The Lightning are admittedly limping into the playoffs—the reigning Stanley Cup champs have dropped three straight, sinking them to third in the Central Division—but at least some good came from Monday night’s loss to Florida. The Bolts took the ice for their regular-season finale with a starting trio of forwards Mathieu Joseph, Daniel Walcott and Gemel Smith, marking the first all-black starting unit in NHL history.
“They deserve to be here and have worked their tails off,” said coach Jon Cooper, who didn’t alert Joseph, Walcott or Smith that they were starting until minutes before the opening faceoff. “Moving forward in the league, you hope it isn't a story anymore and will be the norm."
Despite recent strides, black players remain underrepresented in pro hockey, accounting for only three percent of players on NHL rosters. Walcott made his NHL debut in the losing effort while Smith, who has split time between the Bolts and their AHL affiliate in Syracuse, was making his fifth appearance of 2021. Joseph played in each of Tampa Bay’s 56 regular-season contests, contributing 12 goals and seven assists in that span. Joseph and Walcott are both Quebec natives while Smith hails from Ontario.
“I was glad to be a part of it,” said Joseph, who characterized Monday’s milestone as a “step in the right direction.” “Any players of color in this league want to showcase to our families or other people of color. I thank the coaching staff for doing this."
“To get into that starting lineup was great,” said Walcott via Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press. “Coop did something really special here to promote this for young kids."
Tampa Bay, fresh off its second Stanley Cup in franchise history, begins its title defense this weekend against the Panthers, who the Lightning beat just twice in seven tries during the regular season.