By Ryan S. Clark
By now, Justin Wade knows there’s no use in people trying to skate around the issue: He’s a black hockey player.
“Some people don’t say it, but other people do,” said Wade, who plays for the Fargo Force junior hockey team. “Other people say they didn’t expect it. Sometimes they may not be thinking it, but in the back of their minds they think, ‘He’s a black hockey player.’”
Wade, 17, represents what is a growing movement of black hockey players in the United States Hockey League and across all of junior hockey.
The USHL has had as many as 10 black players this season, the most in the league’s 31-year history. The league had six black players last season, including Wade.
Wade was living in Columbus, Ohio, when as a 4-year-old he attended his first hockey game. That’s when he asked his dad if he could take up the game.
“We took him to a rink down the street from our house,” his father, David Wade, recalled. “He refused to get off until he could stand up and skate.”
He continued playing hockey when his family moved to Chicago.
Since then, he’s represented the United States in several international tournaments. He has committed to play college hockey at Notre Dame.
Though Wade serves as a success story, there are not many players out there like him.
“The geography has it to where you have more kids in the North playing hockey than kids in the South,” said Force coach John Marks. “In the same token, there’s less African-Americans in the northern part of the country than there is in the South. In Canada, there are quite a few.”
The 2010 Census shows 12.2 percent of the nation’s population is black. The majority lives in the southern United States, where ice availability and anything hockey-related is at a premium compared to its northern counterpart.
Census figures also show the average black, full-time worker in the nation makes about $7,000 less than the national average.
That combined with geographic limitations, Wade said, is another reason why you don’t see more blacks playing hockey.
Marks pointed out how events like the 1980 U.S. “Miracle on Ice” team, along with NHL great Wayne Gretzky being traded to the Los Angeles Kings, helped the sport achieve popularity in the United States and in portions of the South.
But even he admitted, it does not compare to sports like baseball, basketball or football, which have far more black athletes.
“The problem with hockey is it is expensive to play,” said Marks, who has coached the game at the professional, college and junior levels. “A lot of the southern parts of the United States aren’t a financial boom for black athletes. It’s less expensive to play football, basketball, baseball, track, etc. I think the economics has an effect.”
Wade, the son of an oil company executive and a chemical engineer, said hockey in Chicago is not like hockey in Minnesota or North Dakota – where many have the chance to play in high school, and some expenses such as travel are taken care of by the school.
He said in Chicago, if a player wants to get better and someday play in college or the NHL, they have to play on travel teams, where they pay for ice time, equipment, hotel rooms, tournament fees and travel.
“The fees and the equipment cost a lot,” Wade said. “Sticks are the most costly thing. Some of them can range around $250 a stick, and if you go through as many as I do, it is 13 sticks a season.”
That’s $3,250 a year on sticks alone.
Wade said playing hockey in this area is more affordable. He was surprised to see ice skates being sharpened for free at a local Scheels sporting goods store. Wade said in Chicago, it costs $7 to get his skates sharpened.
Wade said he’s had friends both black and white who have not been able to play the game because of how expensive it is. He said if there was a way to lessen the cost of the game, the sport would grow regardless of race.
“Money would be the big part,” Wade said. “Money pretty much drives what people do.”
Sports | Feb. 27, 2012 | Page D1, D4
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