Jason McCrimmon wasn’t feeling it.
His mother enrolled him in a Detroit ice hockey program, but the-then three-year-old McCrimmon was hardly enthused about his visits to chilly Jack Adams Arena .
“My brothers played – I hated it,” McCrimmon told me recently. “I used to cry the whole time. It was cold, I started out as a goalie. I’m standing in one spot, I’m cold, my feet hurt.”
McCrimmon eventually got out of the net to play forward and defense. He developed into a player, and a pretty good one, too. Still, he quit the sport at 16, opting to do what teenagers like to do.
But an epiphany brought him back to frozen pond.
“My father passed away when I was 18. He was the guy that if I scored two goals ‘Why didn’t you have three?’” he said. “I used to hate for him to come to the games. I had a dream when I was 20 years old. He told me to get back into the game.”
Today, the kid who used to cry in goal now barks orders from behind the bench as head coach and part owner of the Motor City Hawks of the U.S. Premier Hockey League, a Tier III junior league where players showcase their talents for college or major junior hockey programs.
McCrimmon is a double-rarity – one of the few black head coaches and team owners in hockey at any level.
He’s part of a small class that includes David L. Steward, a part owner of the National Hockey League’s St. Louis Blues; Khalil Thomas, head coach, general manager, and co-owner of the Oshawa RiverKings of the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League in Canada; and Darren Lowe , who’s in his 22nd season as head coach of the University of Toronto’s men’s hockey team.
McCrimmon is also president and founder of Detroit Ice Dreams, a non-profit organization that tries to increase minority participation in hockey and figure skating by lowering the main barriers to the sports – access and cost.
After having that dream about his tough-love hockey dad, McCrimmon contacted the coaches of the Belle Tire’s junior hockey program to ask for a tryout and a path back into the game.
That began a hockey journey that included stops at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the Mississippi RiverKings of the old Central Hockey League, the Flint Generals of the defunct International Hockey League, and Hela-Kieko in Finland, where McCrimmon was a high-scoring defenseman and team captain.
Detroit is known for building cars. But the Motor City is also gaining a reputation for building black successful hockey players.
McCrimmon has played with, against, or coached the likes of defenseman Cameron Burt, a former Rochester Institute of Technology star who’s currently skating for Starbulls Rosenheim in Germany and Tarasai Karega, a former Ms. Michigan hockey award winner who went onto become one of the first black women to win an NCAA hockey title while playing for Amherst College.
“She was one of the best players to come out of the Detroit Hockey Association – period,” McCrimmon said. “She’s very dangerous. When I played at UMass-Boston, we used to play Amherst. We came down for a two-night series against their male team and I saw her play. She was literally tearing apart the league.”
During hockey’s off-season, McCrimmon trains Jalen Smereck, a fellow Detroit native who’s a defenseman for the Ontario Hockey League’s Flint Firebirds. Smereck recently signed a three-year entry level deal with the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.
“Having grown up in Detroit, he’s pretty hard on us, making sure we’re always on top of our business and also making sure we as teenagers and young adults come back to help the young kids, teach them how we were taught,” Smereck told me recently. “I definitely think he’d be a good coach at a higher level, not only because he played at a pretty high level, but the way that he coaches, his love for the game, his care for the game. I think he can take players a long way.”
But McCrimmon isn’t thinking about going anywhere right now. There’s too much to do in Motown.
“I’ve had opportunities in the last two years, probably a total of seven different colleges,” he said. “I love being here in Detroit , I’m happy what I’m doing. I want to expand the Motor City Hawks as well as expand our non-profit Ice Dreams. Whatever comes from there, if I get something big that I can’t turn down, we’ll cross that bridge when it happens.”