2021 ncw jason payne

Perseverance pays off

The road to becoming a head coach has not been easy for Jason Payne, but his passion and drive have made him the only active Black head coach in North American pro hockey

Shannon Coulter
September 25, 2021

Soon after the Cincinnati Cyclones’ head coach position became vacant ahead of the 2021-22 season, Jason Payne found himself sitting in the office of general manager Kristin Ropp.

Payne, a Toronto native, had spent three years with the Cyclones after joining the ECHL organization as an assistant coach prior to the 2018-19 season.

“I said, ‘Do you think you’re ready?’” Ropp recalls. “And he said, ‘Of course, yes.’”

After years of working with the 45-year-old coach, Ropp knew there was no need to interview anyone else for the position. In her mind, making Payne the organization’s sixth head coach was a “no brainer.”

“He was excited,” she says. “He did say, ‘I think you should know that this might get national attention.’ And I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ I didn’t really think about it.”

That’s because when Payne was officially named head coach on Aug. 31, he became the only active Black head coach in North American professional hockey. He is only the sixth BIPOC head coach in pro hockey history.

“It’s humbling,” Payne says. “It’s an honour, for sure.”

The road to becoming the head coach of a pro team has certainly not been easy for Payne. When he started playing, he was initially a goaltender before becoming a skater. His played minor hockey with the Toronto Devils, Hillcrest Summits, Wexford Raiders and Mississauga Senators.

“As a young hockey player, my mother didn’t have a vehicle,” Payne says. “Her and I used to take the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) to games and to try-outs.”

When he reached junior hockey, he bounced around between teams and leagues to try to find an organization that clicked with him.

“I wanted to do everything I could to make it, so playing with the [St. Michael’s] Buzzers to going out west to the [Western Hockey League], to going to the [Quebec Major Junior Hockey League] and finally landing back in the [Ontario Hockey League] with the London Knights and Barrie Colts, and then making the jump from there into pro hockey.”

Payne spent 14 years in the pro game, including time with multiple teams in the ECHL and AHL. While playing pro, he took an interest in coaching and even began his own coaching company. He finished his playing career in 2008-09, splitting the season between the ECHL’s Reading Royals and Wheeling Nailers before moving into coaching full-time.

“I fought every night, and I battled every night,” he says. “I've done the same thing [with coaching]. I've worked hard every day, wanting opportunities... It’s a lengthy process sometimes and it takes time. But I was persistent, and I continued to work at it.”

Early in his coaching career, Payne went back to minor hockey to coach the next generation. He wanted to understand the mindset of young players coming up in the game and how his coaching should evolve to best communicate with his teams. One of his most memorable coaching experiences was with the 2002 age group of his former team, the Mississauga Senators in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, because he had the opportunity to coach the same group of players for multiple years.

“I'd like to think that I had an influence and impact some way, somehow in their lives. And that was my ultimate goal,” he says, adding that he still speaks with those players and checks in on them periodically. “My goal is not just to make them better players, but to make them better people.”

For Ropp, Payne’s communication skills, relatability and people-style of coaching were all attributing factors for why she was very confident with his promotion. With his wealth of experience, she knew he was more than capable to make the transition to head coach.

“It’s one of those situations where you stop and think, ‘Well, why was he never given this opportunity before?’ It seems crazy,” she says. “You don’t want to think that his race had anything to do with it.”

Ropp, who is the only woman actively serving as general manager in the ECHL, AHL or NHL, has looked to hire qualified individuals that match the Cyclones’ family-focused office culture. Those standards were no different when she hired Payne.

“It’s almost kind of sad that in 2021, it’s such a big deal. But I’m thrilled to be able to give him the opportunity, our organization is thrilled,” she says. “At the end of the day, the man earned his spot as our head coach. He has grinded it out for decades in every level of hockey and a ton of years in pro hockey.”

“They've allowed me to coach this team because they know that I've worked for it and I deserve it,” Payne says. “It has nothing to do with I'm a coach of colour. You know, that's just the way the cards have played out.

“They hired me here because they think I'm the best person for the job.”

Although he faced adversity along his journey, Payne’s perseverance has paid off. There has only been one Black head coach in NHL history – Dirk Graham coached the Chicago Blackhawks for 59 games during the 1998-99 season – but Payne aspires to join him at the next level of coaching one day.

In the meantime, he’s excited to be behind the bench with Cincinnati in his new role for the 2021-22 season, hopefully leading his team to a Kelly Cup championship.

“Just seeing it all come to fruition as it has, I'm grateful. I'm thankful,” he says. “And I'm going to continue to work as hard as I've been, if not harder.”

For more information:

Esther Madziya
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 284-6484 

Spencer Sharkey
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 777-4567

Jeremy Knight
Manager, Corporate Communications
Hockey Canada

(647) 251-9738

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