Olympic Profile: Jordan Greenway
Another First: BU Junior Embraces Barrier-Breaking Mantle for Team USA
This month in South Korea, Jordan Greenway will become the first African-American to play for Team USA at the Winter Olympics.
It's a subject that would be easy for Greenway to downplay. After all, he is, as Pat Kelleher, executive director of USA Hockey, said on a conference call last week, "first and foremost, one heck of a hockey player."
And certainly, Greenway has the resume to support that statement. A 2015 second-round pick of the Minnesota Wild and a former star for the United States National Development Program, the Boston University junior heads to South Korea after amassing 14 points in his last 11 games. The Canton, N.Y., native has 82 in 104 career games for the Terriers, and of course, he was part of the gold medal winning team for Team USA at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship.
But Greenway has embraced the storyline — and why not? The United States of America has participated in the Winter Olympics for almost a century, and no U.S. Olympic roster until now has included an African American player. For some historical perspective, the National Hockey League began play in 1917. In 1958, Canadian Willie O'Ree broke the NHL color barrier, and not until the 1981-82 season did Val James become the first American-born black man to play in an NHL game.
James wrote of his experiences in his eye-opening 2015 autobiography, "Black Ice: The Val James Stories," detailing stories of the racism he faced on a near-daily basis — fans taunting him, even throwing bananas at him. In Boston, while leaving a game against the Bruins with his Buffalo Sabres teammates, he recalls fans breaking a window on the team bus, calling James a "n——-."
Three decades later, Jordan Greenway is part of the 0.008 percent of current college players who identify as African American. And while his race — obviously — has no tangible impact on his play, Greenway is well aware of the far-reaching impact that his inclusion on the U.S. national team may have.
"I think most importantly, you don't see a lot of African Americans playing hockey," Greenway said. "So I just hope that I can be another guy — as well as Dustin Byfuglien, Willie O'Ree, Seth Jones — to have someone else to look up to, so that kids can say, 'He went out and tried something different.'
"I just really want kids to be able to be confident with trying to go out and do something different, and go against the color barrier in the sporting world right now. You see more African Americans playing other sports like basketball and football."
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In reality, USA Hockey has of course had its collective eye on Greenway for some time. And the 6-foot-5, 230 pound forward was thrust further into the spotlight after winning gold at the World Juniors last year.
"I couldn't be more excited going over to South Korea to represent Team USA," Greenway said. "I continue to get the same excitment as I did the first time I put the jersey on in Michigan at the [National Team Development Program]. I've always had the dream of playing the Olympics. And to be honest, I didn't think it was going to happen before I graduated college. I'm going to take full advantage of it, and hopefully bring back the gold medal.
"Probably the one that's really going to motivate me and inspire me through this tournament is probably the World Juniors last year. We were able to go over there and come out with a gold medal. The feeling of winning a gold medal while playing for your country is a feeling that's hard to put in to words. I want to be able to have that feeling again."
Kelleher, a former college player himself (Brown), took over as executive director of USA Hockey and The USA Hockey Foundation last June. As he said, Greenway is a "heck of a hockey player." But Kelleher understands, too, the broad significance of Greenway's ascent through the national program — and what it means on the national landscape.
Said Kelleher, "For our sport in this country, it's reflective of the national appeal, the national footprint of this sport. We have to thank the NHL for moving franchises into Phoenix, and San Jose, and more in southern California, Dallas — that's helped open the game up to more parts of our country and have players from everywhere. It's exposed more people to our game — some people would say non-tradiitonal. More African Americans, more Hispanics, more people who really haven't been associated with our game across the country.
"When you walk into an ice rink in Southern California, the population or the clientele is different in those rinks than maybe they are in some of our northern rinks, or traditional hockey markets. Jordan is a big, literally a big, force, and a big guy on this team, and hopefully his impact, and what he'll do out there — hopefully more families who watch the olympics will be drawn to our team and the success that we have."
In 2016, 32 African American players were featured at some point during the season on NHL rosters. It's certainly a small step forward compared to the late 1980's, and the often horrifying experience by pioneers like Val James. Greenway doesn't necessarily play with those burdens, of course, but he's clearly aware of them when he speaks about being the first African American to play for Team USA at the Olympic Games.
Indeed, as we enter 2018, it's a barrier that's finally been broken.
And the most important part of this story will be what happens next.