Back in April, Rochelle Popyon and April Scott, a couple of hockey moms in California, came up with an idea: Let’s bring a team consisting entirely of Black players to a high-level tournament in Minnesota. Their mission was to engage youth in hockey and advance the sport in the Black community.
First, though, they had to find such a team in a sport played predominantly by white people. The NHL featured just 18 Black players two seasons ago, according to Sports Illustrated.
But by getting commitments from players throughout the country, including Minnesota, Popyon and Brown’s efforts came to fruition last weekend when the Panthers, an all-Black team, played in the Under-18 AAA division of the Minnesota Showcase Hockey Summer Showdown at Richfield Ice Arena.
“It’s like you’re planning a wedding— all the logistics to it,” Popyon said.
The Panthers drew their 17 players from eight states, with five from California, three from New York, two each from Minnesota, Georgia and Nevada, and one each from Maryland, Nebraska and Tennessee. Lending a big assist in the planning was Meredith Lang of Richfield, whose work in encouraging young girls of color to play hockey has led to her being a finalist for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.
“This right here is just so amazing to see all these faces of men of color who are here in Minnesota and being able to play at this level,” Lang said. just gratifying for my kids to see this. They don’t see this often. To be able to expand our community is what’s important.”
The team arrived in the Twin Cities on Wednesday, and players and parents gathered for their only practice on Thursday. The coaching staff featured three Black men —
head coach Mike Weekley and assistants Gibran Popyon Sr., and Anthony Walsh.
“We just picked them up out of nowhere and everywhere, and it was like, ‘All right, you’ve got two hours. Figure out how to be a team,'” Weekley said of his players.
As one might expect with 16 players and a goalie thrown together for the first time, practice took some time for the team to become one. Passes weren’t always crisp, and communication wasn’t immediate. Quickly, though, things improved.
“The first couple minutes, it wasn’t looking good,” defenseman Gibran Popyon II. “But as practice went on, we got the drills going and people stepped up.”
Walsh, a member of Edina’s 2013 Class 2A state championship team, took the coaching gig on the suggestion of Lang and was impressed with the players and their resolve.
“To have these guys come together is something that Minnesota has not seen and something that’s needed,” he said. “To be a part of something like that and to have these guys bring this ball over the finish line is an incredible experience. ”
On Friday afternoon, the Panthers took the ice for their first game, against Team Five Hole from the Indianapolis area. Emotions were in full swing with organizers, coaches and players.
“My eyes started to well because it was very emotional,” Rochelle Popyon said. “I was very proud of the effort of the parents and the coaches and everyone with the team to make this happen.”
Team Five Hole took a 1-0 early in the first period, but the Panthers applied pressure with three power plays in the period. With his team killing off a penalty in the second, Anthony O’Neal got a shorthanded breakaway goal for the Panthers to knot the score 1-1, setting off a roaring celebration from the team’s parents. Though the Indiana team would win 6-2, the Panthers competed throughout.
Jayar Luedke, one of two Minnesotans on the Panthers roster, saw the team’s goal as much more than winning.
“I just hope it inspires more young Black kids to play hockey,” said Luedke, who had 19 goals and 15 assists as a Simley High School senior this past season. “There’s not that many, and if I can help grow the game , that would mean more to me than anything.”
On Saturday, the Panthers beat the Midwest Warriors 7-4, then tied Magicians AAA 2-2. They finished the tournament with an 8-1 loss to the Midwest Knights on Sunday for a 1-2-1 record but left with an experience they’ll treasure.
“It’s great that we can do this in Minnesota, where great hockey players come from annually and regularly,” Weekley said. “I just want people to see that we can do it, too. We can love the game just as much as anyone else.”
Added Walsh, “To have a team like this come through here is no better way to say, ‘We’ve arrived. We’re here. Hockey is literally for everyone.’ This proves it.”