by Scott Burnside || Reprinted with permission from ESPN.com
DES MOINES, Iowa — Every time Paul Jerrard passes a mirror, this is what he sees: a father, a hockey player, a coach, a man with a goal, a dream.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
What Paul Jerrard does not necessarily see is a pioneer or a role model or a symbol of racial equality, although he is, in many ways, all of those things.
"I might have been viewed differently. But I’ve never felt different," said Jerrard, an assistant coach with the Iowa Stars, the top farm team of the NHL’s Dallas Stars and the only black coach, outside of Coyotes goaltending coach Grant Fuhr, in all of professional hockey.
In a year that saw two black coaches lead their respective teams to the Super Bowl, Jerrard happily toils in relative obscurity in the heartland, one step below the bigs in the American Hockey League.
He likes it that way.
It suits his quiet and thoughtful style, and it suits how he views the relationship between his race and his job. He believes there is none.
"For me, it’s how you carry yourself as a human being. That’s one of the things I pride myself on. I try to do the right thing," Jerrard said. "I just try to be as good a person as I can be. I try not to bite off more than I can chew."
Still, there are a number of respected hockey people who know Jerrard and believe he has all the right tools to become the first black head coach in the AHL. Perhaps more.
"He’s quiet, but he’s firm. He’s got a real good grasp of what’s happening around him," Dallas Stars GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "I think he played like that. Any options that open up [in terms of a head coaching job], we would work hard to make happen. I think he’s earned that right."
When it comes to the broader issues of what that would mean, Armstrong paused to consider the question. "I’ve never walked in his shoes. But honestly, until you brought it up, I’d never thought about it," he said.
If you’re a cynic, perhaps Armstrong’s comments sound disingenuous. This is a game that’s been dominated by white North Americans, specifically white Canadians, at the coaching and management levels. Iowa Stars coach Dave Allison has coached at virtually every level of hockey, from the NHL to a second-tier junior team in his hometown of Fort Frances, Ontario, where he spent three seasons while looking after his ailing father.
Allison, who returned to the pro coaching circuit before Iowa’s inaugural season in 2005, believes there are two types of human beings, and neither are defined by color or race; they are either good or bad.
"Yeah, I understand he’s black," Allison said with a grin. "He probably understands that I’m white. We’ve had some good chats about it. I think people don’t understand his humor. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s a lot more stoic than I am. He can make fun of himself, which is so important. He’s a good yin to my yang."
Jerrard, 41, was born and raised on the outskirts of Winnipeg, Manitoba. His father was a white laborer and his mother a Jamaican domestic who put herself through nursing school. His parents met when Jerrard’s mother was looking after his father’s sick mother in the hospital. The two later married and had a boy and three girls.
Because his father worked a lot of shift work, Jerrard’s mother would often take him to minor hockey games and practices, sometimes sitting in the stands writing letters. On Saturday nights, the family would watch Hockey Night in Canada, although Jerrard admits his mother never quite got the hang of the game.
Although his mother has been in Canada for 40 years, it wasn’t until Jerrard and his wife, Cheryl, were honeymooning in Jamaica in the early 1990s that Jerrard suddenly understood the courage it had taken her to leave. She arrived with a group of young domestics with $40 in her pocket. A couple of the girls ended up in Toronto, a few in Edmonton and some in Winnipeg; they all worked for wealthy families.
Even now, Jerrard shakes his head at the journey.
In Winnipeg, at least in those days, there really wasn’t a black community, Jerrard said. The Jerrards were the only black family on the street and at their church. He recalls some neighbors raising their eyebrows at the mixed-race marriage, but his parents taught him to ignore those kinds of people.
When Jerrard was 16, he was asked to try out for the local major junior hockey team in Winnipeg. But he’d also had been attending Notre Dame College, a prestigious hockey prep school in Saskatchewan that has turned out NHLers Curtis Joseph, Rod Brind’Amour, Russ Courtnall and Wendel Clark.
