

Instead of job hunting or returning to the Jacksonville Icemen, where he spent the past three seasons, Mingo is running the youth hockey program in Jacksonville until the 2021-22 season gets underway. He spends his days on the ice teaching the kids the importance of skating and footwork, giving private lessons and coaching.

Mingo first learned to skate while figure skating with his sisters in Canton at five years old, but switched to hockey skates and never looked back.

“Figure skates are flat and they have that toe pick, so it was actually pretty tough switching, but I picked it up very quickly,” said Mingo. “I stopped skating at seven and jumped right into hockey because I didn’t want to figure skate anymore. But I didn’t know how to shoot, so that’s something that I really had to work on—my shooting ability.”

One of the players Mingo idolized growing up was Calgary Flames star Jarome Iginla, who retired in 2017 after a 21-year NHL career. In 2020, Iginla became the fourth Black player to be selected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining O’Ree, Angela James and Grant Fuhr.

“We didn’t have a lot of African-American guys in the league,” said Mingo. “But he was good. Jarome could fight, he could score, he could assist, everything. So that’s why I liked him and that’s why my favorite number is 12. Growing up watching him made me want to play. Jarome was a righty. I’m a righty. Jerome was a right wing. I was a right wing growing up.”

Two years after his season in Kalamazoo, Mingo was selected as the Icemen’s representative at the 2019 ECHL All-Star Classic in Toledo. The defenseman also appeared in three AHL games with the Manitoba Moose.

‘ON AN ISLAND’

Inspired by his late brother John, Bernie Saunders decided to put pen to paper and write a book about his life and career. The other reason he originally decided to publish the book was he couldn’t believe O’Ree was not yet in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“Two things happened,” said Saunders. “One, I tried to peddle the book and I got warm interest, but not a lot of interest. Then Willie O’Ree got into the Hall of Fame, so that felt good. It felt therapeutic to write my story. About a year later [one of the publishing companies] came back to me and said ‘Bernie, you have to tell this story’.”

Reluctant at first, Saunders admitted that seeing things happen on almost an annual basis to Black hockey players led him to continue. One such incident he mentions specifically was the one involving New York Rangers’ then-prospect K’Andre Miller, who during a Zoom call with reporters, was the victim of hackers who joined the call and spouted racial epithets.

“I thought to myself: ‘Maybe you should write this story. You’re kind of complicit in your silence’,” said Saunders.

One of the things he describes in the book, which is set for release later in 2021, is the racism he faced throughout his career on the ice, in the stands and even sometimes in his own locker room.

“It was kind of the trifecta,” said Saunders. “There’s always stuff in the stands. The abuse I took in the stands was almost unfathomable. Almost every road game there were things that would happen, and you try to say it doesn’t affect you, but it was a very difficult time.”

“Then there were sometimes you could tell there was a locker room bounty on my head because the whole team would come after me. Hockey is a tough enough game as it is, but taking on that was a challenge as well. I talk about it in the book, but there were a few unfortunate instances in my own locker room. I knew I had to deal with all the other stuff, you know, the fans and the opponents and what not. But the thing that hurt me the most and made things the most difficult is when I felt like I was on an island in my own locker room.”

In telling his story, Saunders is cognizant of the fact that the internet can be a cruel place when you speak out. He tries to avoid reading the comment section of articles as much as possible.

“It’s sad, because when you speak out, the blogosphere says, ‘there goes another Black guy blaming his lost career on prejudice’,” said Saunders. “I try not to do that. I realize it’s really hard to get to tug on an NHL jersey. I’m not going to sit here and say it was my blackness that kept me from the NHL, but I am here to tell you that it became more difficult for me because I had all these outside influences that wore me down after a while.”

Jerrard mentioned that some of the issues and incidents that still persist today are things he too experienced.

“Some of the things that players are talking about today, such as the racial comments or the micro-aggressions that they get, well I received those my whole life,” said Jerrard.

As a 23-year-old in his second season in Kalamazoo, Martin won 36 games in backstopping the K-Wings to the 2005-06 Colonial Cup Championship, a team captained by Bootland. During the finals that year against Danbury, Martin shared a story of the abuse he faced from some of the Danbury fans. A group of fans made T-shirts with his face on it that said ‘Have you seen Al-Qaeda?’ Some of the fans even chanted ‘terrorist’ toward Martin as he’d skate to the K-Wings bench during timeouts.

“I remember their owner ended up banning those shirts and came and personally apologized to me,” said Martin. “I think the world has come a long way in the 10-15 years since then and as long as we continue to trend in the right direction and are trying to make sure everybody feels included, then I think that’s a good thing.”

Forward Kyle Thomas, who was signed by the AHL’s Utica Comets during the 2018-19 season and compiled 38 points in 41 games for Kalamazoo agrees that these incidents were more common earlier in his career than they are now.

“Hockey is obviously very close-knit, but growing up you go through a lot more than you do now,” said Thomas. “There’s more of an open discussion, which I think is going a long way. I think it’s going to make a lot of kids, whether it’s their racial background or their cultural background feel more comfortable playing any sport, not just hockey. I think it’s great that it’s being talked about now.”

‘REMINISCENT TEAR TO YOUR EYE’

A commonality among the players and coaches we talked to for our Black History Month celebration was the fond memories of spending part of their careers in Kalamazoo.

“When you take a look at a hockey city, you can tell if it’s a real good hockey city by the number of players who are still hanging around that played there,” said Jerrard.

