By E. Martin Nolan
Including an interview with outgoing Detroit Hockey Association President Will McCants.
Take Lyndon East from Greenfield in northwest Detroit and you’ll go through a neighborhood of detached bungalows and then random industrial parks and warehouses. It’s a quiet, non-distinct stretch of road in an often eerily quiet city. To your left will emerge, after the cemetery, a long, low, grey building. You might notice it, what with the large parking lot out front, or you might not. But if it’s hockey season, there’s a good chance that inside Jack Adams Arena there’s a game on, there’s players winding down from the last game and there’s players getting ready for the next. Unless it’s Sunday or Monday, when the rink is closed due to budget cuts, or in the early fall and late spring, when the rink is closed due to budget cuts.
This being Hockeytown and Michigan, nothing surprising about an ice rink. What makes Jack Adams remarkable is that it is one of only a few indoor rinks in Detroit proper, and it’s the only one that draws mainly from the city itself. Detroit is an 85% Black city and Jack Adams and The Detroit Hockey Association (or DHA, which runs the rink’s hockey programming) have been increasingly drawing from Detroit’s Latino community, in large part through cooperation with Southwest Detroit’s Clark Park, which includes an outdoor rink. As a result, DHA ices teams that are, let’s say, less White than you might expect. And you would expect that with good reason, because hockey is still a White-dominated sport.
Not that race really mattered within the confines of Jack Adams. I know from experience, because I, a white male, played something like eight seasons at Jack Adams. Later, I coached part of a season, and before I ever played, I watched my older brother play there. When we were on the ice together, we might have been aware that our racial makeup was somewhat unique, but it never really mattered within the team. When it did matter was when we left the city to play suburban teams, or when those teams came to our lonely stretch of Lyndon to play us. Even then, it didn’t usually matter all that much; we were just like any other team. But there were moments when it mattered intensely. To pick just one example, my final game was an intense playoff elimination game against Dearborn, the suburb founded by Henry Ford in large part so he could escape the city (thus helping set the segregating pace that would define the Detroit area). A fight broke out after the game. Whatever, fights happen after games, and I’m not sure race had anything to do with that. But the fact that the Dearborn police were on hand, just in case the game with all those Detroiters in attendance got out of control, just might have had something to do with race. Two of our players, one in the stands because of a previous suspension and one in uniform, were arrested. Both were Black.
I don’t want to make too big a deal out of that. I mention it only to illustrate the tension our games were capable of causing (to be fair, our team was not always the innocent party, we often gave into the tension ourselves). Despite all that, by icing a diverse team in a non-diverse sport and in a highly segregated metro area, DHA has done a whole lot to bridge the gaps between White and Black. But in doing so it has also revealed the racial gap that exists in both the Detroit metro area and in hockey. That gap is hardly flattering, as was blatantly obvious in the racism recently levelled at the Washington Capital’s Joel Ward.
The twitter-based vitriol aimed at Ward had me thinking about Jack Adams, so I called up an old coach of mine: Will McCants, AKA Coach Will, the outgoing president of DHA and a long time Jack Adams regular and corner stone. DHA works because of people like Coach Will–that includes parents, managers, coaches, etc.–who volunteer their time and effort to make hockey a possibility for kids who otherwise wouldn’t even think of playing hockey, but whose lives are often profoundly altered by the opportunity to do so. Sadly, there cannot be enough Coach Will’s in the world to run a hockey rink if the rink is shut down, which has been a looming possibility at Jack Adams for as long as Detroit has been in its current crisis. Here’s hoping something comes through to ensure the long-term existence of Jack Adams Arena and the Detroit Hockey Association.
My interview with Coach Will follows the jump, but if you want a better idea of what Jack Adams is all about, I suggest you watch the video below. Its story is two decades old, but it gets to the core of this unique hockey organization.
Note on the video: DHA teams are now The Dragons, but in the previous era they were The Rockies.
The first thing I remember about Coach Will is that he was usually smiling, and if he was, that meant he was probably about to talk some good-natured smack, and if you were lucky it’d be about your clothes or something, and if not, it’d be about not throwing the puck blindly to the middle of the ice. The second thing I remember is the dude was always there, always happy to be there, and always enthusiastic.
EMN: You’ve been involved with Jack Adams and the Detroit Hockey Association (DHA) for a while, and now you’re set to hand the presidency off. Tell us a bit about how you became involved and the positions and roles you’ve filled with DHA. Do plan on maintaining contact with the Jack Adams and DHA? I imagine it would be hard let go completely.