Jerrard’s mother was insistent he return to Notre Dame for the education, but Jerrard was leaning toward playing junior hockey, traditionally a more direct route to the NHL. As he prepared to head to the rink for training camp, one of his sisters came out to say the head of the school was on the phone. After a lengthy lecture about the importance of his education, a chastened Jerrard collected his equipment from the junior camp and returned to Saskatchewan.
"I was just an emotional wreck," Jerrard recalled with a laugh. "It turned out to be one of the best moves I ever made in my life."
Such are the moments around which futures are molded, lives changed, paths unearthed. Jerrard went from Notre Dame to Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. There, he met Cheryl. The two began dating and now have two daughters, ages 13 and 9.
As was the case in Winnipeg and Saskatchewan, Jerrard was among the only black people in the community, let alone the team. "I was the first black player to play there," he said.
|Iowa Stars center Yared Hagos enjoys an unusual place on the diversity curve. Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Hagos’ parents were born in Ethiopia and moved to the hockey-mad Nordic country about 30 years ago. Hagos, who is black, played soccer in the summer and hockey in the winter because that’s what everyone else did. "I found out I was a whole lot better in hockey than I was in soccer," he told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "Obviously, I stood out a little bit." Most of the other kids were white, "and I was big and black." Still, he said he has rarely encountered a negative word or action in his hockey years, even after coming to North America as the 70th pick by Dallas in the 2001 draft. "I’ve always been treated fairly," he said. "I’ve been fortunate to have good people around me." Hagos, 23, has been in Iowa the past two years and was a little surprised to find the team had a black assistant coach, Paul Jerrard. "I didn’t think, ‘Oh, more ice time for me,’" Hagos said with a laugh. Still, he thinks Jerrard has a great future. "I don’t doubt he’s got the abilities to do it," Hagos said. "He could probably be a great head coach." Hagos said he misses home; his mother Terry runs a Thai restaurant and father Tirfu educates seniors. "Home is always home," he said, "but I feel I’ve got a new home here." — Scott Burnside|
Playing both forward and defense, Jerrard was drafted by the New York Rangers in the ninth round (173rd overall) of the 1983 entry draft. He was traded to Minnesota in the fall of 1988 and played for six years with the Stars’ International Hockey League farm team in Kalamazoo, Mich. Every once in awhile, someone would yell down from the stands and tell Jerrard to get back to the basketball court. And, on the ice, there was the occasional racial slur.
"There’s a lot of things said in the heat of battle," Jerrard said. "Did it hurt? It stung. It just stung, and then the sting went away. Is it right? No. But I didn’t run into it a lot."
Jerrard played in exactly five NHL games, all with Minnesota, six if you count the exhibition game he played while with the Rangers. The highlights are, well, relative. He played in front of family and friends in Winnipeg at the end of the 1988-89 season, taking a couple of shifts and serving a couple of bench penalties. His first NHL game was at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. He played in the old Chicago Stadium. But that was it.
In 1994, he signed an American Hockey League contract with Hershey, then the property of the Philadelphia Flyers. Two years later, the franchise became the top farm team of the Colorado Avalanche and Jerrard found himself playing for Bob Hartley.
He admitted he’d always hated playing against Hartley because the tough French-Canadian never stopped yapping at opposing players. As a coach, Jerrard wishes he’d met Hartley a decade earlier. As it was, Jerrard was almost 32 and his playing card was mostly filled when the two met. Although Jerrard had a strong camp for Hartley, the Avalanche philosophy was simple — the kids play.
After a handful of games, Hartley brought Jerrard in and told him he was going to have to take him out of the lineup. Still, despite being squeezed out of the playing picture, the workout-conscious Jerrard showed a willingness to help the same young players who were essentially putting him out of a job.
