Jayden Struble is headed to Michigan next month to be evaluated for a spot on next year’s US National Junior Hockey Team. The 19-year-old Northeastern defenseman was rated the 48th-best North American prospect by NHL Central Scouting before he was selected by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the 2019 NHL Draft.
It’s an impressive resume for the local product — a St. Sebastian’s grad from Cumberland, R.I. But even with all he’s accomplished, Struble, like other Black hockey players, has been told over and over again that he doesn’t belong on the ice.
“I’ve been called the n-word when I’m just trying to play hockey, or told, ‘Stick to basketball, you’re in the wrong sport,’ ” Struble said. “I think it’s really hard. You’re just a young kid trying to play a sport. It happens, and it happened a lot.”
An NCAA survey from 2019 found that of the 1,114 men’s hockey players, only 346 identified as a race other than white, or as two or more races. Just eight were Black, the fewest since 2014, when there were seven. Struble is one of three Black players on the Northeastern men’s team.
On June 2, the rising NU sophomore — affected by the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests against systemic racism and police brutality — decided he had to speak out.
“I’ve just been angry for a while now,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter. “Angry that I keep seeing innocent black lives taken at such a rate that the news seems incomplete without another victim. I’m angry that time and time again this country lets us know that black lives are disposable without any consequence.”
Struble said he wrote the statement in one take.
“I just put everything down and obviously looked over it to make sure, but everything was just on my mind for a while, so it was pretty easy.
“I just didn’t really know [what would happen]. It was a little unsettling.”
His coach, Jim Madigan, reacted immediately. He reached out to Struble after reading it, and, inspired by what he heard, called a team meeting.
“When he spoke about [racism], it raised our awareness of it a lot more in allowing us to have a more frank, honest, conversation,” Madigan said. “I don’t think our team was naïve to think he hadn’t faced some racism over his time as a young man, but when he brings it up, it brings it right to the forefront. It allows us to start thinking differently, and say, ‘How can we support our teammate?' ”
The team brainstormed ideas to educate themselves about injustices, then act upon them. Madigan said the team regularly visits elementary schools outside of the city to read to students, and are looking forward to keeping those visits closer to home in the Roxbury neighborhood their campus shares.
Leon Hayward, who played for Northeastern from 1998-2002, is now an assistant at Colorado College ― one of just three Black coaches in college hockey, according to NHL.com. He knows what Struble is going through: As a player, he was just one of two Black people on the Northeastern team. Hayward said he has been texting with Struble and teammate Jordan Harris, who is also Black.
“It’s very complicated from a coach’s side, even more so than a player’s side, just because of the dynamic,” Hayward said. “As divisive as these times are, they can also bring people together, and so that’s what I’m very hopeful for. I just felt like, in my position, that it would be helpful for players that looked like me, that were playing, could do it and just put it out there.”
In his role at Colorado College, Hayward is heavily involved in recruiting. He said he sees more players of color, but “still not enough.”
“Hockey’s been late to addressing that,” Hayward said. “It’s done a lot of good things in other spaces, and I think that the hockey community, when it gets around something, will go after it. I’m hopeful this will be the case with this.”
For Struble, seeing people who look like him succeeding in hockey was how he kept pushing through the racism he experienced.
When he reached high school, he played under Black coaches at Noble & Greenough and St. Sebastian’s. It was something new for Struble, who does not know his Black father and was raised by his white mother and stepfather. He had been dealing with racism internally. Now, he’s hopeful that the national conversation he’s helping to lead will mean players who come after him won’t have to.
“A lot of these awkward conversations are starting to be [not] as awkward now,” he said. “Younger kids are definitely going to take advantage of that and be better off for what’s happening now. There’s going to be more support that you don’t have to look for.”