It seems almost unsettling to believe that, in 2012, hockey is still predominantly a sport comprised of white players. Considering the incredible contributions that players of colour have made to hockey, especially in the last 25 years, the fact that Caucasians are still the majority of those who lace up the skates each night appears almost incomprehensible. This statistic has even poured into the junior leagues, especially in the Canadian Hockey League. This all being said, however, there is no denying that players of colour are doing well in the CHL, with players such as Malcolm and Jordan Subban in Belleville, Anthony Duclair in Québec, Darnell Nurse in Sault Ste. Marie, Madison Bowey in Kelowna, and Christopher Gibson in Chicoutimi.
Ottawa 67′s rookie defenceman Taylor Davis is hoping to join that list. To make things even more interesting, Davis was never drafted. He was overlooked by teams in both the OHL and the QMJHL when it came time for his draft year, which was in 2011. This made his desire to play in the OHL even higher than it was already. He knew he had the talent to make it. He just had to find his way there.
Taylor Davis was born on May 12, 1995, in Hamilton, New Jersey, making him one of only two African-American players in the entire Ontario Hockey League. (The other is Austin Levi, a Michigan resident who was born in Aurora, Colorado.) Hamilton is a small township in Mercer County, less than fifteen minutes away from the state capital of Trenton and less than an hour away from Philadelphia. When Davis was a little over a month old, the New Jersey Devils won their first-ever Stanley Cup on home ice against the Detroit Red Wings. (In fact, the Devils played Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins the day he was born.)
When Davis was five, he began playing hockey. In 2000, the same year Davis began playing, the Devils won their second Stanley Cup, clinching the title over the Dallas Stars (the defending champs) — again on home ice — in double overtime thanks to a goal by Jason Arnott. This second NHL championship in five years was a turning point which saw the sport gain in popularity more than ever. Most of Davis’ minor hockey days were spent with the Mercer Chiefs, a team in the New Jersey Youth Hockey League, and he always played defence. For many years, from peewee minor to bantam minor, his usual blueline partner was Anthony DeAngelo, who currently stars on the back end for the OHL’s Sarnia Sting.
As if two Stanley Cups in New Jersey were not enough during Davis’ childhood, the Devils soon completed a trifecta. In 2003, once more on home ice, the Devils won their third NHL championship, this time in seven games against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. It was the first time since 1965 that a team had won all of their Stanley Cups on home ice.
Sadly, though, the list of black American players in the NHL for Davis to look up to was not that long. In fact, it seemed as though Mike Grier was the only one. There were, of course, some Canadian ones in the NHL at the time that Davis was having his formative years in hockey, including Jarome Iginla, Anson Carter, Donald Brashear and Georges Laraque. Unfortunately, the grim reality of there not being many black hockey playing role models was a bitter pill to swallow, despite the fact that two black goalies — Grant Fuhr and Eldon “Pokey” Reddick — had won the Stanley Cup and that Dirk Graham was already an NHL captain with the Chicago Blackhawks.
As the years progressed, Davis watched as there were players from his home state of New Jersey doing well in hockey, especially in the OHL. Players such as Bobby Ryan, Bobby Sanguinetti, David Kolomatis, Jack Walchessen and others were coming in and being very successful. This made his drive to play in the OHL even greater and he was willing to do whatever it took to get there.
Additionally, in the Canadian major junior leagues, Davis found that there were black players doing well, too. Chris Stewart was one of the best players for the Kingston Frontenacs. Maxime Boisclair led the QMJHL in goal scoring with 70 tallies in 2005-06 while in Chicoutimi. Kenndal McArdle was a scoring machine in the WHL and he also got the opportunity to play for Canada at the 2007 World Juniors, where he helped the team win gold. Players including Derek Joslin, Wayne Simmonds, Viktor Sjödin and P.K. Subban were coming into their own, while Sena Acolatse, Akim Aliu and Devante Smith-Pelly were just starting to carve their niches in the CHL.
Furthermore, black players were starting to get some good recognition. Jarome Iginla helped Team Canada win gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, getting the assist on Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal. Johnny Oduya represented Sweden at the Olympics. Dustin Byfuglien was a key cog for the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup championship that same year. Former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes was becoming a successful television analyst.
In 2010, Davis made the nearly eleven-hour trip from New Jersey to Detroit, Michigan, in order to further his hockey career playing with the Motor City U16 AAA Mechanics. He was not the only Garden State lad to head that way, either, as fellow defenceman Nicholas Malysa was entering his second season with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, where he has actually played with Austin Levi. That same season, Davis’ former blueline partner and friend Anthony DeAngelo made his junior hockey debut with the USHL’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, a team in Iowa.
After a year in Detroit, Davis was all ready to play in the NAHL with the Janesville Jets, a tier 1 junior A team based in Wisconsin. His plans, however, were diverted and the 6’2″, 208-pound defenceman emerged signing instead with the Buffalo Jr. Blades, a junior B team in New York who play in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, mostly against teams in Ontario. Davis knew that there were many players in that league who had OHL experience or were on their way to play in that league. He was very successful during his 37-game tenure with the Blades, recording eight points (three goals, five assists) and 91 penalty minutes. In fact, he recorded two assists in his first game with his new club. Even more remarkably, all three of Davis’ goals were powerplay markers, his first junior career goal coming in his second game: October 7, 2011, against Zach Penny of the Port Colborne Pirates. (Davis also recorded 18 penalty minutes during that game.)
