Credit: National Hockey League

Jon Cooper, the head coach of the defending NHL champion Tampa Bay Lightning, described his history-making decision this way: “First of all, they’re all in the NHL for a reason,” Cooper said in regards to starting three Black forwards, native Canadians Daniel Walcott, 27, Mathieu Joseph, 24, and Gemel Smith, 27, against the Florida Panthers on May 10, the regular season finale for both teams.

It was the first time an NHL team has started an all-Black line. “They deserve to be here and have worked their tails off…Moving forward in the league, you hope it isn’t a story anymore, and will be the norm. It was a pretty cool moment for all those guys.”

Neither Walcott, Joseph nor Smith were aware they’d all be starting until close to the start of the match. Joseph has been a mainstay of the Lightning all season. Smith was appearing in only his fifth game. And Walcott was making his NHL debut.

“It was a whirlwind of emotion,” said Walcott, 27, who was selected by the New York Rangers in the fifth round (No. 140) in the 2014 NHL Draft and then acquired by the Lightning the following year for their seventh round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he stated. “To get into that starting lineup was pretty special.”

For Joseph, 24, a fourth year player who’s spent his entire career with Tampa, he views the occasion as a “step in the right direction. It was fun to have some progress and it was great to see…”

Walcott hopes that aspiring Black hockey players and those with an interest in the game are inspired. “Coop [the Lightning coach] did something really special here to promote this for young kids,” he underscored. Only 3% of the NHL players are Black.