Jason Payne Hired by ECHL's Cyclones as North America's Only Black Pro Hockey HC

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured Columnist IVAugust 31, 2021

UNIONDALE, NY - MARCH 04: One of the nets prior to the National Hockey League game between the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Islanders on March 4, 2021, at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones announced Tuesday that they hired Jason Payne as their new head coach, making him the only Black head coach in North American pro hockey.

He will also be the first Black head coach in Cyclones history and will serve as the team's director of hockey operations.

Payne released the following statement:

"I would like to thank our ownership group, Ray Harris, and Kristin Ropp for trusting in me and believing in my abilities. I am humbled, grateful, and excited for this amazing opportunity. I would like to thank [former head coach] Matt Thomas for all that he has done to support the Cyclones and for giving me my first opportunity at the professional level as a member of his staff. I would also like to congratulate him on his recent hire as the assistant coach with the Providence Bruins and joining the Boston Bruins organization."

The 45-year-old had a 14-year playing career that included stints in the AHL and ECHL, though he never made it to the NHL. 

He told ESPN's Emily Kaplan that "there weren't many Black coaches as I was coming up, but when there were, you took notice."

"It's important for younger players to see familiar faces, saying, 'Yeah, maybe I can be the guy behind the bench, maybe I can be someone in hockey operations, maybe I can be a video coach,'" he added. "The more you see the faces, the more it sheds light on the opportunities that are possible."

Payne's coaching career began in the Ontario Junior Hockey League in the 2010-11 season. He joined the Cyclones in 2018-19 as an assistant coach.

Dirk Graham is the only Black head coach in NHL history. He was at the helm of the Chicago Blackhawks for 59 games in 1998-99.

Payne, who wants to someday coach in the NHL, believes the league is trying to improve its diversity.

"Gary Bettman and the NHL do a great job trying to open the doors with diversity, and a lot of teams are doing the same. This wasn't a thing years ago," he said, per Kaplan. "They're trying to change the narrative. All we can do now is stay consistent at it, keep pushing for those doors to open. Those are my goals. I'm doing the best I can and working as hard as I can. You need to trust the process. It's not always an easy process, but you have to trust it. What's happening to me now is monumental for my life, but hopefully it leaves an impact in the hockey world as well."