The road to the NHL winds through many places, but few have felt as otherwordly to Jeremy Jackson as the shingled cottage in southern Alberta where he is boarding. Sun streams across the snow-covered Canadian prairie, bouncing off the white carpet, walls and furniture. With no one home, he rattles the knick-knacks above the fireplace by turning up the volume on the bass-shattering boasts of Jay-Z and Nas. “Welcome to my crib,” he says, mouthing the lyrics as recorded gunshots echo through the halls.
Once regarded as one of the hottest hockey prospects in America, Jackson is dressed top-to-bottom in red -- from the wool hat to the Iverson sneakers -- looking as if he boarded the A train in Bed Stuy and got off in Alberta. He’s living here because he’s just been acquired by the Lethbridge Hurricanes, a team in Western Hockey League, one of three major junior leagues in the Canadian Hockey League. The Hurricanes are making a run at the league crown, and that means they’ve been willing to overlook certain things. Among them: that this 19-year-old has played for six teams since 1998; that he isn’t allowed to drive because he was recently busted in Vancouver for driving with a suspended license; and that, at least to this point, he’s been the angriest hip-hopper in minor league hockey. Last summer, he was projected to be a sixth-round pick in the NHL draft and spent the day waiting for a call that never came. Tugging at one of the diamond earrings peeking from his cap, he says, “Longest day in my life, yo.”
Since then, he’s made a bargain with himself: “Everywhere I’ve gone, people have been upset at me for being this way. So now, I say screw it. If the hockey world wants me to change, I’ll change. If that’s what it takes to play hockey, I’ll be less black.”
If this were just about skin color, Jackson’s story would be simpler. The NHL has 13 black players on its rosters and is working hard to find more. It donates ice time and equipment to 30 diversity programs across North America. But when it finds its own Edgerrin or T-Mac, it’s going to have another dilemma. Until now, the players who’ve broken the color barrier have mostly come from middle-class and well-to-do families. The hockey world has yet to deal with an American kid who puts the street in his slap shot, a kid raised in a racially mixed home on welfare and Wu Tang.
Jackson is that kid. He has four tracks on a compilation CD of Vancouver rap acts, and each bursts with a high-energy vibe. So do his skates. On a recent Saturday night in Lethbridge, with the Hurricanes clinging to a one-goal lead over the Saskatoon Blades, he steals the puck with 53 seconds left, fastbreaks down ice, double-jukes and fakes the goalie into a pratfall. Then Jackson sends the puck high in the net, sealing the win.
The NHL’s most respected enforcer, Georges Laraque of the Edmonton Oilers, has flown in to see Jackson play and leaps to his feet. “He’s got the energy of an Iverson,” Laraque says, applauding the goal by Jackson, who has 76 points in 57 games. Later, when the two meet, Jackson lays the respect where it’s due. “That move was all Anson Carter, yo,” he says with a twinkle.
The props to Carter, one of four black players on the Oilers, is proof that the diversity-minded NHL is making progress. “I envy you,” Laraque, who’s also a member of the league’s diversity committee, tells Jackson. “I had to fight to make it. At least you have skilled players to look up to.” But then, growing serious, he leans in closer. “Don’t let them change you, Jeremy.”
It’s a powerful message coming from a man who used his fists to earn a place on sports’ civil rights timeline. When Laraque was 6, teachers in his tiny Quebec town told him he wasn’t smart enough to play hockey. When he did anyway, he got called “monkey” and heard hometown fans shout at his dad, a successful engineer, “Go home, immigrant. Your son is killing our boys.” By the time Laraque played for the St. Jean Lynx of the CHL's Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the slurs came less frequently, and he counted himself lucky.
That wasn’t the case for Derek Campbell, an Ontario-born winger who thought he’d finally earned respect as a fourth-year player in the CHL last year. Then a Czech rookie, Jan Platil, called him a “dirty nigger” on the ice, and the league gave the rookie a minimum two-game suspension -- tripled after the incident made headlines. “By 21, you learn to handle racism,” says Campbell, who now plays for St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. “But what about all the new kids coming up? The leagues have to do more. No one’s looking out for those kids.”
Officials of the CHL, which supplies 53% of the NHL’s players, insist they’re being vigilant in patrolling racism. But the experiences of Laraque and Campbell show that the juniors can still be a place where race is part of fraternal rites. Their stories form a prologue to Jeremy’s journey, which has brought him to this lonesome prairie town with one last chance to blend.
Howard Jackson, Jeremy’s father, was raised on the south side of Detroit, where one of his brothers was shot to death in a drug house and another died in jail of AIDS. Howard got out by joining the Marines and becoming a martial arts champion (he works with actor Chuck Norris). Jeremy’s mother, Patti, was a food-service worker for Air Canada when she and Howard met. After they married, they moved into a mostly black neighborhood in Los Angeles near LAX and had Jeremy. He was 3 when the couple split up and Patti returned to her native Vancouver with him.
There, Jeremy was raised in a white world. When Patti remarried, to an airline manager whom he found cold and controlling, Jeremy showed a surly face. He got into so many scrapes that his mother and stepdad put him in a school for troubled kids. By the fourth grade, he was watching kids sink needles into their arms at recess. When Patti’s second marriage fell apart, Jeremy had seen enough at school to be able to promise her that his addiction would be hockey, not dope.
