Toronto’s Jason Payne travelled a long, hard road to get to where he is today.
Promoted this past week by the Cincinnati Cyclones, the 45-year-old father of two is just the fifth Black head coach ever in North American pro hockey — and currently the only one.
From the days when he rode the TTC from North York to games in Mississauga, to establishing himself as a feared fighter in 14 years as a player, he has more than paid his dues in the sport. Counting junior and the pros, he spent more than 1,900 minutes in the penalty box with 25 teams in eight leagues.
Now behind the bench in the East Coast Hockey League, he’s carved out a successful career at a time when hockey is making important, overdue strides toward greater inclusion on and off the ice.
“There’s been a lot of attention, and I’m grateful for everything,” Payne says in a telephone interview from his Cincinnati office, about the reaction to his promotion after three years as assistant coach. “It’s been great, and I’m happy it has attracted the attention it has — for the organization, and for hockey in general.”
He credits the work ethic instilled in him as a player.
“I think I’ve worked hard to put myself in this position … and I know what it’s like for players today to have gone through the same things,” the coach says. “Growing up in Toronto, riding buses to games, and then riding buses again in the pros. I know what it’s like to be in those shoes.”
The would-be enforcer started out as a goalie with the Toronto Devils, and later the Hillcrest Summits. Older brother Kevin then asked him to play with his Don Mills house league team.
Payne says “a lot of coaches kept me on the right path along the way,” but one constant has been former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes, now a broadcaster on the NHL Network. “He’s been a friend since childhood, and we still talk almost daily: about thought processes, about hockey, about everything. Our conversations are rarely under an hour and a half.”
He makes no apologies for taking on a more punishing role on the ice.
“Very physical,” Payne says. “I did what I had to do, to stand up for teammates and stay in the game.
“Fighting, that was part of my style and I tried to be the best at it. It was tough, playing pro and being that style of player. You have to be ready every night, to battle and stand up for your teammates. A lot of it is mental. I remember the next days after games in practice, I could barely hold my stick, my hands were so banged up. But you know what, it’s all fun in the end, because you battle for your teammates and they battle for you.
“I was never drafted, in the OHL or pro hockey. I’ve stepped on to almost every ice there is in junior, and a lot of that was not knowing where I’d play until September, and sometimes a week before you started playing. That’s allowed me to understand what players are going through.
“I worked for a bit with (Hall of Fame goalie) Patrick Roy and he went through some of the same things, and I watched how he did things. It helps communicate with today’s players, and that’s a valuable skill to have.”
Payne is also an active member of the BIPOC program established last season by the NHL Coaches’ Association, founded by Lindsay Artkin.
“He has a great hockey mind,” says Artkin, also the association’s president. “We wanted to give him that opportunity to use our network to share his experiences.”
There are now 55 coaches in the program, which opens doors to networking with every NHL coaching staff. Payne says that access is one of the most important steps when it comes to climbing the ladder.
“You have to establish relationships. With the BIPOC program, they have provided the opportunity to do that,” he says. “They do a great job, but it’s all about the work you put into it. There’s no easy way up. You can’t cut corners. You have to … put the work in. But if you do that, honestly it will pay off.”
There has only been one Black head coach in NHL history: Dirk Graham with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1998-99.
Payne’s goal is to change that.
“I’ve played in a lot of leagues, wherever hockey needed me,” says Payne, whose ECHL club is an affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres. “I’ve met all kinds of people and that allowed me to establish trusted relationships: with GMs, with coaches, with hockey people. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
“You have to be confident in yourself. Making it to the pros, it’s a process. It takes time — years — and there’s no guarantee when your big opportunity will come. There were times when I looked at it and said, oh my gosh … not again. But you have to keep the right mindset, and you have to believe in yourself.”
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