By Ross Forman – As a youngster growing up in hockey-crazed Toronto, Jamal Mayers knew the name of every NHL player – from Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier to longtime forwards Scott Mellanby and Rick Tocchet. He also was intrigued by such former pros as Dirk Graham, Tony McKegney and Grant Fuhr – players who certainly made an impact for their teams.
They also looked like Mayers. Or he looked like them, as African Americans.
“I think you seek that out when you’re a kid,” Mayers said. “There certainly was a commonality in regard to similar backgrounds (of some former players) and seeking out those who looked like me was important for me to believe it was possible.”
Mayers’ hockey dream led him from Canada to Western Michigan University for a four-year career, from 1992-96, and he then was selected 89th overall in the 1993 NHL Draft by the St. Louis Blues. He went on to a 15-year career in the NHL, from 1996-2013, also playing for Toronto, Calgary, San Jose, and the Chicago Blackhawks for his final two seasons, 2011-12 and 2012-13.
The right-handed shooting wing played 915 regular-season games in the NHL, with 90 career goals and 129 assists. He skated in 63 more games in the playoffs.
Mayers, since retiring, has been a commentator for the Blackhawks on NBC Sports Chicago while also serving as a community liaison for the team.
“You have to have passion in whatever you want to do in life,” said Mayers, now 45. “If you dream of becoming an architect, follow that passion and do not stop until you reach your goals. Find that passion; don’t take ‘No’ for an answer, continue to seek out ways to get better, and be ready and willing to put in the work.”
Mayers did so on the ice and continues to do so through multiple Blackhawks-run youth programs, particularly G.O.A.L. and its follow-up, First Stride.
G.O.A.L., which stands for Get Out And Learn, introduces hockey at the grassroots level to kids who may not otherwise have the opportunity to try hockey. The program brings hockey to schools, community centers and other places where kids can play in safe, structured environments. To make the game more accessible, the Blackhawks provide equipment, tips on how to grow the program and instruction from youth hockey coaches.
First Stride allows fourth- and fifth-grade students with floor hockey experience a chance to take the ice. Though currently paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of Chicago Public School students typically visit Fifth Third Arena, the new Chicago Blackhawks Community Ice Rink, each week to further their hockey education on and off the ice.
“Doing those programs for the past few years, we realized that we weren’t really engaging with the kindergartners through third-grade (students), how can we reach them to possibly try hockey,” Mayers said. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I write a couple of stories based on my upbringing, the trials, and challenges of playing the game, learning how to skate.’”
The result came to life this past February: Hockey is for Me, by Mayers, is an illustrated children’s narrative that brings to life Mayers’ personal journey from youth hockey to the NHL.
The book tells of the financial and emotional hurdles that almost made him give up the game; however, through perseverance and hard work, Mayers became a Stanley Cup champion with the Blackhawks.
“My hope is, the book inspires kids to try skating, or hockey, or anything else that, from the outside, may not look like it’s for them,” Mayers said. “I certainly had a lot of obstacles growing up in a single-parent home in Toronto. We moved a lot and my mom had two or three jobs at times.
“But everything I have and everything I am is because of the game; I am so grateful for the game. So, I wanted to write a positive story and what better way to do that then to write through the lens of a kid.
“My hope is the book inspires kids. I hope it becomes a teaching tool.”
Mayers’ drive was to showcase a pictorial path for minority youngsters to see themselves through the book, in the book – and also for families to bring up the conversation of diversity and inclusion, and what that looks like, whether it’s in a kids’ class or whatever sports they may be involved in that, from the outside, may not seem inclusive. “What better way to teach your kids about diversity and inclusion,” he said.
“I really believe that you have to see it before you believe that you can become it,” he said. “My hope is that kids see themselves in the book. I try to speak truthfully to some of the challenges they may face or encounter. You learn and gain strength from adversity. Allowing the game to become more diverse, I only see that as a positive.
“It not only is the right thing for the sport to be more inclusive, but also, it’s good business.”
Mayers said hockey is willing to ask the tough questions, to be uncomfortable, to be challenged. “We’re willing to educate ourselves on what may be microagressions, inherent biases that we all hold to be true,” he said. “Maybe we can begin to chisel away and break down some of those myths. If sports can be that conduit to bring a community together, I can’t think of a better reason. That’s why I think it’s imperative of our sport to continue to intentionally attract more diverse backgrounds through our great game.”
He added, “When you’re a kid, you always look for examples of successful people who look like you and come from a place you come from. Hopefully, that’s what this book does, it gives kids an opportunity to see themselves through me, through my lens and inspires them to think outside the box and try something that.”
Mayers does extensive community work for the Blackhawks and he certainly hopes to spend more time, eventually, reading and talking about his book and his life’s journey to youngsters.
“I like seeing the wonderment in their eyes,” when reading from the book, he said. “It’s been extremely rewarding, extremely humbling and just fun to re-live stories through the book.”
Hockey is for Me is Mayers’ teaching of the past for the present and beyond. At the end of the book Mayers learns to skate, leading to redemption. “I like that the character in the book who put me down for trying to skate actually had a sense of redemption, which I think is invaluable as we grow, learn.
“I’m excited to inspire as many kids as possible,” through the book.
***Photos courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks***
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.