Personnel and player diversity a priority for LA Kings

When we think of the sport of hockey, it would be fair to say that not many of us would think of Black Americans working in the sport. From players to personnel, the majority of the sport has been made up of white and, mostly, Canadian descent.

In 1958, a man by the name of Willie O’Ree had his “breaking the color barrier” moment when he became the NHL’s first Black player when he took the ice for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens. Much like what Jackie Robinson did for baseball, O’Ree was that beginning for Black players to compete in the NHL.

Since that historic moment in 1958, the NHL has seen an increase in Black players. One team, in particular, has had a fair share of Black players develop through their system. That is the Los Angeles Kings.

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In their 54 years of existence, the Kings have seen a good sum of Black players make an impact on the ice and for the hockey community. Names like Grant Fuhr, Jarome Iginla, Mike Marson, and Anson Carter donned the Kings crest for, no more, than 20 games each after being traded from their previous employers. Nathan LaFayette and Wayne Simmonds were two of other Black players who spent good chunks of their careers in Los Angeles.

LaFayette was traded from the New York Rangers and spent five seasons with the Kings (1995-1999) where he tallied just 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) in 106 games.

Simmonds on the other hand was drafted by the Kings in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft (61st overall, 2nd round) and cracked the main roster as a rookie in the 2008-09 season. In three full seasons with Los Angeles (2008-2011), Simmonds contributed with 39 goals and 54 assists (93 points) before being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2011 offseason.

After Simmonds, the Kings saw a dry spell of Black players in their organization until 2017, when they acquired Bokondji Imama from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for a 2018 7th round draft pick. Following the acquisition of Imama, the Kings would go on to draft Akil Thomas (2018, 51st pick overall) and Quinton Byfield (2020, 2nd pick overall).

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The selection of Byfield in the most recent draft made him the highest-selected Black player in NHL history surpassing the San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane (2009, Atlanta Thrashers) and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones (2013, Nashville Predators), each chosen as the number four pick of their respected draft years.

In addition to those playing on the ice itself, (and prior to the historic signing of Byfield) the Kings made a splash in hiring Blake Bolden in January of 2020. Bolden, a trailblazer herself, not only became the NHL’s first Black female pro scout but was also the first Black woman to play professional hockey in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) for the Boston Pride in 2015. Bolden’s inspiration to play and be involved in hockey came from her admiration of Willie O’Ree.

After her breaking the color barrier moment, the two have shared a special connection and continue to work within the hockey community to promote the sport for future Black hockey players, both male and female.

“He is just so open, welcoming and communicative,” Bolden said in an interview with the Kings. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be in certain events alongside him, and I mean he’s the legend and I just think that’s really cool that we can share that bond.”

That bond led to Bolden becoming more involved with Black Girl Hockey Club and, as it’s grown, so much more.

“When I was a little girl, I didn’t look up and see anyone that looked like me,” Bolden said. “So, I really want to be that person for all the little girls behind me.”

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In February (Black History Month), Byfield, Thomas and Imama joined Bolden for a feature on NBC Sports and shed light on the successes of Black players and members of the Los Angeles Kings organization and how they aim to be role models in the NHL.

“For the Kings to make that decision [hiring Bolden as the first Black female scout] it was awesome,” Thomas said in the interview. “You feel that your organization supports where you come from and what you stand for.”

The group emphasized their importance of being trailblazers for a younger generation.

“It’s good to have pressure,” Byfield said. “Knowing you’re going the right way and are on the right path. Having pressure also shows that there are people who look up to you and you just want to inspire them as well.”

The Kings have shown in recent years how important it is to live by the notion that “Hockey is for everyone.”

On March 21, the Kings minor league affiliate, the Ontario Reign added to the list of the Kings historical content. Reign head coach John Wroblewski sent Byfield onto the ice to center between Thomas and newly signed (also Black) winger, Devante Smith-Pelly, who played a large role in helping the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup in 2018.

This marked the first time three Black players skated on a line in a professional game since Herb Carnegie, his brother Ossie and Manny McIntyre played as the Black Aces line for various teams in the 1940s in Quebec.

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In the 5-4 shootout win against the Edmonton Oilers affiliate (Bakersfield Condors), the line of Byfield, Thomas and Smith-Pelly combined for six points (four goals, two assists) which included the first career professional hat trick for Thomas.

On top of his individual achievement, this day marked another milestone in his family’s history, as his father, Khalil Thomas, was a forward who twice played on all-Black lines during his minor league career in the late 90s, early 2000s.

“We were so happy to be on a line together. It was a special feeling for sure,” Akil said in the post-game press conference. “We have four Black guys on our team [Bokondji Imama being the other] so it didn’t feel crazy that we were on a line together.”

The sport of hockey constantly changes when it comes to line combinations and player connection. If the line stays together the rest of the season remains to be seen. The importance of inspiring the younger generation is the greater importance to Thomas and company.

“For me, it’s cool young Black kids who play hockey maybe see it and get inspired and feel they have a place in the game,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t matter what color we are, just that we [players] have an opportunity to inspire other people.”

Featured Image: Wayne Simmonds, who currently plays in the National Hockey League for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round of the 2007 NHL Draft. Courtesy photo

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