The minority coaching tree in professional hockey is growing more branches.
Nearly half a dozen teams, from the minor leagues to the National Hockey League, have hired coaches of color ahead of the 2018-19 season.
“There’s always been a growth of people of color in hockey,” former minor league player Jason Payne told me recently. “It was just a matter of time that guys who were playing elevated into coaching.”
The Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL named Payne its newest assistant coach earlier this week. The job is a homecoming of sorts for Payne, who was a forward for the American Hockey League’s Cincinnati Mighty Ducks and the ECHL’s Dayton Bombers in the 1999-2000 season.
“I had the privilege of playing in Cincinnati, and I know how much this city and these fans don’t just love – but live sports,” said Payne, 43. “Along with (Head Coach) Matt Thomas, we look forward to being a hard-working, skilled team, and helping shape these young prospects into the best players and people they can be in pursuit of their NHL dreams.”
And Payne hopes to join those prospects in the NHL someday as a coach.
“I’d love to coach in the NHL, it would be a great achievement,” he said. “To get there, you’ve got to pay your dues, earn your way there, show that you can work and grind it out. And that’s my goal: Work as hard as I can, the same thing I did as a player.”
Payne brings a hefty resume to the Cyclones, the farm team for the Buffalo Sabres and AHL Rochester Americans.
He played professionally for 14 years in six different leagues, including 71 games in the AHL with the Mighty Ducks, Carolina Monarchs, Worcester IceCats, and St. John Flames. He also appeared in 132 ECHL games and 140 contests in the old United Hockey League.
A Toronto native, Payne served as player development coach for the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League and general manager of the Georgetown Raiders of the Ontario Junior Hockey League.
He coached the Toronto Patriots of the Ontario Junior Hockey League and the Mississauga Sens AAA program. Payne also owns the Precision Skating School in Toronto.
“Jason will make an immediate impact with the Cyclones,” Thomas said. “He comes recommended by the Buffalo Sabres organization, and his energy, knowledge, and passion for the game will benefit our organization as a whole.”
Kahlil Thomas, a boyhood friend of Payne’s, was hired as an assistant coach for the ECHL’s Greenville Swamp Rabbits earlier this month.
Thomas was a right wing who played nearly 700 games in nine pro leagues in three countries. His U.S. stops included the old Central Hockey League’s Memphis RiverKings and Oklahoma City Blazers, the United Hockey League’s Flint Generals, and the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Jacksonville Barracudas.
The 42-year-old Toronto native got into player development after retiring in 2008. He transitioned into a coach and general manager when he and his wife, Akilah, became part owners of the Oshawa RiverKings of the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League.
The couple’s son, Akil Thomas, is a forward who was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round with the 51st overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.
“Kahlil is a proven guy who has played pro, he has a winning pedigree, he has played on organizations that have won championships, and we decided from day one when we were building our organization that we wanted character people within our organization,” Swamp Rabbits Head Coach Kevin Kerr said. “Kahlil bleeds character. He loves to win. He’s all about development. He can help balance me out and make me a better coach, and I wanted to surround myself with good people who could push me.”
Kerr begins his first season in Greenville, South Carolina, after he coached the SPHL’s Macon Mayhem in Georgia in 2017-18.
The Mayhem replaced Kerr in May by promoting Assistant Coach Leo Thomas – Kahlil’s younger brother and Akil’s uncle – to head coach.
Leo Thomas is currently the only black head coach in professional hockey in North America. He played 13 seasons of professional hockey – including four seasons in the SPHL between the Pensacola Ice Flyers and Mississippi RiverKings.
He played 777 games between in seven pro leagues, tallying 260 goals, 299 assists.
Leo Thomas, 36, had hoped that his brother would join him on the Mayhem coaching staff, but Kerr grabbed him for Greenville instead.
“Kahlil and Kevin also played together back in the day and it just happened to work out,” Leo Thomas told me in an email. “I told Kahlil he should take the job for sure. Haha actually equipment guy also left for Greenville, too.”
July saw two former NHL players join the pro coaching fraternity. The New Jersey Devils tapped retired right wing Mike Grier to be an assistant head coach.
A Detroit native, Grier played 1,060 NHL games as a right wing from 1996-97 to 2008-09 for the Edmonton Oilers, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres, and San Jose Sharks.
A 1993 St. Louis Blues ninth-round draft pick out of Boston University, Grier went on to score 162 goals, 221 assists and accumulate 510 penalty minutes in 1,060 NHL regular season games.
“He was a highly-respected teammate and had the ability to relate to all players with his personality, demeanor and experience,” Devils Head Coach John Hynes said in July. “These attributes will be valuable in communicating and developing our players, as we continue to build a strong culture.”
Grier joins a small group of coaches of color in the NHL that includes Scott Gomez of the New York Islanders, goalie coaches Sudarshan Maharaj of the Anaheim Ducks, and Frantz Jean, of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Lightning video coach Nigel Kirwan.
Former NHL tough guy forward Peter Worrell hopes to make his way back to the NHL some day as a coach. He begins his trek this season as an assistant coach for the SPHL’s Fayetteville Marksmen.
Worrell accumulated more than 1,500 penalty minutes with the Florida Panthers and Colorado Avalanche from 1997-98 to 2003-04.
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