Payne is the third Black head coach in North American pro hockey after Mason and Sutter. “It’s a really exciting day for the Cincinnati Cyclones hockey organization and the entire community,” said Jay Ciciorello, owner and chairman of the Cyclones and Jobing.com Arena. “Jason’s passion and commitment to his players and this community is obvious, and we can’t wait to see what he brings to the table as head coach of the Cyclones.”

After a five-year absence from the ECHL, Jason Payne returned to the league last fall as a head coach for the Cincinnati Cyclones . The hiring of the first-ever Black head coach to work in the league came as something of a surprise, but not to those who know the Cyclones’ owner, Jim Schoenfeld, who was the first Black owner in pro hockey back in the 1970s. “I think it’s amazing that an owner like Jim would hire a first-ever Black coach,” said Payne.

 

The ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones have hired Jason Payne, making him the only Black head coach in North American professional hockey next season.

After Cyclones head coach Matt Thomas was hired by the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins, Payne, 45, was elevated from assistant coach. Payne, who grew up in Toronto, had a 14-year pro hockey career that took him all the way to the American Hockey League.

“There weren’t many Black instructors when I was growing up,” Payne said, “but when there were, you paid note.” Payne believes that his hiring will serve as an example to others.

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“Seeing familiar faces is essential for younger players to think, ‘Yeah, maybe I can be the person behind the bench, maybe I can be someone in hockey operations, maybe I can be a video coach,’” Payne told ESPN. “The more faces you meet, the more possibilities become apparent.”

Payne’s ultimate ambition is to become an NHL coach. In 1998-99, Dirk Graham became the NHL’s first Black head coach, although he was dismissed during his first season by the Chicago Blackhawks. Since then, the NHL hasn’t had another Black head coach.

“Gary Bettman and the NHL do an excellent job of promoting diversity, and many clubs are following suit. This wasn’t the case a few years ago “Payne said. “They’re attempting to rewrite history. All we have to do now is stay the course and keep pushing for those doors to open. Those are my objectives. I’m trying my best and putting in as much effort as I can. You must have faith in the procedure. It isn’t always a simple procedure, but you must have faith in it. What’s going on in my life right now is enormous, but maybe it will have an effect on the hockey world as well.”

Payne was asked to speak at the NHL Coaches Association’s worldwide clinic in May after being a part of the BIPOC program, which supports minority coaches. Payne said his speaking engagement led to additional possibilities, and this offseason he interviewed with numerous ECHL and AHL teams.

In 2018, Thomas brought Payne to Cincinnati for the first time. The Cyclones went 89-30-12-4 in two seasons and qualified for the playoffs both times. Thomas was named the ECHL Coach of the Year for 2019.

Kristin Ropp, the Cyclones’ general manager, is the only female general manager in the ECHL, AHL, or NHL.

Ropp told ESPN, “I don’t want Jason to receive recognition for the wrong reasons — he deserves it.” “But, in some ways, it’s almost tragic that we’re in 2021 and he’s still the only Black head coach in the NHL. It frightens me. It’s really a pity.”

Prior to the epidemic, Ropp claimed she attended an NHL diversity and inclusion conference in Florida.

“It was incredible because I like how honest the NHL is,” Ropp remarked. “‘We need to work on this,’ they say. We can’t be black because we’re white. That isn’t representative of the broader public, therefore it doesn’t make sense.’”

Payne’s coaching philosophy is based on getting to know his players as individuals. He will continue to act as the team’s director of hockey operations and work with the Cincinnati Cyclones Foundation, which is working to promote the game of hockey in the greater Cincinnati region.

Payne said, “I wasn’t a natural goal scorer, but I worked hard, was tough, and battled every opportunity I had.” “I know how hard I worked for 14 years to play pro hockey and make it to the NHL. I was only able to make it to the AHL. But, if I worked so hard as a player, why wouldn’t I work just as hard, if not more, as a coach?”

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