Former Chicago Blackhawks star Jamal Mayers spends his post-hockey career creating safe spaces for Chicago kids from non-traditional hockey areas.
Mayers, who played in 915 games over 14 seasons with the Blackhawks, Blues, Maple Leafs, Sharks, and Flames, creates those spaces because of his brother, Allan, whose selfless act allowed Jamal to play hockey.
“The reality was, we could only afford the registration for one of us; I think at that time it was $500 bucks,” Mayers said. “I think he recognized how much I missed it [hockey] and his career, at that point, he kind of figured out where he was and he enjoyed it.
“But he thought it's probably time for me to continue to play. He gave up the sport after that, and that way I could play the next year. I credit him for that sacrifice.”
Mayers, who won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2013, talks about that and so much more in his new children’s book, “Hockey is for Me,” which is loosely based on his upbringing.
Excited to announce the release of my 1st of many Children’s Book:— Jamal Mayers (@jamalmayers) February 19, 2020
Hockey IS For Me!
This is a story of Jamal when he was 6 years old and his journey toward the great game of hockey. You have to see it in order to believe it’s possible! https://t.co/72vIIR8g7Q pic.twitter.com/qcbqVyDJ07
“The challenges that come up within the book are real. And I don't sugarcoat it,” Mayers said. “... So far, it's been well received. I think that, as I said, you have to see it before you can become it.”
Mayers, who also works as a studio analyst on NBC Sports Chicago, continues to pay it forward as a community liaison with the Blackhawks, the team he finished his career with.
He introduces hockey to kids from divested communities through the team’s Get Out And Learn (G.O.A.L.) program and other initiatives where kids get to try the sport, many of them for the first time.
“I think at the end of the day, it doesn't matter where you come from, what your financial means are, no parent is going to put their kid into something where they're not going to feel welcome,” Mayers said. “To me, the next big challenge is to get non-traditional kids to enjoy the game.”
That challenge Mayers speaks of meets at the intersection of racism and bullying.
Hockey recently had its reckoning with bullying and racism with former Blackhawks draft pick Akim Aliu and his former coach Bill Peters when he told the world about his harassment.
A revelation some call hockey’s “#MeToo” movement.
“This young man didn't feel like he had anywhere to go or talk to and he had to internalize this for that long,” Mayers said. “That's the part that really bothered me. Because I wish that he felt knew that he could reach out to someone who's played before him as someone to talk to to figure out and navigate through the rest of his career…”
He also didn’t like how Aliu’s bullying was covered in the press.
Over time, Mayers noticed a trend of how some members of hockey media, which is overwhelmingly white, cover racial incidents in the sport. He says white and black players are often interviewed, but the soundbites and TV coverage only show quotes from black players.
For instance, the Devils’ PK Subban and Wayne Simmonds, along with Flames defenseman Oliver Kylington who was quoted saying, “Never, in this organization (have I ever experienced anything racially-driven). I've been treated fairly. I've been treated [respectfully].”
“I've lived in the locker room; I know what it's like, they would have asked everybody,” Mayers said. “Think about it. If I'm PK [Subban], and I'm in that room; that just happened. They're asking everybody about it. I guarantee they don't just ask PK. They are asking the captain, they're asking other players, and then they only show PK’s response. But they have the other ones, too.”
But this wasn’t Mayers’ first time dealing with hockey having to change its ways when dealing with social justice issues.
As a member of the Maple Leafs, Mayers remembers when then-team president and general manager Brian Burke’s son, Brendan, announced there’s an article coming out saying that he’s gay.
He says Burke came into the locker room and told the team they needed to amend their thinking and be mindful of the words they use on and off the ice.
Also, Mayers says white players need to step up when it comes to allyship.
“We have to also make sure that we bring white people into the process as well because it can't just be black people,” Mayers said. “It can't just be me saying it; it's got to be everybody. Everybody's got to be [a]part of that.”
During Black History Month, Mayers not only thinks of his own achievements and success of other black hockey players from previous generations, but he’s also thought about Ray Emery, one of his former teammates with the Blackhawks who tragically drowned while swimming in Lake Ontario in 2018.
He calls Emery the “ultimate competitor.”
The next step for growing the game in Mayers’ estimation is to go where the people are and engage them.
“Hockey's a great sport. And I think that there needs to be more targeted efforts, whether it's talking to community leaders within the black community,” Mayers said. “It’s going to take intentional effort, that type of intentional effort to get families and people to really think, alright, you're serious about wanting us to be a part of this. Let’s give it a try.”
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