Patti, who went on welfare after the divorce, cooked meals for the owner of a sporting goods store in exchange for gloves, sticks and skates. And Jeremy lived up to his end of the bargain with an explosive season as a high school freshman, notching 100 goals and 235 points in 80 games. The next year, he jumped to a Tier II junior level league -- a step below the CHL and a common route to U.S. college hockey. Anyone could see he had loads of playground in his game. Even now, he doesn’t skate so much as style like a hoops dreamer, weaving through walls of big bodies with no fear of banging the ice. Call it freestyling -- or call it the way an undersized (5'9") kid has to play to get noticed.
Either way, scouts started swarming. When the USA Hockey discovered that he still held U.S. citizenship, it extended a prestigious invitation for him to join the cream of America’s crop at the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., where students study as they play. His photo made the October 1998 cover of American Hockey Magazine under the headline “The Cross Over Kid.” His career was looking up.
Jeremy realized two things in Ann Arbor: the first was that there was a whole side of his family that he knew nothing about. “My relatives in Vancouver listen to country music and wear Wrangler jeans,” he says. “I couldn’t believe I had aunts and uncles and cousins who shared the same cultural interests as me.” From this experience, he identified himself as black. The second thing was that the class differences at the camp ran deep. The differences collided as he immersed himself in a course load that reflected his new interest in black culture -- reading Native Son by the African-American author Richard Wright and poetry by jazz critic Quincy Troupe. In the locker room, he says, he’d get teased about the oversize Fubu jeans he wore and the hardcore rap leaking out of his headset. He reacted naturally: “I did things with my own kind of people.”
When he returned to Canada to play junior hockey and finish his senior year of high school, he was different from the teen who’d left the year before. He wore his hair in cornrows, practiced performance poetry and set the original rhymes he wrote to beats. When the time came to choose a college, he chose Michigan State, the place where Anson Carter starred for four seasons.
Installed as the Spartans first-line starter as a freshman, Jeremy irked older teammates by seeming aloof, avoiding their parties and snubbing their haunts. When he flew home for Christmas in 2000, even Patti felt the distance between them growing. (To make matters worse, she had been hospitalized with a brain tumor from which she is recovering.) Jeremy was harder and more intense. He’d also developed a reliance on sleeping pills and was starting to talk about dropping out of school.
Meanwhile, his father’s side of the family had bought a block of 50 tickets for the biggest game of the Spartans season: the February matchup in Detroit against Michigan. Jeremy flew back to East Lansing, eager to show off to them. On game day, however, he overslept and was late for a team practice. (He insists a teammate who’d promised to wake him up never did so.) Spartans coach Ron Mason felt he’d been patient with the freshman to that point, even going so far as to fly his father into town to talk to Jeremy. But hours before the puck dropped, Mason sent an unmistakable message by telling Jeremy to forget lacing up: He was suspended. Furious, Jeremy came late to another practice the next week. After that, Mason says he had no choice but to release him. Still bitter, Jeremy sums up the episode by saying, “I guess I felt the need to rub in who I was.”
Even Patti acknowledges that Jeremy “was no more ready to be in college that year than go to the moon.” Both she and his father believe the meltdown was less about a black kid being unwelcome in a white locker room than it was about Jeremy pushing others away as he tried to find himself. Maybe they’re right. But you can’t ignore the pain in his voice when he says, “Every time I’ve tried to open up my personality to a team, it’s backfired. I was going off the deep end. They knew how much help I needed. And they cut me.”
Devastated, he hooked up with a minor league team in Tacoma, Wash., only to be released after two games. (A club exec, noting that Jackson was seven years younger than the next-youngest player, says it was just a bad fit.) He headed home to Vancouver, where he cut rap tracks, partied and waited for the NHL draft to roll around. The league’s central scouting office projected that he’d be taken in the sixth round. He waited and waited by the phone. No one called that day.
At the start of this season, Jackson found himself shuffled to the Giants, a CHL expansion club in Vancouver. And in December, he was traded to Lethbridge -- a prairie town where he can’t find a barber who knows how to do cornrows. Because he is fighting hard to get drafted when he’s eligible again on June 22, he says, “I guess the lesson is that I can’t be the person I want to be in front of the people who influence my dream.”
Feel free to be skeptical about how of much of this is his fault. But it’s also worth asking whether it would have turned out the same for Jeremy if he was climbing the ladder of another sport. He hasn’t had to fight the same battles as Laraque. But the one he is fighting is just as real -- and just as critical for a world that has no real link to black culture. Who’s to say how his journey would have turned out if he had close friends to watch his back, or coaches who’d been through similar troubles before?
On this night in Lethbridge, however, he has Laraque. And as the two sit down in the quiet remove of the trainer’s room, Jeremy bores in with questions: What was it like for you? Did you ever feel like quitting? Were there any black kids who played when you were in juniors? And, finally: Do you find yourself holding back so you don’t offend anyone?
This last one makes Laraque angry. He leans into Jeremy, his face as stern as you imagine it looks when he’s about to drop his gloves. “Don’t do that,” he shoots back. “All the racism I went through was so that we wouldn’t have to feel like that.”
“But sometimes, it’s like, I have to,” Jackson tells him, his eyes staring at Laraque’s jet-black loafers. “I mean, I was ranked 157th last year. And I went undrafted!” Laraque softens and suggests to Jackson that the world doesn’t always revolve around race. “You know, Jeremy,” he says, “part of that is your size.”
Jeremy nods, conceding the point but quickly shifting the conversation back to something that he has the power to change. “Well, I’m going to fit in if it kills me,” he says. “I’ve even learned to pretend that I like Dave Matthews.” Then he leans back and exhales. “Shooo, how are you supposed to ever get used to that?”
Laraque, who hates every country and western song played in the Oilers locker room, looks at him knowingly. “You never do,” he says.
This article appears in the March 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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