It had been several years since he last visited Kalamazoo, but Jerrard passed through on his way back to Omaha from a recruiting trip in Detroit and he felt the need to stop by Wings Event Center for old time’s sake.

“Going back after so many years away, I can’t believe how much the city has grown since the last time I was there,” said Jerrard. “It was really neat to take a look at the old stadium. I know structurally it hasn’t changed a whole lot, but it was really great looking at some of the old pictures up on the wall and it brought back some really great memories.”

After appearing in 10 NHL games for Quebec over two seasons, Saunders made the decision to come back to Kalamazoo to finish his career rather face an uncertain future in the AHL at the start of the 1981-82 season.

“Kalamazoo means so much to me and the Wings to me are one of the best franchises in hockey, not just the IHL or whatever league they’re playing in,” said Saunders. “When I was sitting over on the other side of town goings to Western Michigan University, I was a Wings fan. Any day I could get off, I’d migrate over to Wings Stadium to watch them play. I saw them win their Turner Cups, and if anything, I always wanted to wear the Wings uniform. That was a thrill for me ending my career with the Wings.”

Since retiring from a 15-year playing career, including nine of those years in Kalamazoo, Martin now calls the city home year round. The K-Wings’ all-time wins leader credits the community as a big reason his family stayed.

“It’s a diverse community and people are always looking out for each other in Kalamazoo,” said Martin. “Within the organization it starts at the top with our ownership that does so many great things for this community. It’s the people here that make it special.”

Mingo and Thomas each only spent a year in the winged-K sweater, but both players felt the experience in Kalamazoo left a positive impact on their careers.

As a native Michigander, Mingo said the best part was getting to see his family often.

“My family came to a lot of games in Kalamazoo. I got to see my family from Grand Rapids, which isn’t that far from there. Then my family from Canton and Detroit all came down, which was about two hours away,” said Mingo. “The fans in Kalamazoo are passionate. I liked the Halloween games because of Orange Ice. For those special games, the fans came in and packed the house.”

Late that season, Mingo struggled to get consistent playing time on a team that had a combination of veteran players and NHL and AHL affiliated prospects. He was released by the K-Wings, but believes it helped him become a better player.

“[Bootland] was straightforward with everything,” said Mingo. “There is no hard feelings there and it was a good deal because I got better here. He did say ‘I want you to go somewhere where you can play’. I fully respect what he did.”

Mingo even considered returning to the K-Wings as recently as last summer before the pandemic forced 12 of the league’s teams, including Kalamazoo, to opt out.

Thomas played two seasons with the rival Fort Wayne Komets where he thrived before eventually landing in Kalamazoo a few years later. He’s one of the handful of players who have experienced both sides of the longstanding rivalry and admits the players feel it too.

“It’s definitely in the locker room too and in the organizations,” said Thomas. “Being on both sides of it, you see it, and it’s something that’s talked about early in the year. Those teams go back a long way and nowadays the amount of times we play each other in that division, it’s kind of impossible not to have a rivalry.”

On his brief time in southwest Michigan, Thomas looked back with a smile.

“I just really enjoyed playing there. The organization was first class all the way through,” said Thomas. “Playing with the guys, it was a very close-knit team. That’s the biggest thing I took away from there, just the family atmosphere that they built.”

For Jerrard, his six-year chapter in Kalamazoo is one he’ll always look back on with positive memories.

“Having been in Kalamazoo all those years and then a handful of games in the NHL, and really in my whole career going back to Lake Superior State, it’s just nothing but fond memories. I can always find so many positive things that bring a smile and even sometimes a reminiscent tear to your eye.”

‘EVERYBODY JUST WANTS TO BE TREATED EQUAL’

Each of the K-Wings alumni we spoke with believe these conversations are important if we’re going to make hockey a more welcoming and inclusive sport.

“It’s critical,” said Saunders. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve started to speak out. It’s difficult to speak out because I’m a very private person. Obviously you subject yourself to a lot of [online] abuse. But the flipside is you’re complicit in your silence. You’ve got to speak out and try to assist.”

In celebrating the awards and achievements of the Black players and coaches who have impacted hockey in Kalamazoo and beyond, we must also understand the challenges they faced. Each of these individuals continue to inspire the positive change this game needs.

Saunders is authoring his book. Jerrard is a role model for student athletes. Martin is using his experience to help players learn how to adapt to the pro game. Mingo teaches lessons to youth hockey players and Thomas donates time giving back to community initiatives.

“Giving back to the community is one of the better things about playing,” said Thomas. “Every kid who plays hockey now knows what that’s like because we all went through it. We had people we looked up to and it’s so nice to be able to give back to a game that’s given so much to us.”

“I feel real fortunate that I’m able to share a lot of the knowledge I’ve gained from a lot of great people for these kids to become better people, better players and better students, and hopefully be a good role model for them as they go about into their lives,” said Jerrard.

Even as we take positive steps towards progress as a sport, hockey has room to grow and we can all do our part to see that it is a safe and welcoming sport for people of all races and backgrounds.

“I think that everybody just wants to be treated equal, whether it’s the color of your skin or your sexual orientation or your religion,” said Martin. “Once we realize we’re all human we and can start to treat each other the same, then I don’t think we should stop trying to make change and continue to talk about it.”

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Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to jpeterson@kwings.com. Enjoy!

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