CW: 22 years to be exact. I was overwhelmed and amazed to see all of these black kids in one rink playing the game that I love. So, in 89-90, I started to help out, then coached with coach [Anthony] Garcia, coach [Maurice] Dewey, and later with the ABP Panthers and beyond. In the mid-90’s I decided to get more involved and was elected V.P. [of DHA]—in ‘96 I believe. In ‘97 I became the President of DHA. I can look back and be proud of all our teams’ accomplishments; but, more importantly, the players excelling off ice, in the game of life: that is the real measure. [Now,] I will fulfill the emeritus position, which will help in the transition of the organization and its future direction.
EMN: You were born in Toronto but later moved to Detroit. As an outsider, how did Jack Adams affect your perspective on Detroit? In particular, the metro Detroit area is highly polarized along racial lines, with a definite lack of interaction between the city and its suburbs. Given that, what do you take away from the interaction generated by the games between the mostly white suburban kids and the mostly black city kids that DHA put on the ice?
CW: I think one of the biggest things that this city lacks is diversity; as you know it is very segregated. I grew up in a multi-cultural society [Toronto], which was the opposite [of what we have] here in Detroit, where the lines were simple: Black or White. Well, for the most part it was all white teams playing a diverse group of kids from the inner city of Detroit.
Our kids were very competitive and have won championships, both districts and states. They faced crazy looks, irate parents, things were said in the stands, on the benches and on the ice. Sometimes it was difficult to keep the focus on [the fact] that the most damning way to retaliate is to beat the other team; and we would.
EMN: What’s your read on how our black players were accepted when they left the city? How about the suburbanites who came to Detroit to watch their kids play? Has anything in that regard changed since you’ve been with DHA? My impression was that the teams we played a lot were more used to it. I’m thinking mostly of Redford, Garden City, Westland and others here. It was like they had this game plan, and they would attend the games in our rink en masse. But then there were some real awkward moments when it was a team from far away or who we didn’t play all that much.
CW: The Jack is not your traditional rink. It is in the hood, so people are scared, then if you have some sort of rivalry it can be a very intimidating place to play. I have always told our parents to make sure our visitor’s feel comfortable. We have to my knowledge only received locker room damage from players [who were] mad that they lost. I heard that in the early to late ‘80’s there were fights from the ice to the parking lot, but you had less teams then so the rivalries were a little different, but you [EMN] experienced some of those same teams.
EMN: Talk a little about Clark Park (an outdoor rink in the largely Latino Southwest Detroit). During my last contact with DHA, we were starting to get some interaction with Clark Park, which seemed like a very hopeful development. What kind of partnership does Clark Park have with DHA, how was that formed, and what barriers did you have to cross to make that partnership happen?
CW: It has been a struggle to get Clark Park up and running before December, due primarily to the weather, which has changed dramatically from years ago. We, for the first time, celebrated Clark Park as the host of “Hockey In The Hood 8;” the championships were played outdoors on a sunny Sunday afternoon. [Clark Park] is a very hard segment to get involved with hockey on the travel level, but we have been sponsoring Clark Park players for a few years now, allowing them to play on our teams. We plan to again bring awareness to hockey with free clinics in that community.
EMN: One of DHA’s more impressive initiatives is “Hockey in the Hood,” which aims to allow young hockey players from different backgrounds to interact with one another. This has involved tournaments between DHA players and players from similar programs in other cities, as well as games between kids from the suburbs and kids from Jack Adams and Clark Park. How successful would you say “Hockey in the Hood” has been, and how would you measure that success?
CW: We experienced some great years; nobody does anything for eight years if it is not successful. We have not only branched out in our community, but nationwide people have heard of this tournament. It is has also been good with kids having access to social media sites like Facebook, where they can friend each other.
EMN: You mentioned to me earlier that both the NHL (through it’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative ) and the Detroit Red Wings had been involved in “Hockey in the Hood,” but that both bailed out at least partly because the word “hood” was included in the title. Can you tell us anymore about how that all went down, and how you’ve funded the program since?
CW: We are in the NHL “Hockey Is For Everyone” program, which changed from “NHL Diversity” in 2006. We continue to keep an open mind in regards to naming rights and sponsors.
EMN: Detroit’s finances are a mess right now, to say the least, and I understand that the arena’s continued funding is in jeopardy. What is the funding situation for DHA and Jack Adams as a whole? What are the other major sources of revenue? What does DHA need to ensure its continued existence, and to ensure the good work done by DHA does not fall by the waste side? What can people in Detroit, or just reading this, do to help DHA and Jack Adams Arena?