After watching the successful season that Davis had in Buffalo quite closely, Truman Dumel, a scout of Haitian-Canadian descent based out of Nyack, New York, two hours away from Davis’ hometown, realized Davis’ OHL potential, as well. He first met Davis in 2010 while he (Davis) was playing for Motor City. The two became good friends and so close that Dumel comes to think of Davis almost like a little brother. Dumel, who is also a great educator on black hockey history, approached the scouting staff of the Ottawa 67′s, whom he previously met at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, about taking a look at Davis. He knew that the 67′s has had success with black players in the past, including Derek Joslin, Julien Demers and Arron Alphonso. In addition, the 67′s were going to be considerably young on defence. They lost team captain Marc-Anthony Zanetti and 2012 midseason acquisition Daniel Broussard to graduation, while Ben Dubois and Ryan Shipley were both released. Three of their blueliners — co-captain Cody Ceci, as well as overagers Jake Cardwell and Michal Čajkovský — had more than two seasons of OHL hockey under their belts. Sean Callaghan and Mike Vlajkov were both returning for second seasons.
Davis knew what he was up against, though. There were three other rookie defencemen hoping for spots on the 67′s roster. 1995-born blueliners Nevin Guy and Matthieu Desautels were already under contract, as was 1996-born Jonathan Duchesne. Davis knew that he had to stand out in order to secure a spot. He showed head coach/general manager Chris Byrne every facet of his game — offensively, defensively, physically. Byrne and his coaching staff were impressed and they signed the free-agent blueliner to an OHL contract. From the beginning of the preseason until now, he has been wearing the jersey number 18, worn for the last few seasons by another American, Shane Prince. In total, the 67′s kept nine defencemen, mostly because they knew that Ceci would likely be going to play for Team Canada at the 2013 World Juniors in Russia. Additionally, Čajkovský’s return was an eleventh-hour decision after a possible tenure in the KHL backfired.
Davis’ OHL dream had finally come true, made official on September 29, 2012. That day, the Ottawa 67′s hammered the Erie Otters 8-1. Davis did not record any points, or penalty minutes, but he also managed to have an even plus/minus ranking. He has shown already that he is not going to back down from any challenge, getting into a last-second shoving match with Brody Silk in a game against the Sudbury Wolves on October 7th. Five days later, Davis tallied his first OHL point, an assist on a goal by Brett Gustavsen against the Mississauga Steelheads. Every game since, his ice time has increased and he has found that he is becoming one of Ottawa’s more reliable defencemen, a welcome relief on a team so young.
Happily, this season, the OHL has a considerable number of black players in addition to Davis. His teammate Steven Janes is hoping to build upon his career season from last year, now in his fourth OHL campaign. In Belleville, Malcolm and Jordan Subban are each have superstar-worthy seasons while their cousin, Marselis, is playing quite solidly on the defence for the Saginaw Spirit. Also in Saginaw, 2012 first-round OHL draft pick Jeremiah Addison is starting to adjust to OHL life while Terry Trafford is now a wily veteran. Austin Levi is back for an overage season with the Plymouth Whalers. Highly-touted Kitchener Rangers rookie Justin Bailey is starting to produce offensively. Windsor Spitfires 2012 first-round pick Joshua Ho-Sang has come as advertised. Cameron Brace, Gemel Smith and Jaden Lindo are all contributing very well for the Owen Sound Attack, especially Brace, who is leading the team in scoring. Nicholas Baptiste is picking up where he left off last year with the Sudbury Wolves. Darnell Nurse is already a stud on the blueline for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. On the Erie Otters, Stephen Harper is hoping to rebuild on a 20-goal rookie campaign while sophomore goalie Devin Williams is learning from Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick Oscar Dansk. Brampton Battalion defenceman Marcus McIvor is hoping to have a career year in 2012-13 after recording 14 points (one goal, 13 assists) in each of his first two OHL campaigns. Josh Burnside is hoping to have a stellar season with the Mississauga Steelheads, his first full campaign in the league. In Guelph, Patrick Watling is hoping to build on the success he had as a 19-year-old rookie last year. Finally, on the Barrie Colts, rookie defenceman C.J. Garcia is hoping to find his way into the top three pairings for Dale Hawerchuk’s club.
Many of these players are eligible for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft next June. Jordan Subban is hoping to become the third in his family to be chosen and the second in as many years after Malcolm was a first-round pick of the Boston Bruins (24th overall) in 2012, not too bad for a goalie who did not start his netminding career until the age of 14. Justin Bailey, Darnell Nurse and Nicholas Baptiste are also very highly thought of for the upcoming draft, especially Bailey who was a star in the AYHL a season ago. In addition, there are two black players in other CHL leagues with great potential to be drafted: Anthony Duclair of the QMJHL’s Québec Remparts and Madison Bowey of the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. Davis is also eligible.
Since the 2013 NHL Entry Draft is actually going to be held at the Prudential Center, the thought of Taylor Davis being chosen would be just a cherry on top of what has been a fantastic hockey career so far, one in which he has beaten the odds at every ample opportunity. Everything would finally come full circle, back to where it all started: His home state of New Jersey.
NOTE: On the same day that this article was published, which was also the day he and I met, Taylor Davis scored his first OHL goal on Kingston Frontenacs goalie Colin Furlong.