There’s a lot to like about the IIHF World Junior Championship. It’s a dash of high-stakes hockey right around the holidays and right around when the NHL season starts to drag. It showcases the next generation of NHL stars playing a dazzlingly chaotic and emotional brand of hockey, since the players, while talented, are still in their teens.
Or so I thought — until I first beheld Jordan Greenway.
In 2017, Team USA won gold with a thrilling 5–4 shootout win against Canada in Montreal after twice erasing two-goal deficits. The Americans were mostly zippy small guys, quick on their feet, pushing the action as fast as their little legs could carry them. Some of these 18- and 19-year-olds will probably grow an inch or two or pack on 20 pounds by the time they become NHL regulars, but of the 20 skaters Team USA brought to the World Juniors in 2017, only three stood taller than 6-foot-1.
Greenway was one of the exceptions. Then 19 years old and a sophomore at Boston University, Greenway was listed at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, which doesn’t really do justice to how big he looked playing against kids his own age. The phrase “man among boys” is inadequate — Greenway looked like he was being chased by flies.
This week, Greenway gets to play with the men for real. Greenway, who turns 21 on February 16 and is now listed at 6-foot-6, is one of two players from that World Junior squad to make the U.S. Olympic team for Pyeongchang. In his Olympic debut, a 3–2 loss to Slovenia on Wednesday, he played 15 minutes and tapped home a rebound in the second period.
Today’s young NHL stars are faster and more skilled than any generation before — players Greenway’s age aren’t old enough to remember much of the stodgy turn-of-the-century Dead Puck Era that ended with the 2004–05 lockout. They grew up watching a league without a two-line pass rule or towering defensive tackle–type defensemen, and that influence shows in the fastest, most skilled generation ever. The other 2017 World Junior gold medalist on Team USA, University of Denver forward Troy Terry, is 6-foot-1, 174 pounds, and made his name as a shootout specialist: He went a T.J. Oshie–like 3-for-3 in a semifinal shootout against Russia before potting the only goal of the shootout in the gold-medal game against Canada.
Greenway, by contrast, probably won’t end up in a shootout anytime soon. He moves well and has good hands for a big guy (for example: see this cross-ice assist in the gold-medal game against Canada) but subtlety isn’t his game. Forwards of Greenway’s size have one home, and one home only: the slot. Power forwards set up in front of the net, screen the goaltender, deflect shots from the perimeter, and chop home rebounds.
Part of what makes Greenway so good is that he’s so big it takes opposing defensemen a while to get around him. He can plant his butt in an opponent’s stomach, using his body to shield the puck, and pick out a shot or a pass all while the defenseman’s left looking like he’s driven his car up to an intersection that’s unexpectedly closed for construction. That’s if he doesn’t just bounce off Greenway’s back.
Greenway has been a big deal in American hockey since he was 14, when he left his hometown of Canton, New York, for Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the elite Minnesota boarding school that produced NHL stars Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, and Jonathan Toews. From there, Greenway moved on to the U.S. National Team Development Program, where he won world championship gold for the U.S. at the U-18 level before his U-20 triumph in 2017. At that year’s World Junior tournament, Greenway registered three goals and five assists in seven games, tying him for second on Team USA in scoring, and he was the player of the game in Team USA’s curtain lifter against Latvia. That summer, he made his senior national team debut at the World Championships, where Team USA lost 2–0 in the quarterfinals to Finland, in a game where Greenway played only three shifts.
Greenway remains at BU, where he’s scored 82 career points and registered 182 penalty minutes in 104 games for the Terriers. When he leaves college, he’ll join the Minnesota Wild, who drafted him in the second round in 2015. Greenway’s decision to stay in school kept him from making the same immediate NHL impact as many of his World Junior teammates, but it has allowed him to play in the Olympics, because for the first time since the Lillehammer Games of 1994, NHL players are staying home.
That places Greenway in the position of being more than just another fun hockey player: He’s the first African American ever to represent the U.S. in Olympic hockey.
Greenway has been part of the U.S. national team setup across various age groups, so his inclusion is hardly accidental, but he didn’t set out to break the color barrier for U.S. Olympic hockey. He might be U.S. Olympic hockey’s Jackie Robinson, but he’s nowhere near as overt a political figure as the Hall of Fame Dodger second baseman. Greenway told CNN he didn’t know he was the country’s first black player until after he’d made the team.
Black hockey players have played and even medaled in the Olympics before — Jarome Iginla and P.K. Subban for Canada and Johnny Oduya for Sweden. And if NHL players had gone to Pyeongchang, it’s very likely that Team USA would have featured at least one black player: Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien played for Team USA in the 2016 World Cup, and Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, a two-time All-Star at age 23, figured to make the squad even if Byfuglien didn’t. Winger Kyle Okposo was a controversial late cut from the American roster in 2014 and would have been in the conversation as well.
