First all-Black forward starting line showcases Lightning, NHL's focus on diversity

The first faceoff Monday night between the Lightning and Panthers was also the first of its kind.

"An historic starting lineup," said Lightning play-by-play announcer Dave Randorf. "There's another look at Daniel Wolcott playing with Mathieu Joseph and Gemel Smith."

It was the first time a full line of forward players who are Black started an NHL game.

"Maybe it is a story today, but as the league gets more diverse, you hope it is not going to be a story anymore and it is just going to be the norm," said head coach Jon Cooper.

It was even Daniel Wolcott's first game.

"Coop did something really special," he said afterward. "He had the opportunity. It is awesome to promote this for the young kids out there, young minorities."

The Lightning has made a habit of history.

The team had the first goalie who is female and now has two assistant coaches who are Black.

Frantz Jean is the goaltending coach. Nigel Kirwan is a video coach.

This year, goalie Curtis McElhinney painted "Black Lives Matter" on his mask

Gemel Smith 46, Mathieu Joseph 7, and Daniel Walcott 85

"Tampa is in the forefront among NHL teams of basically walking the walk in terms of diversity," said author Cecil Harris, who wrote, "Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey." "Not just saying we are for it, but showing concrete examples."

It's a big deal in a league where three to 5% of players are Black

Only about a hundred have played in the history of the league. 

Anson Carter played 10 years in the NHL and says the Lightning Panthers game was a particularly meaningful step because of which team took it. 

"It was the defending Stanley Cup Champions that did this," said Carter. "We are seeing the hockey community, coaches like Coach Cooper, being really intentional in their actions. They understand representation matters."

Willie O'Ree became the first Black player in 1958.

Though Carter says racial taunts happen much less often today, Harris says O'Ree was certainly not the last to experience racial taunts.

That's why what the Lightning did on Monday night was such a big deal.

"That is the achievement of a large part of Willie O'Ree's dream," said Harris. "This is exactly what he wanted to see. This is exactly why he made that sacrifice."