Jimenez, 2020 Draft prospect, hopes to be mentor for Hispanic youth

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Editor’s note: The NHL is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through Oct. 15, by highlighting the history and growing impact of Hispanics at all levels of the game. Today, we look at Christian Jimenez, one of the top defensemen in the United States Hockey League, who could be selected in the 2020 NHL Draft on Oct. 6-7. 

Christian Jimenez hated hockey when he started playing at age 4.

“My parents put me on the ice, and I wanted to get right off,” Jimenez said. “I was always in the back of the lines. I didn’t want to do the drills. I guess I was a little grumpy kid on the ice. I finally grew a love for it and my parents just said, ‘Don’t quit, don’t quit.’ And the rest is history.”

Jimenez (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) has developed into one of the top defensemen in the United States Hockey League whose name could be called during the 2020 NHL Draft on Oct. 6-7. The 18-year-old from Yorktown Heights, New York, is No. 184 on NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters after the rookie tied for third in scoring for Sioux City with 28 points (seven goals, 21 assists) in 42 games in 2019-20 and was the eighth-leading scorer among USHL defensemen.

“He played his best hockey at the end of the year,” Sioux City coach Luke Strand said. “I think someone will find a very valuable pick with his selection. His skill set allows him to play both ends of the ice. There’s a lot of offense in his stick, at the same time he’s so dependable in situation use.”

Jimenez comes from a hockey household. His mother, Joanna, who is Puerto Rican and British, played hockey at Cantiague Park Ice Rink while growing up on Long Island and was a huge New York Islanders fan. His father, Jose, whose family immigrated from Colombia, lived in Queens and became a die-hard New York Rangers fan, listened to games on the radio and dreamed of someday playing the sport himself.

“Being from an inner-city type neighborhood, it was difficult to play ice hockey,” Jose said. “At that point, they didn’t have rinks around where I grew up and it’s expensive to play. But I fell in love with the game.”

The couple was determined that their children would learn to play ice hockey, but young Christian didn’t initially share their enthusiasm for the sport.

That changed when he played in a 2010 youth tournament at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, New York, where the 1980 United States Olympic men’s hockey won the gold medal.

“When I turned seven or eight, I remember going to the tournament in Lake Placid playing for the Westchester Vipers and that’s a cool hockey memory because I won a gold medal,” Christian said. “That’s where the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ happened. It’s around that time I started really truly loving the game.”

He loved it enough to play pickup hockey at 5:30 a.m. on weekends with his father, who started playing as an adult at Brewster Ice Arena in Brewster, New York, after the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994.

“Playing with dad and his buddies and going to breakfast after, I’m convinced that’s what fueled my passion for the game,” Christian said.

But playing hockey had its challenges as Christian progressed in the sport. He said he and his family encountered racism at rinks.

“In the locker room, it’s the subtle things, some subtle comments,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world where racism and intolerance doesn’t exist. I’ve always had to deal with a bit of that, and I know that my parents have as well. A lot of people don’t like me being successful on the ice because I’m Hispanic. I’ve definitely dealt with that growing up. But I want to say it’s definitely gotten better, for sure, and I let my play speak for itself.”

Jimenez said one of the best experiences he’s had in hockey happened in August when he played on an all-minority team formed by the NextGen AAA Foundation that won the 2020 Beantown Summer Classic tournament in Exeter, New Hampshire. The team featured elite-level Black and Hispanic players who were recruited by Rod Braceful, the assistant director of player personnel for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program and coached by former NHL players Mike Grier and Bryce Salvador.

The roster had USHL and college-bound players like Jimenez, current NCAA Division I players including Northeastern University defenseman Jordan Harris and international players like forward Mason Alderson, who captained Great Britain’s Under-18 team in 2018-19.

“It was an experience like no other,” Jimenez said. “That was probably the most comfortable I’ve ever felt in a locker room because hockey is such a white-dominated sport, and that’s just how it is. So just to be in a locker room like that, our chemistry, meeting up with a new group of boys for the first time and coming together that quickly, it was really a remarkable experience.”

Jimenez said he’s looking forward to the NHL Draft, though he doesn’t like to discuss it much for fear of jinxing himself.

“I’m very superstitious about that kind of stuff,” he said. “Draft day, if I’m blessed enough to be drafted, that will be a lifelong dream come true. I’ll probably break down in tears.”

He’s more than happy to talk about going to Harvard, calling it the fulfillment of another dream.

“My parents were the first ones to go to college,” he said. “My grandfather from Puerto Rico, my mother’s father, came to this country with no shoes. It would be a generational leap for my family just to have a university under my belt as profound and prestigious as Harvard.”

Though Jimenez plans to major in economics, he’s hoping that his time at Harvard will lead to a professional playing career. If that happens, he wants to be a role model for Hispanic youth.

“I want to be that player who makes a huge difference in his community,” he said. “I want to get a young kid that was my dad all that time ago who wasn’t afforded the opportunity to play hockey. I want to grow the numbers in the game and expose it to a lot more young Hispanics in our nation.”

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