The National Hockey League has only toted a handful of black players in its lifetime – the Red Wings have been no exception – but Trevor Daley is a chink in the armor of exclusive tradition.
Trevor Daley has been to the mountaintop. That is, he has reached the pinnacle of his chosen profession. In and of itself, this is not particularly remarkable. Throughout history, men and women of color have excelled in the fields of business and politics, science and industry, education and entertainment. However, when you are a black man, and your chosen occupation is playing professional ice hockey … well, achievement on any level borders on the incredible.
Destiny with Stanley
Daley, who signed a three-year, $9.5-million contract last July to play defense for the Detroit Red Wings – making him the only black player on the team and just the fourth in the 92-year history of the storied franchise – arrived in our town from Pittsburgh, where he played the previous two seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins are two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, and Stanley is the massive symbol of supremacy in the National Hockey League. That means both seasons Daley played in Pittsburgh, his team won it all.
Lord Stanley's Cup is also the oldest professional sports trophy in North America, and winning players get their names inscribed on it. In its 125-year existence, only five black men have had the distinction of being added to the cup.
One of them is Trevor Daley. Twice. Daley says the first time, in 2016, was the most poignant. That may sound like a pronouncement from Captain Obvious, but there were additional factors involved.
He suffered a broken left ankle during the Stanley Cup playoffs and couldn't compete in the championship round. Tradition dictates the captain of the winning NHL team lift the cup over his head, skate around the ice in triumph, then hand it to a teammate. The Penguins' superstar captain, Sidney Crosby, passed the cup to Daley, still injured but on the ice in full uniform – because Crosby knew that Daley's mother, Trudy, who was battling cancer, had long held the dream of seeing her son one day hoist hockey's Holy Grail.
"It's pretty hard to put into words," says Daley, slowly removing his body armor in the locker room of the Red Wings' opulent new Detroit home, Little Caesars Arena, encircled by photos of great Wings players of the past – all white. "Raising it was so surreal, just having Sid give me the cup first was pretty cool. I wasn't playing, my mom was sick, she got to see me hoist it the first time. How special that was."
Her vision fulfilled, Trudy Daley – the woman who made Trevor choose between basketball and hockey before the talented athlete entered high school – passed away later that month.
But had Daley grown up in any inner city in America, instead of his hometown of Toronto, hockey might not even have been an alternative.
"Not too many kids in the inner city were playing hockey," he concedes. "We played every sport growing up, but basketball was my favorite. My mom told me I could either play basketball or junior hockey, but I couldn't do both. It was the biggest decision of my life at that time. But I didn't think I was tall enough to play basketball at a higher level. I mean, I'm 5-foot-11 now. If I'd had a few more inches, it might have been a different story. But I still love that sport and watch it a lot."
It appears he made the right choice. And while playing junior hockey, Daley got his first taste of the city he now calls home.
"Yeah, we would come to Detroit a lot for tournaments," he remembers. "We played against Little Caesars, HoneyBaked, Compuware (junior hockey clubs). I played those guys a lot growing up. When you're talking about hockey hotbeds on this side of North America, there's Toronto and there's Detroit."
'A great city'
Daley was drafted at age 18 in 2002 by the Dallas Stars, for whom he skated 10 seasons before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for one year, then the Penguins for two. When it became clear Pittsburgh was not going to re-sign the unrestricted free agent, Daley began searching for new home ice. Securing his Detroit contract surely provides security for his wife, Kristy, and their two children, Trevor Jr., and Emery, but there were other considerations.
"I have friends around the league who live here, spend summers here, and they talk about how great Detroit is," Daley says. "I have a lake house in the UP, in Sault Ste. Marie on the Canadian side, and northern Michigan is probably one of the most beautiful places on the earth.
"So I knew that Detroit was a great city, and this big, beautiful new building was pretty attractive, too. But the biggest part was, I knew this was a good team, a growing team, that has some good pieces in place and some guys that are fun to come to the rink with every day."
Ansar Khan, the veteran Detroit sports journalist who has covered the Red Wings since 2000, currently for MLive, says, "Daley has performed as well as they could have expected. His contract is good value for a mobile, puck-moving defenseman who logs 20-plus minutes a game and can play against the opposition's top line. And he has provided more offense than the team anticipated. Some would have preferred his spot go to a younger player and the team rebuild more aggressively. But management's position was to try to reach the playoffs this season, and for that they wanted to sign a proven, top-four defenseman."
Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill is pleased to have Daley as a role model for his young squad, as well. "Trevor's been very, very good for us," Blashill says. "He has given us real stability on the back end, and he's a real competitor. He's a great example for any of our players for what it takes to be a successful pro. To do what he's done, win back-to-back cups, his sacrifice and commitment is excellent."
Unfortunately, it wasn't enough: The Red Wings suffered a devastating string of one-goal losses late in the season, and the NHL playoffs appear out of reach.
"I'd be lying to you if I said it wasn't frustrating," Daley admits, his gentle brown eyes hardening. "We play to win. The bothersome part is, it's not like we're way behind and this team can't be good. I know that we're not far away."
Behind the color line
In a league that has only about 30 black players out of 713 available roster spots, Daley could be understood for feeling far away himself. A placard above the white rink at Little Caesars Arena proclaims "Hockey is for Everyone," but actions sometimes speak louder than words. In February, four Blackhawks fans were barred from Chicago's United Center for life for directing racist taunts at Devante Smith-Pelly, a forward for the Washington Capitals.
In the minors, Daley was involved in a racial incident that eventually led to the resignation of his team's general manager. Khan, who is of East Indian descent, observes, "I have not noticed Daley being treated any differently from what the media can see, and I doubt it is any different behind the scenes. This organization, at least for the past 20, 25 years, has valued character when making personnel decisions."
Daley says, "I haven't experienced it at this level, but it's so unfortunate that we're in this day and age and things like that still happen. The way I look at it, I have young kids who have no idea what the difference is. And I'm like, 'Why does it matter if they're black or white or orange or purple?'
"My son loves hockey, and I want him to keep loving it. But we live in a crazy world – a mean world sometimes. I'm not totally surprised by it."
Black Detroit Red Wings Players Throughout History
Trevor Daley is the only black player on the Detroit Red Wings roster, but he is by no means the first. The Wings – one of the "Original Six" NHL franchises – has had very few skaters of color over its 92-year history, yet the most significant may be on the horizon.
The first black Wing didn't arrive until 1983: Brian Johnson, a 23-year-old right winger from Montreal whose rookie season coincided with that of the team's legendary former captain, Steve Yzerman. Johnson played just three games, scored no points and was assessed five penalty minutes before being sent back to the minors for good.
Then came the well-traveled Tony McKegney, who counted the Red Wings among seven teams in his 13-year NHL career. Hardly a fan favorite, McKegney landed in Detroit after the trade that sent immensely popular player Adam Oates to St. Louis, and he appeared in only 14 games during the 1989-90 season.
Still, that was almost three times as many contests as Nathan Robinson, who played five games in 2003-04, going scoreless. Robinson spent three years in the Red Wings organization, mostly with its minor-league team in Grand Rapids.
However, remember this name: Givani Smith. In 2016 the Toronto native became the first black player ever drafted by the Red Wings. He's considered one of the most physical players in the team's system, but the 20-year-old Winger still has much to learn. In a recent minor-league game, Smith grabbed an official and tossed him to the ice in order to continue a fight with an opposing player. Talk about black power.