Sheila Johnson didn’t know much about hockey when she joined the Washington Capitals ownership group in 2009 beyond the fact that there weren’t many black people on the ice or in the stands. Or in the owner’s box.
“The problem that I had in the beginning was I just felt I was the only African-American,” she said. “Sitting up in the owner’s box I felt I was by myself, trying to understand the game and feeling part of the owners group…sometimes it’s hard to be the only one.”
Johnson had company in the box when Earl W. Stafford joined the ownership team, but the two wealthy African-American entrepreneurs still struggled to shake that feeling of isolation.
“I knew of a Wayne Gretzky and a Bobby Orr, I heard of them,” Stafford said. “But I had no interest (in hockey) because I didn’t see us. I had no interest. It wasn’t for us. We didn’t play it.”
What a difference winning a Stanley Cup in a majority African-American city makes. Johnson and Stafford have developed into hockey aficionados and they see a growing interest in the game among people of color, sparked by the Capitals’ victory over the Vegas Golden Knights and the playoff heroics of Capitals right wing Devante Smith-Pelly.
“There were times I faked it and did all the high-fiving, I didn’t know what I was looking at, but I kept watching and kept watching,” she said of her early hockey education and evolution. “But this year, just seeing how the team has grown and progressed, it got to be exciting because I really started to understand what was going on.”
She basked in the accomplishments of Smith-Pelly. He scored three goals in the final three games against the Golden Knights, including the smooth Game 5 third period tally that he slid – while airborne – past goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury that tied the game at 3.
The Capitals went on to win the Cup-clinching game 4-3. Smith-Pelly finished the playoffs with 7 goals and 1 assist in 24 games. The Capitals rewarded the third-line forward by re-signing him to a one-year, $1 million deal.
“He helped them win the game,” Johnson said of Smith-Pelly. “The thing that really bothered me was he wasn’t given the credit, the media credit. It was like he didn’t do anything. And these are the things we’ve got to correct.”
Johnson and Stafford say they’re doing their part to spread the gospel of hockey in the minority community. Johnson has used the personal touch, taking friends, business acquaintances, and employees of color to games as her guests.
“I’ve been able to bring new eyes and ears to the game,” she said. “A couple of friends of mine have young African-American children who have gotten into hockey, and gotten really good. I feel as though I’ve been able to do a service in that respect of really talking about and being part of the whole hockey scene now. There have been more and more people of color who have felt comfortable coming to the games.”
Stafford has taken a philanthropic approach. A faith-based nonprofit organization that he runs to help disadvantaged and under-severed people purchased 25 tickets for each Capitals home games and distributed them through D.C. area public schools to deserving children to expose them to hockey.
“I also offered them to young professionals – our young 25 to 45-to-50 -year-olds who now have grasped this thing and say ‘Well, I understand it better and it’s exciting,'” Stafford said.
But there’s still more to do. Sure, Johnson and Stafford want people of color to witness and appreciate the skills of Smith-Pelly, Capitals defenseman Madison Bowey, Philadelphia Flyers right wing Wayne Simmonds, Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban and other minority hockey players in the National Hockey League.
They also want minority fans to look beyond the action on the ice and see the possibilities on the business and coaching sides of the game – the final frontier for minorities in the sport.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to let people know that you can participate in the sport as a referee, in coaching, on the business side, even in the ownership, that that’s available,” Stafford said. “People talk about ‘We’ve got a black player.’ Let’s talk about black ownership, let’s expand that perspective.”
He added that “there also has to be education on both sides of the aisle.”
“We have to educate those who don’t look like us, those who feel that it’s just a white-only sport, those who would throw banana peels, and have them understand, like I just recently became aware of, the contributions that blacks have made from the 1890s on up in the (Canadian Maritimes) Colored League up there, and the participation and contributions that we continue to make,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Stafford are among three African-Americans who own stakes in NHL teams. David L. Steward, co-founder and board chairman of World Wide Technology, owns a piece of the St. Louis Blues.
The three are among the wealthiest African-Americans in the country. Johnson is chair and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, which has luxury properties in Virginia, Florida and Louisiana.
The co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, Johnson ranked 30th on Forbes magazine’s 2018 list of America’s richest self-made women.
She is also an influential figure in the sports world. Johnson is vice chair of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns and operates the Capitals, the Washington Wizards of the National Basketball Association, and the Washington Mystics of the Women’s National Basketball Association.
She’s president and managing partner of the Mystics and the only African-American woman to have ownership in three professional sports teams. Johnson also serves on the executive committee of the United States Golf Association.
Stafford is CEO and founder of the Wentworth Group LLC, a Virginia-based private equity and consulting firm.
His nonprofit Stafford Foundation created The People’s Inaugural Project, which brought hundreds of disadvantaged people to Washington for President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
He served on the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities during Obama’s administration. Stafford received the Horatio Alger Award in 2010.
Stafford and Johnson are partners in a Washington Capitals franchise that has a rich history when it comes to black hockey players. Eleven have played for the Caps since the team’s inception in 1974-75.
Forwards Mike Marson and Bill Riley became the NHL’s second and third black players in the Capitals’ inaugural season. Center Reggie Savage made hockey history in 1992-93 when he became only one of five NHL players to score his first career goal on a penalty shot.
Before Smith-Pelly became synonymous with Stanley Cup Playoffs excellence in Washington, there was right wing Joel Ward. In 2012, he scored a Game 7 overtime goal past Tim Thomas that eliminated the Boston Bruins from the playoffs and launched some Beantown fans into a racist social media frenzy.
In the 2015 playoffs, Ward scored a game-winning goal with one second left that beat goalie Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers.
Forward Donald Brashear gave the Capitals muscle with his fighting skills. Forwards Anson Carter and Mike Grier provided goal-scoring. Defensemen Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre and Jason Doig patrolled the blue line in their brief stints with the team.
Johnson and Stafford, who’ll receive Stanley Cup championship rings next month, hope to see more minority players and fans rocking the Capitals’ home red jersey in the future. They also hope that owner’s suites throughout the league become more diverse.
“We’ve got to get more people of color to the game, in the game, in the front office of the NHL,” Johnson said.
Follow the Color of Hockey on Facebook and Twitter @ColorOfHockey. And download the Color of Hockey podcast from iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud and Google Play.