By Paul Betit
Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram
PORTLAND, Maine – When Portland Pirates goalkeeper Gerald Coleman was going to junior high school in Evanston, Ill., his gym teacher flunked him because he wanted to play hockey instead of basketball.
“At the time, I was like 6-3, and he gave me a bad grade in gym class because I didn’t want to try out for the basketball team,” Coleman recalled. “I wanted to play hockey. He said to me: ‘Why do you want to play that white man’s game?’ “
That kind of attitude motivated Coleman, who is black, to work even harder at hockey.
“It kind of woke me up,” he said. “People said you can’t do it, and it kind of pushed me to want to play it more and more.”
That drive to succeed helped Coleman, who joined the Pirates in February, to become the first participant in the National Hockey League’s 11-year-old Diversity Program to play in an NHL game. He appeared in two games for the Tampa Bay Lightning last year.
Ken Martin, director of the NHL’s Diversity Program, said Coleman’s relatively fast rise to the pro level is a result of his willingness to improve.
“A lot of it can be attributed to Gerald’s hard work,” Martin said. “We just introduced him to the sport, and he kind of went through the system.”
For Coleman, the program did exactly what it was meant to do: provide him with options he might not have had otherwise.
Since the program’s inception in 1996, more than 40,000 youngsters have gone through. Children as young as 6 can start in a learn-to-skate program designed by the NHL.
“Usually we try to get them placed in the appropriate travel hockey program by the time they are 10 or 12,” Martin said.
There currently are 39 programs in 15 states, three Canadian provinces and the District of Columbia.
“Gerald is the first to reach (the NHL) level,” Martin said. “(But) we have a couple of other young guys who are on the radar who we’re tracking.”
The goal of the program is not necessarily to produce professional players.
“The ultimate goal … is to introduce our sport to kids who wouldn’t have normally had the chance to play it for a variety of reasons,” Martin said. “It could be location or it could be finances, and we don’t want those things to be a barrier.”
The cost of equipment was a problem for Coleman. Goaltending gear — its special skates, large leg pads, gloves, mask and chest protector — is much more expensive than equipment for other players.
“He wanted to be a goalie, so we found him some equipment,” Martin said.
Ultimately, Coleman’s participation in the diversity program not only put him on a career path to professional hockey, but also enabled him to get away from a hostile environment.
Before moving to Ann Arbor, Mich., to attend high school while he participated in the United States national junior development program, Coleman spent one year at Evanston Township High, a school with a little more than 3,000 students, about a third of them coming from low-income homes. It is located on a 65-acre campus in the middle of the city.
Coleman initially said the school “wasn’t too bad,” but he went on to describe an environment that sounded like a pretty tough place.
“A lot of the kids who got kicked out of schools in Chicago relocated to my school,” he said. “The last day of school, there was like a gang fight.”
Coleman knew how to avoid trouble, though.
“If you kept your head down and didn’t wear red or baby blue (differing gang colors), you pretty much were safe,” he said. “My dad talked to me about that. You just kind of keep your head down and make sure you don’t talk to anybody or make anybody mad.”
Since leaving home, Coleman has traveled on hockey’s fast track in some fast company.
In 2001, when he was 16, Coleman was one of two underage players named to the U.S Junior national team. The other was Los Angeles Kings rookie Patrick O’Sullivan.In 2002, Coleman played the first of his three junior hockey seasons for London in the Ontario Hockey League. In 2004, when he compiled a goals-against average of 2.20 in 33 games, the Knights won the Memorial Cup.
One of Coleman’s teammates in London was Corey Perry, who is in his second NHL season with Anaheim.
Last season, Coleman, who will turn 22 on April 3, made his NHL debut with Tampa Bay. While playing in parts of two games for the Lightning, he allowed two goals and made 15 saves.
After appearing in 43 American Hockey League games for the Springfield Falcons last season, Coleman has spent most of this season in the ECHL playing for the Johnstown (Pa.) Chiefs.
TRADE ‘A GOOD SITUATION’
Nearly a month ago, Coleman joined the Pirates after coming to the Anaheim organization as part of the trade for former Portland defenseman Shane O’Brien. Entering the weekend, he had appeared in two games, going 1-1 with a 3.50 goals-against average and an 0.870 save percentage.
He has made 47 saves in those games.
“We believe he’s a goaltender with a lot of NHL upside,” Portland Coach Kevin Dineen said. “He’s got size, and he’s a pretty poised goaltender,”
Coleman, who now stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 190, apparently didn’t fit into Tampa Bay’s plans.
“He’s a guy who may have been stuck in an organization that has such great depth,” Dineen said. “Somebody else’s problems sometimes is an opportunity for some other people.”
Coleman, selected by the Lightning in the seventh round of the 2003 draft, is happy with the trade.
“I go from a situation from where I’m a fifth or sixth goalie (in the organization) to where I’m the third or fourth one here, so it is a good situation to come to,” he said.Coleman is not the first African-American to wear a Pirates uniform.
Anson Carter, a veteran of 11 NHL seasons, spent part of the 1996-97 season with Portland, when the AHL franchise was affiliated with the Washington Capitals.
In the 2002-03 season, defenseman Jason Doig, who has played in portions of seven NHL seasons, played 21 games for the Pirates.
Coleman doesn’t look at himself as a pioneer because of his race.
“People keep kind of saying that,” he said. “But on the ice there’s no color. There’s only a puck, and you’re on a team.
“You get people from Sweden, Finland, everywhere like that, so you don’t notice the (racial) barrier.”