"I saw inside it was killing him. But outside, he was made of steel," Hartley said. "He’s a quality guy. Unbelievable team guy. I know his passion for the game and his commitment to the game."
Hartley has had Jerrard help out at his immensely popular hockey camps in Pennsylvania every summer since they met.
"We became real good friends. I always said, ‘Paulie, you have to get into coaching. You can coach. You have the ability to teach,’" Hartley said.
After retiring in 1997, Jerrard began as an assistant coach at Lake Superior State the following fall. After the 2001-02 season, Jerrard got a call from Hartley about an opening as a video coach with the Avs. Jerrard jumped at the chance.
"The best way to know systems and teams is to watch tape," Hartley explained. Although Hartley was dismissed 31 games into the 2002-03 season, Jerrard stayed with the Colorado organization until the Stars called him before the start of last season.
"I look at it more like a passion than a job. To say there was a defining moment, I don’t know," Jerrard said of the transition from player to coach. "My passion is to help people that want to be helped. I’m not here to motivate them."
Jerrard is at the rink by 7:30 a.m. for a 10 a.m. practice and does so willingly, lovingly even.
"I consider myself fortunate to still be able to make a living with the game. I have no problem getting up every morning," he said.
AHL players often come out of junior hockey or the NCAA where their skill, size and speed has allowed them to excel. Now, they are joining players with the same backgrounds and skill sets. The ones who can be coached and learn to use those assets will become NHL players, and producing NHL players is Allison and Jerrard’s job.
"This is the hardest step, in my mind," Jerrard said of teaching players to excel at the AHL level. "The next step isn’t that big."
"You need empathy as opposed to sympathy with these players," Allison said.
Throughout minor pro hockey, there is the dynamic of wanting to move up, move out. To get better as a coach, that means working together even if both coaches have a similar drive to move on.
"I don’t think it’s hard at all," Allison said. "If you’re going to talk the talk [about teamwork], then you’d better walk the walk. [Working with Jerrard] has helped my growth. I love this job. What happens at the end of the day, happens at the end of the day. I think Paul feels the same way. I know he feels the same way.
"Paul Jerrard is a very decent man. This is a hard job. It’s a lot like a marriage. You have to fight not to lash out when things go bad."
Allison is hardly in a position to recommend Jerrard for head coaching jobs, but he is confident his friend’s successes will have nothing to do with the color of his skin.
"I think he will find his way. But I don’t think color is going to be an issue if he chooses to do it. Not for one second do I believe that it will be an issue," Allison said.
Allison added that Jerrard is a role model, not because he’s a black man trying to do what few have done before, but because Jerrard is fundamentally a decent man.
"From a societal standpoint, I do think it’s important" that people like Jerrard are part of the coaching fraternity, said Graeme Townshend, a former minor-league player and coach who is also black.
"It’s important for people to know that hockey isn’t an exclusively white sport, whether that means players, coaches or GMs," said Townshend, who coached in the CHL and ECHL before his current post as player development co-coordinator for the San Jose Sharks. "The world needs to understand that hockey is all-inclusive. I don’t think the world knows this.
"I’m really proud of Paul," Townshend said. "It’s very difficult to get to the American Hockey League level. That man works his butt off."
Jerrard is flattered by what top hockey people say about his coaching acumen, and he knows these next few years will be crucial in defining his career arc.
"I don’t want to take too big of a step too early," Jerrard said. He knows if he’s not ready and does take a head coaching job, he might not get another shot at it. "Do I want to be a head coach? Yeah. But I want to be a head coach in the right situation."
Jerrard also knows, for some, his next move will have a definite racial subtext.
"Hopefully it’s like, ‘You can be like him if you try hard enough,’" Jerrard said. "If I can help people, that’s what I want to do."
When that moment comes, when he takes over his own team, will he feel an extra burden many sports pioneers feel?
"I think I’ll feel burdened enough just trying to prove myself as a head coach.
"I’m just another coach in the league trying to do the best I can."