Celebrating Jason Payne & Diversity in Hockey
“To be a person of color playing this sport was hard.”
Jason Payne, assistant coach for the Cincinnati Cyclones, had the talk with his parents early on in his childhood, “When I was younger, a kid called me the n-word. It was minor hockey,” Payne recalled. “I didn’t even know how to react; it was such a weird feeling.”
It wasn’t until his first pro-year however, that Payne experienced just how deep racism ran in states lining the south of the U.S.
The same pause he had as a kid came during a game in Virginia; Payne ran down the hall to the semi-joint locker rooms seeing nothing but red after a brawl on the ice, courtesy of an opposing player calling him the n-word. With nothing but a security guard and mace between him and “justice,” he stopped to reflect.
“How was this going to end for me? I was in Virginia. It wasn’t going to end good for me regardless.”
Payne fought, literally and metaphorically, for every opportunity he had in this sport. The first team he tried out for during his Bantam year cut him. When it came to street hockey, he could do it all, but the skills weren’t transcending to the ice. So, he practiced. And practiced. And finally, over Christmas break at the age of 14, he figured it out.
At every level, there was a critic.
“You’re not good enough.” “You won’t make it.”
And at every level, he proved them wrong.
So, when Payne was 17, he made the decision to go all-in.
Up until this point, he was still a multi-sport athlete. A D-1 football prospect with an overwhelming schedule and double the chances of injury. When the OHL called three days after he rolled his ankle during a football game, he knew it was time to prioritize.
With that, hockey became the only goal. At 21, Payne was called up to an IHL team in Michigan. “That’s when everything started becoming a reality for me.” A completely unprepared Payne raced to his apartment to pack for a road game in Orlando; a trip that had him traveling on the same jet used by the Pistons.
This is when the heavy focus on character became a highlighting factor in maintaining his career. Payne was a fan-favorite wherever he went. Doing what needed to be done on the ice but never missing an opportunity to give back to the community.
“I did whatever it was. Going to hospitals, going to schools, reading. Because that’s who I was as a person. That’s how, along with what I did on the ice, I was able to make my career last 13-14 years.”
The pivot to coach came during a season in Reading, his final year as a full-time player. His travels to Pennsylvania were designed to teach him how to learn to lead from the bench, a combo he took with him to Wheeling as well.
When the year ended, Payne had hockey schools in Toronto and a AAA team under his guidance. Soon to follow was an assistant coach gig in junior hockey, and from there it snowballed.
“The key to this sport is relationships. Everything happens for a reason.”
Opportunities came from those he had met in every corner of his career. The standing ovation character he has mixed with his ability to develop players made him the perfect fit for Matt Thomas.
Their journey began in junior hockey on rival teams and into junior hockey as teammates; they continued to stay in touch. One day, that “staying in touch” phone-call was the chance to assist in Cincinnati.
As of now, Payne is one of two black coaches in the ECHL. (Joel Martin in Kalamazoo being the other.) He grew up being the minority in the sport and right now, “What’s different? Nothing.”
The work ethic that made his career last as long as it did has crossed over into the coaching world. In his mind, hockey is like every other sport…it gives you every opportunity to want to quit. But in hockey’s case, it also bears the lack of opportunity to try.
Hockey isn’t a sport you stay after school to practice. As a kid, Payne rode the bus for hours just to get to and from a rink. The schools don’t offer it. Financially, it’s an expensive sport as well. When it comes to diversity, the lack of resources to play and buy equipment prevents the sport’s expansion into more urban areas.
There’s “not many of us out there.” But they’re out there. Behind the scenes, diversity speaks in the form of video coaches, goalie coaches…more players coming about through the leagues. It even speaks in the form of Kevin Weekes; one of Payne’s closest friends with a solid playing career and now an NHL analyst.
We’re putting programs in place. “If you give a kid like Chris Stewart and even his brother Anthony, they both came from humble beginnings. Give them the opportunity to have equipment and both of them were first-round NHL draft picks.”
Payne went from being cut from his first Bantam team to the Cyclones bench. He worked to gain opportunities, took advantage of open doors and plans to continue to help open them for the next generation.