It’s fascinating to discover where hockey can take a player both geographically and academically.
For Ali Thomas the love of the game has taken him from the bustling Bronx, N.Y., to the corn fields of Iowa to the shadow of the “Touchdown Jesus” mural in South Bend, Indiana. Justin Wade’s hockey sojourn began in scenic Aurora, Illinois, with stops in Fargo, North Dakota and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before reaching the place known for Knute Rockne, winning one for “The Gipper,” and the football movie “Rudy.”
Thomas and Wade are freshmen on the University of Notre Dame’s hockey team, the first black players to skate for the Fighting Irish. Both hope their journey to South Bend leads them to another destination – the National Hockey League.
“My dream is to play in the NHL,” Thomas told me recently. “Here, right now, I’m at Notre Dame, I want to get a degree here and be able to play college hockey and hopefully fulfill my dream of playing in the National Hockey League.”
Wade seconded Thomas’ thought. “I definitely have NHL aspirations, but I look at it as taking it one step at a time,” he told me. “I’m looking at college right now, making the stepping stones to being as successful as possible in the hockey and in college.”
Notre Dame Hockey Coach Jeff Jackson believes that Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 211-pound left wing, and Wade, a 6-foot-2, 203-pound defenseman, have the tools to succeed in NCAA Division I hockey.
Thomas arrived in South Bend from The United States Hockey League’s Des Moines Buccaneers where he scored 6 goals and 9 assists in 43 games last season. The rugged winger also collected 118 penalty minutes.
“Ali is a big left winger with the size to be an excellent power forward,” Jackson said shortly after Thomas and Wade signed early letters of intent last November to attend Notre Dame. “When he plays within himself, playing physical and going to the net he’s a very effective player. He will be a power guy, a net drive player and a physical force for us in the future.”
Wade collected 2 goals, 6 assists, and 87 penalty minutes in 43 games for the USHL’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders after being traded from the Fargo Force. He scored 1 goal, 1 assist and registered 34 penalty minutes in 17 games for Fargo.
Wade “is a good stay-at-home defenseman with excellent leadership skills,” Jackson said. “I expect him to give us more of an edge physically in our zone and in front of the net.”
Notre Dame plays in the tough Hockey East conference with Boston College, Boston University, University of Maine, University of Massachusetts, UMass Lowell, Merrimack College, University of Vermont, University of New Hampshire, Northeastern University, and Providence College.
The Fighting Irish are ranked seventh in the nation in a recent USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine preseason poll. Hockey East’s UMass Lowell was ranked first, Boston College fourth, New Hampshire, 13th and Providence 15th.
Thomas and Wade chose to hone their skills in the USHL, a high-level junior league comprised of 16 teams located throughout the Midwest. That meant leaving home as teenagers to head to unfamiliar surroundings.
“Hockey in New York City is very scarce,” Thomas, now 21, told me. “In my youth, I played in Connecticut and New Jersey. When I was a senior in high school I moved to Chicago and lived with a billet family. Then I played in Chicago my senior year, then I got drafted by the USHL the following year by the Chicago Steel. I played a season and a little bit in Chicago, then get traded to Des Moines about a month and a half into the season.”
He admitted to suffering “a huge culture shock” from being a big-city kid living in Iowa.
“Going from seeing building, after building, after building in New York City to seeing farmland and open spaces everywhere was quite a change,” he told me. “I actually liked Iowa because there’s less traffic there. A mile takes three minutes compared to 45 (minutes) in New York City.”
Wade left home at 16 for Fargo, about a 632-mile, 10-hour drive from Aurora.
“Obviously, it was a big move for me,” said Wade, 19. “It was really exciting but at the same time I was nervous about it. But I enjoyed the experience, I got to be in a different environment, and I feel I matured.”
Wade found Fargo to “be really nice. The town was really accepting, I really liked the town.” But he only stayed two-and-a-half seasons there before being traded to Cedar Rapids.
“Going to Fargo…I had a family I lived with, I felt like I had another family there in a way, people I got to know really well,” Wade said. “It was over less than 24 hours I had to leave and go start with a new family. That was a really different experience for me. But in hockey, it’s something that you know happens and happens often. So you just have to accept it, go forward and continue moving on.”
The decision by both players to take the college hockey route rather chasing their NHL dreams by joining major junior hockey teams in the United States or Canada was the right way to go, according to Brett Peterson, a former Boston College hockey player who’s one of two black sports agents in the world with hockey clients.
All eight of players of color chosen in the 2013 NHL Draft came from the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League or other major junior conferences. Of the eight, only defenseman Seth Jones, the fourth overall pick by the Nashville Predators, remains in an NHL training camp.
“The way the NHL is structured today, you don’t want to get there too fast,” Peterson told me. “If you go major junior, that means that you have to be ready to play professional hockey at 20 because that’s when you age out (of juniors). If you go college, you’re adding another three years to your shelf life before you have to be ready to play NHL hockey because you don’t enter college until you’re 18 or 19.”
Peterson said college also gives players “time to grow both physically and mentally.”
“College allows kids to have, in my opinion, just more life experiences than the major junior route because there’s more time,” he added. “Major juniors, they play 70 games, they travel, they have bus trips. In college, you don’t play the first month-and-a-half that you’re on campus and you don’t play the last month-and-a-half to two months on campus. You’re allowed to be a young man and grow.”
Wade and Thomas are among a growing number of players of color who are playing college hockey at all levels – from NCAA Division I to American Collegiate Association club hockey teams.
They’re following in the skates of players like retired Buffalo Sabres forward Mike Grier, who starred at Boston University; New York Islanders forward Kyle Okposo, a University of Minnesota alum; Darren Lowe, a University of Toronto forward who in 1984 became the first black player on a Canadian Winter Olympics team. He’s now the head hockey coach of his alma mater; Chris Nelson, defenseman for the University of Wisconsin in the late 1980s; Robbie Earl, a University of Wisconsin forward who helped the Badgers win the NCAA hockey championship in 2006; Julie Chu, a former Harvard University forward who’ll play for the U.S. in her fourth Winter Olympics this February; and Tarasai Karega, an Amherst College graduate who’s the first black woman to win an NCAA hockey championship.
“There’s a big wave of us coming through and it makes me happy to see that,” Thomas told me. “Why not have the diversity in the sport? It’s not hurting the sport, if anything it’s being promoted on the NHL level more than it has ever been promoted before. Hockey is getting a new face, and I think it’s a good thing for the sport.”