In so many ways, Haverhill’s Jordan Harris is a rare hockey talent.
Through two seasons at Northeastern University, Harris has established himself as one of the top defenseman in college hockey, and he’s a rising NHL prospect for the legendary Montreal Canadiens.
On the ice, however, he is also unique for another reason — Harris is an African American hockey player.
According to a story in USA Today, just five percent of the more than 700 players that appeared in a National Hockey League game during the 2019-2020 season were “players of color.” Wikipedia lists just 21 current African American NHL players.
With the subject of race in sports currently at the forefront of the public consciousness — led by the National Basketball Association’s outspoken stance in the “Black Lives Matter” movement following events including the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake — Harris has reflected on his place in ice hockey.
“African American players face challenges at all levels of hockey, from the youngest age groups all the way up to the NHL,” said the 20-year-old Harris. “I can’t pretend to know all the difficulties, abuse and disparity that comes along with being a black hockey player, yet hearing stories from my dad, teammates and friends has really opened my eyes when it comes to racism in hockey.
“As far as the United States and sports have come in accepting athletes from all races and ethnicities, there is still such a large gap between how white hockey players (the majority) are treated versus players of a minority background. Not only do black hockey players withstand verbal abuse, they also don’t have many people in their corner that they can turn to for advice given the limited amount of African American players.”
RACE AND APPEARANCE
Harris is a second-generation African American hockey player. His father, Peter Harris, played goalie for Haverhill High and UMass Lowell and was selected by the New York Islanders in the 1986 NHL Draft. Jordan’s brother Elijah was an All-Scholastic goalie at Austin Prep, and now plays for Endicott College.
Jordan has excelled at all levels of hockey, from youth to prep school power Kimball Union (class of 2018), to Northeastern. He was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the third round of the 2018 NHL Draft — No. 71 overall — and played for Team USA in the 2020 World Junior Championships.
Harris feels his appearance has spared him some of the challenges many African American hockey players face.
“I’ve never received any negative comments about having an African American background, nor have I been stripped of equal opportunity to the best of my knowledge,” he said. “I believe that this is because I don’t look as though I have a father of African American descent.
“My skin color is fair, and it is a surprise to my teammates when they see my dad around the rink, or they find out that I have black family members. I am extremely proud of my heritage and the way that the hockey community has accepted me and my family.”
That does not mean, however, that Harris never hears comments.
“When you look around at different teams, there are only a small number of black or mixed race athletes on rosters, especially at the college and pro level,” said Harris. “Because of this, there are a lot of times guys talk about how we have a few players with black backgrounds on our team at Northeastern, and jokes will ensue about different aspects of our athletic ability or topics along those lines.
“None of the talk is ever in an offensive way, yet it is oftentimes the main source of identification that is brought up whenever a black player is mentioned. Even though many hockey players are very accepting of players of all races and ethnicities, there are only a certain number of athletes that look different than their white teammates, and this causes their looks to be a focal point of conversation at times.”
FIGHTING FOR OTHERS
Race in hockey was a hot topic this summer, following an article written by professional hockey player Akim Aliu — who was born in Nigeria — for The Players Tribune. The story, titled “Hockey Is Not for Everyone” detailed the abuse he was subject to during his journey to and time in the NHL.
“My heart goes out immediately to people like Akim and others that have experienced struggles in their fields due to racial injustices,” said Harris. “The fact that athletes like Akim, (current New York Ranger) K’Andre Miller, and many others are simply trying to be the best person and athlete that they can be, and they have to experience racism and comments that are extremely offensive and without provocation is horrible and disheartening to see.
“Knowing that these experiences are commonplace among many other African American hockey players in the community is saddening, and shows that the world still has a long way to come before there is true acceptance of black athletes.”
As he succeeds in hockey, Harris hopes to inspire athletes with a similar background.
“I take extreme pride in my ethnicity and coming from an African American background,” he said. “Hockey is my passion, and I hope to be able to be a role model for younger kids of color who may feel as though they don’t fit in with a lot of their peers on the ice or playing field.
“I believe every kid should be able to pursue their dreams without fear of being different or discriminated against, and the more success I have had in hockey just makes me want to push that much harder to be able to show that even though you might be a little different than your friends, there is always a path to success if you’re willing to put in the work.”
A FATHER’S PERSPECTIVE
Current Northeastern hockey star Jordan Harris of Haverhill has followed in the hockey footsteps of his father. Peter Harris played goalie for Haverhill High and UMass Lowell, and then in the professional ECHL after being drafted by the New York Islanders in 1986.
“I played hockey in a time when Grant Fuhr, Tony McKegney, Mike Mason and Val James were the trailblazers in hockey for African Americans,” he said. “(NHL Hall of Famer) Fuhr was an obvious attraction to me because of his skin tone, being a goalie, and part of a dynasty.
“As for any challenges I encountered, they probably stemmed from my physical appearance. My hair was out of control, my skin tone was different from anyone on the ice with me, but my skill sets fit in with any team I played with. I got teased by some teammates, and a couple of refs for my hair that stuck through my helmet, but I shrugged it off, didn’t feed into it, and squashed anything that people wanted to start.”
He is now proud to be the father of Montreal Canadiens prospect Jordan and Endicott College goalie Elijah Harris.
“I didn’t play with another African American until I went to ULowell,” said Peter, who noted that he had one African American teammate in college and another in the minors. “Jordan and Elijah have multiple biracial athletes on their teams, and I see many others sprinkled amongst the teams they play against.
“Jordan was invited a couple of years ago to play on a summer team solely with other athletes of multi-racial ethnicities compiled from North America. It was coached by an African American man who played professionally. The comparison between my experiences and my sons’ experience are truly different and I welcome the changes I see.”
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