CEDAR RAPIDS – Yes, there have been moments, times when Justin Wade has had to face the ignorance of racism like a slap shot to the body.
“I grew up playing the sport,” the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders defenseman said. “I’ve dealt with situations before. But I don’t really think about it.”
Wade became the first black player in RoughRiders’ history when he joined the club midseason in a trade from Fargo. He picked up the sport at a young age thanks to a work friend of his father’s, the dad of longtime NHL player Mike Rupp.
Wade went to see Rupp play, and that was it.
“It was like ‘All right, let’s go try hockey,’” he said.
Being involved in a sport predominantly played by white kids never mattered. That’s even though he dealt almost immediately with racism.
The Wade family lives in suburban Chicago.
“First time was when I was 7,” Justin said. “That was from a parent of another kid. But a lot of times, it’s usually on the ice. Those are really the only times I’ve dealt with it, is on the ice. Some kid tries to say it after I did something to him. They try and say it under their breath, usually to my back. No one has ever really said anything to my face. They always say it to my back.”
There have been well-publicized stories in the last couple of years of black NHL players dealing with racism. Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals was subjected to numerous racial epithets on Twitter after scoring a playoff series-winning goal last season against Boston.
Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers had a banana peel thrown at him from the stands before a shootout attempt in a game at Montreal last season and was taunted with chants of “monkey” early this season while playing in the Czech Republic.
An old Fargo teammate of Wade’s was involved in an incident last season in which he admitted calling Des Moines forward Trent Samuels-Thomas a "monkey" on the ice during a game. That led to an altercation the following night in the stands after a game between the player (Neal Goff) and three Des Moines players.
Police charges were filed because of the scuffle, and Goff was suspended by the United States Hockey League.
“It was pretty disappointing that he said that,” Wade said, adding Goff apologized to him directly. “But I know Neal really well, and he’s a really good kid...It was a moment of weakness, you know? Everybody messes up. Sometimes things happen in the the heat of a game. He served his suspension. I’m not holding it against him.”
Wade said that's the only time in his three-year USHL career he has had to deal with racism. There are seemingly more and more black kids picking up hockey every year.
Seth Jones, son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, is considered a sure-fire first-round NHL draft pick this coming summer, a probable top-five pick. There’s a chance Wade, who is headed to Notre Dame next season, could be taken in the draft as well.“Playing hockey for so long, I just really don’t think about it too much,” he said. “I remember somebody commenting to me that I was the first black person to play for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. I never even thought about that coming here. I think it’s just something interesting ... a lot of people don’t realize there’s not that many black people that play hockey. There are so few of us, it’s like it’s new to an organization.”