CW: I think the funniest thing is that Jack Adams has been in this community for over 40 years now and has produced some great black and white players. Yet, it is important to keep this in the community, to allow our kids the opportunity to make their dreams happen by playing hockey, because of the life skills that are learned through team building and playing together [not for the hockey skills themselves].
Jack Adams Hockey was at one time the largest producer of U.S. Black Hockey Players. Several factors hurt the sport, especially the situation we are in with city budgets, but we still have an opportunity that is not always the case in many rinks that exist in the community, like Ft. DuPont [Ice Arena] in Washington, D.C. I believe [DHA] needs to be able to control the facility and have several funding sources to maintain equipment and facility maintenance. Some of our sister programs in the NHL Hockey is for Everyone Program have a substantial backer, which makes things a little easier, but our goal is to create a foundation to handle all this.
Top 3 needs: Kids, Coaches, Funding.
Any Donations can be made to:
The Detroit Hockey Association,
Detroit MI, 48238
C/O Jack Adams Recreational Hockey
EMN: You mentioned that coaches were needed at DHA. Why has this become a problem?
CW: Due to the mass building of rinks in Michigan, kids can play in almost 3 or 4 different rinks within a couple of miles. [A lack of] alumni return is a huge problem.
EMN: You also mentioned that hockey is becoming an elitist sport. How so? And what does that mean for a place like Jack Adams, where the i-program allows kids to play the game for only $150 per year?
CW: Unfortunately, we can only introduce the child to the sport to a certain point. If they desire to play this sport at the higher levels, it costs anywhere from $200 – 600 a month, depending on the team. Either way it is a nice chunk, not to mention having multiple kids in the sport. Ask yourself would you have been able to play this sport paying that kind of money. Sticks: $200. Skates: $500. The families I deal with would have to make huge sacrifices to be able to afford that, Black or White. The game changes up there [in the higher levels]; you have paid coaches, and things become a lot more political.
EMN: As will be obvious to reader by now, DHA is unique in the racial makeup of its players. With that in mind, I want to ask about the rash of racial slurs directed toward Joel Ward on Twitter. There was also the incident in London, Ontario recently, when a banana peel was thrown on the ice during a game featuring a black player. As a former player of color yourself, what do you take from all that nonsense? And, if you were coaching a DHA team, what, if anything, would you say to the team about such racial issues, were they to come up (which they inevitably do)?
CW: Unfortunately social media makes it very easy to say things without any one knowing who you are—it is a perfect avenue to perpetuate a racial rant. There is not much you can do but reiterate to the players and those involved that it should not be tolerated on either side. We have to be the bigger and better person, and as a coach you cannot get your team unfocused, because that is why it is done: to get a negative reaction; hopefully we teach them how to overcome. Until the rules state [using a racial slur] is a gross misconduct and the players face suspensions, these issues will continue to plague hockey. Racial intimidation is a federal crime.
EMN: I recently saw a picture [reproduced at the top of this post] of one of your sons with Willie O’Ree. What was your impression of the first black NHL player, and how important has he been to the, shall we say, partial de-whitening of the game?
CW: Willie went through pure hell, if you can imagine being the only black player in the league in a era when you couldn’t stay with your teammates in the same hotel or eat with them because of segregation.
I have talked to Willie about some of this stuff and it is hard to believe that this stuff happened. I know he faced some crowds that would yell “kill that N*****.” It is unfortunate that he was judged by his skin color. I was taught by Dale Carnegie, the son of Herb, who lived 2 blocks from me. Herb was involved at the local rink, which was outdoors. The rink was Mitchell Field in North York [Ontario]. I was fortunate to see Herb and hear his story; he came to our school several times. These were the guys who inspired me as a player. I know that the biggest NHL superstar is waiting in the inner city somewhere, but unless we are able to give kids opportunities and truly embrace black kids playing hockey it may never happen.
EMN: Finally what has your time at DHA taught you about the role race plays in hockey? What has been the most positive development you’ve seen, and what still needs to be done in that regard?
CW: Well not much, because I had already experienced the bad involved with being a black hockey player, so there is nothing that could surprise me regarding that. In the past 10 years both USA Hockey and the NHL have taken this a lot more seriously. We have developed some good relationships with other non- minority programs, through the Hockey In the Hood Tournament, that have helped break down the stereotypes concerning minorities playing this great game.
EMN: Any other thoughts you’d like the people to hear?
CW: Hockey has not yet been fully exposed to the many black inner-city kids in America; they see it, but it does not appeal to them because they don’t see the minority players and it is not available in their neighborhood. We are very fortunate to have Jack Adams Memorial Ice Arena here in Detroit.