Petition calls for pro hockey's first Black coach to be inducted into Hall of Fame
MONTREAL — A grassroots effort is underway to get professional hockey's first Black coach, John Paris Jr., inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Hockey Nova Scotia launched a petition dubbed "Paris to Toronto" on Feb. 1, calling on the Nova Scotia-born Paris to be recognized by the Toronto-based hall for his contributions to the game.
Paris, 76, said in an interview from Halifax Tuesday that all the attention was unexpected. "It's humbling, I can most certainly say that," he said, "just the fact that they took the time to even think of me, regardless of the results."
He has a number of firsts on his resumé, including the first Black coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the first Black scout in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues, the first Black general manager in professional hockey and the first Black professional hockey coach, leading the Atlanta Knights to a Turner Cup in the now-defunct International Hockey League.
Despite the long list, he doesn't see his career as a succession of broken barriers.
"Well, what I've always said is that I'm Black by nature and I'm a coach by choice, and there's a difference," Paris said. "I know what colour I am, everybody knows it when they see me, that has nothing to do with my participation as a coach — that's a decision."
Paris, a talented five-foot-five player, was scouted by Scotty Bowman to play junior hockey in Quebec in the early 1960s, with the future NHL head coach and general manager paying a visit to his family home in Windsor, N.S., to recruit him. His playing career was cut short by illness, but his coaching career began about 90 kilometres east of Montreal.
Paris said Charlemagne Péloquin, director of sports and recreation for the town of St-Joseph-de-Sorel, approached him in 1969 to coach the local junior team.
"I looked at him and I said, 'Mr. Péloquin, there's no Blacks coaching in hockey.' I said, 'You're setting yourself up maybe to have some problems,'" Paris recalled. "And he looked at me and he said, 'I didn't say anything about Black. I said I want a coach, you're the one we want.'"
He said many of those first cohort of players and their families remain friends. "We're very tight still today, it's that region where I had my coaching start, and that's where it took off," he said.
Paris never returned to Nova Scotia and went on to have a lengthy career coaching in Quebec, living largely in rural areas of the province. He now lives in Texas.
"When I arrived in Quebec, I was a little timid, a little country bumpkin coming from the small town," Paris said. "So I lived in French society and I was comfortable, very comfortable within it (and) for decades I had very little communication with English outside of my family with a few friends in Montreal."
Paris says his most memorable achievement as a coach was guiding the Richelieu Riverains in 1987 to an Air Canada Cup championship (now known as the Telus Cup), the official national under-18 boys hockey tournament.
"We were the youngest team when we came out of Quebec. We were considered the underdogs, but we never lost a game," he said. "But that record still holds: there has not been a team that has gone undefeated in regulation time to win that cup since we did it in 1987."
After that, Paris had coaching stops in Granby and St-Jean-sur-Richelieu in the QMJHL before making the leap to professional minor leagues in Atlanta, where he won a championship. Before that, he was also the first Black scout in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues.
He was also the first Black general manager in professional hockey, holding roles in the Quebec junior ranks and with the Macon Whoopee, a defunct Georgia-based team in the Central Hockey League.
Paris is still involved in hockey, working as an outside consultant to help some NHL players with their game performance.
Dean Smith, diversity and inclusion chair at Hockey Nova Scotia, says one of the recommendations from a task force struck in 2019 to look at racism and discrimination in the sport was to find ways to recognize and highlight contributions from those in under-represented communities.
Smith said the more he learned about Paris, the more surprised he was that he wasn't already in the Hall of Fame.
"He is so modest and so humble," Smith said.
"He loves to talk about hockey, he loves to convey his experience to young junior coaches like myself but he will never sell himself, and I think that is our job now — to make sure that his accolades and his accomplishments ... are recognized by the highest levels of hockey."
An official with the Hockey Hall of Fame says the deadline for public submissions is March 15. A selection committee meets not long after the Stanley Cup final ends to consider candidates. Admission requires three-quarters of the 18-member committee to agree.
Paris admits he's a little uncomfortable with the attention. On Monday, he was given a standing ovation while attending a Halifax Mooseheads game.
"I'm humbled by it and I owe Nova Scotia and the Maritimes thanks, and Canada and anywhere else I've been. I've coached in Europe and the U.S. ... I didn't coach to go to the Hall of Fame," he said. "I coach because that's what I enjoy, that's what I do."
The petition had amassed 2,300 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2023.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press