But now that it’s happened, American hockey finds itself in the awkward position of interrogating why “breaking the color barrier” is a thing in 2018. Willie O’Ree became the first black NHL player in 1958, but it wasn’t until Grant Fuhr in 1984 that a black player won the Stanley Cup. In 1996, Mike Grier became the first black NHL player born and raised in the U.S., and it wasn’t until 2002 that Iginla became the first black player to win a scoring title.
Or rather, American hockey ought to be interrogating why “breaking the color barrier” is still a thing, because while it’s embarrassing that it took until 2018 to have a black player on the Olympic team, it’s not surprising. For a variety of reasons, ranging from apathy to ignorance to outright malice, American hockey weeds people like Greenway out. Greenway’s coach at BU, David Quinn, was interviewed for the CNN story on Greenway’s historic achievement. Quinn said, “I did not know he was going to be breaking the color barrier. It’s not something I really think about. I look at him as a hockey player — to be honest here, one of my favorites ever.”
Well intentioned as that sentiment is, it reads a lot like “I don’t see race,” which minimizes the impact of structural racism. Hockey fans see Greenway and Byfuglien representing the U.S., and an increase of diversity in the NHL, and applaud. It’s a good thing that Subban is probably the most marketable hockey player in the world, and that the face of American hockey is Auston Matthews, a Mexican American who grew up in Arizona.
Black and Latino hockey players are just like everyone else now, and that’s good — but it’s also intellectually consistent with thinking American racism ended when it was no longer codified in Jim Crow laws. Race is still a major predictor of wealth in the United States, and hockey is a sport for rich people.
The pay-to-play structure of American youth soccer has restricted the highest levels of coaching and competition to children of rich parents — sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally — and the structure is much the same in hockey, only worse. Soccer cleats and balls are relatively cheap, but a full set of ice hockey equipment costs at least several hundred dollars, and must be replaced every time a child goes up a size. You can play soccer on any level piece of land, but unless you’re fortunate enough to live next to a frozen lake, ice time costs money and there’s no such thing as a pickup game. Almost every high school in the United States has a soccer team, but scholastic ice hockey is rare, and the top programs tend to be expensive private schools like Shattuck-St. Mary’s. Even the top college programs are mostly expensive private schools, rather than state schools: Of the past 10 men’s Division I ice hockey championships, only two have been won by public universities.
Black NHL players tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds, too. Grier’s father is a longtime NFL coach and front-office executive. Lightning winger J.T. Brown and Jones are the sons of professional athletes, as is Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse. Jones first expressed interest in playing hockey while his father, NBA center Popeye Jones, was playing for the Denver Nuggets, so the elder Jones went to Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic for advice on how to cultivate that interest.
Wealth doesn’t protect black hockey players from abuse, even after they make the NHL. A fan threw a banana at Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds during an exhibition game in 2011. In 2012, Joel Ward, then of the Washington Capitals, scored a series-winning goal against the Boston Bruins and was pelted with racist rhetoric on Twitter.
And even when black players don’t face bald-faced racism, they’re hit by it in more subtle forms. Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality was turning into a national issue during the leadup to the World Cup of Hockey in 2016, and Team USA coach John Tortorella took that opportunity to announce that he’d bench any player who protested. That put the one black player on the team, Byfuglien, in an extremely awkward position — when asked about Tortorella’s challenge, Byfuglien couldn’t really do anything but shrug. A year later, Brown raised his fist during the national anthem before a game on October 7, and received death threats. Brown is a career fourth-liner who scored just six points in 2016–17, so this could be a coincidence, but he was a scratch in Tampa Bay’s next seven games, returning to the lineup on October 24, after he’d promised to stop protesting.
It’s part of a hockey culture in which nonconformity is punished across the board, regardless of race, but nonwhite players are often singled out. Josh Ho-Sang, who is multiracial, has been a lightning rod for criticism — some deserved, some not — since the Islanders picked him in the first round in 2014. So too Subban, who’s outspoken and colorful, but his personality feels cultivated and focus-grouped; he’s so corporate he makes Peyton Manning look like Dennis Rodman. Nevertheless, Subban’s been targeted for criticism frequently, including an unfortunate Freudian slip in 2010 by TSN analyst Darren Pang, who suggested that Subban should act more like Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who did everything “on the ice, off the ice the white way.” A mortified Pang apologized later in the same show, but it wouldn’t have been such a controversial incident if it hadn’t carried the ring of truth.
So far, Greenway has stuck to sports. He’s a skilled and exciting hockey player whose game and accomplishments speak for themselves. But every deflected goal and every defenseman who bounces off his backside is a reminder of the anonymous thousands of players like him who were too poor or too outspoken to reach the highest level. Greenway is making history in Pyeongchang, but he really shouldn’t have had to.
An earlier version of this story’s display misstated Greenway’s year in college. He’s a junior, not a sophomore.