Call Dr. Joel Boyd an original.
He’s been taking care of broken bones, meniscus tears and other serious upper and lower body injuries as the Minnesota Wild’s physician and orthopedic surgeon since the team’s inception in 2000.
Before he became the National Hockey League’s first black team physician, Dr. Boyd was the physician for the U.S. men’s hockey team at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan – the first Olympiad that featured squads comprised of NHL players.
“There weren’t very many African-American team physicians, period, especially at the pro level,” Dr. Boyd recalled. “And you consider how many African-Americans are playing the game, almost no matter what game you’re talking about, aside from hockey. At the time, there were no Major League Baseball black team physicians, no National Football League black head team physicians…”
Dr. Boyd has helped change that in a big way. In addition to caring for Wild players, he’s the team physician for University of Minnesota football, the former team doc for the NFL Minnesota Vikings (He was the NFL’s second black team physician) and former physician for the Minnesota Lynx of the National Women’s Basketball Association.
He didn’t set out to be a hockey doc. Football was Dr. Boyd’s main game, having been a star running back at Bucknell University in the late 1970s.
But hockey always seemed to be in the background. He knew a bit about the game from growing up in the District of Columbia and watching a woeful 1974-75 Washington Capitals expansion team that featured Mike Marson, a rookie forward who became the NHL’s second black player.
“My friends and I would go and watch them play because they had a black player and we were, like, ‘Wow, we’ve got to see this,'” Dr. Boyd said. “It was just, like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.'”
But hockey fell off of Dr. Boyd’s radar as he turned his attention to football and his studies at Bucknell in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and later at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
Hockey re-entered his world during a sports medicine fellowship at the University of Western Ontario in Canada where part of his training dealt with hockey injuries.
Dr. Boyd pulled double-duty at UWO, keeping with his fellowship while putting his Bucknell gridiron experience to use by serving as running backs coach for the Canadian university’s championship football team.
The team had several black players from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who told Dr. Boyd about how scores of African-Americans fled the U.S. South to the Canadian Maritimes to escape the dehumanizing scourge of slavery.
There, they established the Coloured Hockey League, whose players authors George and Darril Fosty credit with creating some of the elements of modern hockey, including the slap shot and butterfly goaltending.
Dr. Boyd’s hockey involvement grew through a United States Olympic Committee training program for physicians that led to opportunities with USA Hockey.
By the mid-1990s, he was serving as a physician for the old Minnesota Moose of the International Hockey League and for USA Hockey’s Under-17 teams and international squads.
He advanced in USA Hockey’s medical ranks to serve as national team physician from 1996 to 2000. His USA Hockey affiliation also began a sort of six degrees of separation chain that led to Dr. Boyd’s hiring by the Wild.
Through USA Hockey, Dr. Boyd met Bryant McBride, who was an architect of the NHL Diversity Task Force, the predecessor of the league’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative.
The initiative provides support and unique programming to some 30 nonprofit youth hockey organizations across North America, offering kids of all backgrounds the opportunity to play the game and learn life lessons through the prism of hockey.
Working with McBride and the diversity task force, Dr. Boyd met Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player and the league’s diversity ambassador.
A light bulb clicked on in Dr. Boyd’s mind.
“The whole thing started coming together in terms of what I learned in Canada about Halifax, meeting Willie, and putting the pieces together about blacks and hockey,” Dr. Boyd said.
Dr. Boyd’s task force work also put him into NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s orbit. Impressed the doctor’s career, Bettman put in a good word on his behalf with the expansion Wild’s ownership team.
“There were a number of people who helped support me locally, getting me to know the ownership group,” Dr. Boyd said. “But one of the big letters for me was actually from Gary Bettman. At that point, I had already been working with the Diversity Task Force for several years, so I had gotten to know Gary. I still have that letter he sent to the ownership group. That was sort of the beginning.”
Now, Dr. Boyd can be found in an office along the main corridor of St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center during most Wild home games, hoping that none of the players on the ice suddenly require his attention, but standing ready if they do.
“I love the game,” he said. “My boys love playing hockey. They played here in high school, my youngest son coaches at the high school where he went to school. They both played club hockey at Dartmouth.”
As for their dad? “I look back and kind of go, ‘If I had learned to skate early, this might have been the sport for me,'” Dr. Boyd said with a laugh.
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