The NHL is celebrating Black History Month in February. Throughout the month, NHL.com will be featuring people of color who have made or are looking to make their mark in the hockey world. Today, a Q&A with Hockey Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla, the first Black player to score 1,000 points in the NHL and first Black male athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
Jarome Iginla had a ready reply growing up when other kids told him that he’d never make it to the NHL because he’s Black.
” ‘Well, you’re not watching hockey, look at Grant Fuhr,’ ” Iginla told them. “They’d say, ‘Well, he’s a goalie.’ Then I’d have another one, ‘Claude Vilgrain … Tony McKegney.’ I tried to follow as many Black players as I could to have an answer … but to also know what was possible.”
Those inspirations helped power Iginla to a stellar NHL career punctuated by his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2020. He was a player of many firsts in his 20-season career and earned a lot of hardware along the way.
Iginla is the first Black player in NHL history to score 400, 500 and 600 goals, and to surpass 1,000 points, scoring 1,300 (625 goals, 675 assists) in 1,554 games with the Calgary Flames, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche, and Los Angeles Kings; the first to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL scoring leader (2002) and the Lester B. Pearson (now the Ted Lindsay Award) the same year, as the most outstanding player as voted by his peers.
The 43-year-old became the first Black player to win the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL leading goal-scorer in 2001-02, when he scored an NHL career-high 52 goals for the Flames, and 2003-04 (41, also with Calgary), on the way to becoming the Flames’ all-time leading scorer with 1,095 points (525 goals, 570 assists) in 1,219 games. He also became the first Black male athlete to win a Winter Olympics gold medal when played for Canada at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
He earned another gold medal and hero status at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, assisting on Sidney Crosby‘s overtime goal that gave Canada a 3-2 win against the United States in the gold-medal game.
Iginla reflected on his career, on NHL players speaking up on social justice issues, and on the up-and-coming generation of Black players in an interview with NHL.com:
You’ve said that you didn’t experience racist incidents or taunts in professional hockey that some of your predecessors did. But you did experience a bit of it growing up. What was that like?
“As far as bad racial experiences growing up in minor hockey, I had a couple and a couple is too many, but I had very supportive teammates. The question I heard most (growing up) was most boys want to play in the NHL, but when I said it other kids would say, ‘C’mon, what are the chances? There’s not any Black players in the NHL or there are not very many.’ Fortunately, I was able to have some answers for them. I don’t think they meant it meanly, but it didn’t feel good. But it was nice to have those answers.”
You achieved a lot of firsts in your career. How does that make you feel?
“When I heard that I was the first Black man to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics and be on that team, that was really cool. It was an honor to be a captain in the NHL and to be the second (Chicago Blackhawks forward Dirk Graham became the first Black captain in the NHL in 1989). The scoring one I thought it was really cool. When you’re going through it, it’s special. I’ve met … kids over the years who’ve said they followed my career and maybe I helped inspire them. That’s a huge honor. I know that there are many players that they follow, but to be one guy, and I can be like Grant Fuhr was before me and Vilgrain and McKegney, it meant a lot and it was special.”
Jan. 18 marked the 63rd anniversary of Willie O’Ree becoming the NHL’s first Black player. What did his accomplishment mean to you?
“I have so much respect for Willie O’Ree and what he accomplished, what he did for Black players and minorities in the game of hockey and how challenging a time he would have had. To break in, Original Six, at a time where it was hard with racism and being the first. There were barriers there. For him to be able to do that, to have that determination, and personality and perseverance to go through some of the challenges and to be alone, to be the first, to be the only one out there that you feel looks like you. I got to look and have other players and say why I believed it was possible because there were other Black players in the NHL. He didn’t have that.”
Professional athletes spoke out against racism and for social justice following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other high-profile incidents involving Black victims. Do you think NHL players made their voices sufficiently heard?
“I was proud of what they did when they did their press conference (on Aug. 27, 2020) together and (Minnesota Wild defenseman) Matt Dumba (delivering a speech and kneeling before a Stanley Cup Qualifiers game on Aug. 1, 2020) helping lead the way. Those aren’t easy conversations to have, to put yourself out there like that. I really liked that it wasn’t just the Black players … I think that LeBron (James), the NBA, the WNBA and the NHL players, among many others, have had a powerful, positive voice in our current times and hope they continue to.”
What do you think about up-and-coming Black players like Los Angeles Kings center Quinton Byfield and New York Rangers defenseman K’Andre Miller?
“I think it’s great to see the game and see first-rounders like Byfield with the Kings go that high, second overall, Miller with the Rangers, a first-rounder (No. 22 in 2018), [Kings center Akil] Thomas, what he did with Team Canada in getting that huge goal last year at the world juniors (on Jan. 5, 2020) … I tried to carry the torch as one of the Black players in the NHL and keep trying to grow the game, as the players before me who I looked up to (did). But my time is gone. It’s their time and I look forward to watching Byfield, Miller, these guys having great careers.”