The first time 15-year-old Kai Matthew picked up a hockey stick at the age of five, and for many years to follow, he was not aware of Willie O’Ree.
Fast forward to 2020 – Kai, a winger with the Northern Alberta U18 Prep Xtreme, proudly wears O’Ree’s legendary number 22.
“Believe it or not, on January the 18th, 1958, when I stepped on the ice with the Bruins, it did not dawn on me that I was breaking the colour barrier,” O’Ree said during his 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame induction speech. “That’s how focused I was on making my dream come true. I did not realize I had made history until I read it in the paper the next day.”
Matthew recently signed on to become one of the very first Blackfalds Bulldogs, a team that won’t see AJHL action until Fall 2021, and his presence on the roster has people around the team excited.
This story, however, while a reflection of Matthew’s talent, is not about his playing style, favourite pre-game tunes, or point totals. Matthew recently sat down to talk with the Bulldogs about Black History Month, which is internationally recognized during February.
For the Grade 10 student, his mentality is similar to O’Ree’s, which is to say that he believes being Black is inconsequential to the fact he can be a good, perhaps even great, young hockey player.
“I don’t think of myself as a Black hockey player. I identify as a Canadian hockey player,” says Matthew, whose father moved to Canada as a child from Saint Kitts, and whose Caucasian mother is from Edmonton. “When I step on the ice, race and colour have no meaning. We are all athletes with a common goal and passion for the sport.”
Like O’Ree, who encountered racial slurs at many turns, Matthew is no stranger to discrimination at the rink.
“When I was in underage bantam, so when I was 12, we were playing a game, and after a whistle some kid came up to me. Everybody was chirping, and he called me the N-word,” recalls Matthew, who had one Black teammate the first year he played. “I didn’t react too well. I got kicked out of the game. Afterward, my dad comforted me and said ‘No matter what happens, you can’t react that way.’”
That experience, which has since repeated itself, has made Matthew a stronger player and person.
“I don’t take it to heart. The ref heard it one time and the kid got suspended,” he says. “What it comes down to is people are uneducated about what the word means. I’ve heard teammates say it in the room and I used to laugh it off, but since the Black Lives Matter movement took off, it’s taught a lot of uneducated people that it’s wrong.”
Meantime, the Hockey Diversity Alliance, while not an official partner of the NHL, has taken centre stage on the pro sports landscape as a champion for ensuring diversity and inclusion are top priorities.
If possible, Matthew wishes to be one of the names leading that charge one day. He says Matt Dumba taking a knee during the 2020 NHL Playoffs bubble was a special sight.
“That moment and what the NHL did last summer to promote the Black Lives Matter movement told a lot of young Black hockey players like me that we’re not alone,” he says. “World-class athletes have a huge voice, and when they talk, a lot of people listen, so they should continue to stand up to racism and other forms of discrimination.”
While he doesn’t believe racism will ever be fully eradicated on the ice, Matthew points out there are many triumphs and Black people who are part of history and important to celebrate off it.
“There’s Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, to name a few. All those people contributed in such a big way to Black history and all they wanted was to make us equal to everyone else,” says Matthew. “There are obviously times I don’t feel equal to my classmates, for example, but how far we’ve come is a good sign.”
In the end, it comes back to Willie O’Ree, who added in his induction speech, “Tonight I am here to tell you we are not done because the work is not done. We have barriers to break and knock down, opportunities to give.”
“Despite how much adversity he dealt with, he still paved the way for other Black hockey players like me, and now there’s one on almost every team in the NHL,” says Matthew, whose older brother Elijah and young sister Layla are also exceptional hockey players.
“Why should the colour of your skin determine the sport that you play? I am a Canadian, this is our national sport, everyone should have a chance to play hockey.”