Quinton Byfield fell in love with hockey the way most Canadian kids do — sitting in front of the TV with his dad, Clinton, on Saturday nights and flicking on that week’s “Hockey Night in Canada” game.
Only, in Byfield’s case, his dad never played the game. For a long time, Clinton knew little about the sport they were watching.
Unlike most other Canadian kids, Byfield’s father isn’t from hockey’s homeland. Clinton is a Jamaican immigrant. So when he and his wife, Nicole Kasper, raised their family outside Toronto, the national sport wasn’t so much passed down to their son — it was picked up by the household … together.
“Those are big moments, just being able to share that,” Byfield said. “They didn’t know the game too much. Neither did I. We grew together.”
It also meant that Byfield, who Tuesday became the highest-drafted Black player in NHL history when the Kings selected him second overall, saw very few players like himself. In a league with an overwhelming majority of white players, Byfield had only a handful of Black NHL stars to watch.
It made his selection Tuesday all the more important. He isn’t just embarking on a hockey career for himself. He’s doing it for his family — and to be a role model to families such as his.
“It means a lot to me, it’s something special,” Byfield said after surpassing former No. 4 picks Evander Kane and Seth Jones, who previously shared the highest-pick distinction.
“Being in the record books for anything is something special, but that especially,” Byfield continued. “My dad and mom didn’t play hockey, didn’t have too much knowledge about it. It just shows that there’s a lot of opportunity in the world and you can play every sport and be successful in it.”
In each interview he did during a whirlwind draft night — which he watched from home, on the couch, next to his parents, as they did “Hockey Night in Canada” — Byfield made it clear his top priority is improving as a player.
But he wasn’t oblivious to the suddenly lofty public stage he’s been given either, the chance to speak and spark change in a sport that has done much self-reflecting of late over issues of race and equality.
“A lot of hockey players and NHL guys have started off. They’re moving a good direction. They’re getting a lot of exposure,” Byfield said when asked about the importance of exposing the game to young Black players. “I’m excited to help spread as much awareness as I can.”
When he will reach the NHL is unclear. General manager Rob Blake said the 6-foot-5, 222-pound center physically could handle the rigors of the league right away, but the Kings won’t rush the 18-year-old’s development with the club still in the midst of a rebuild.
“We’re not in a position where we’re forcing somebody into the lineup,” Blake said. “When they’re ready, those opportunities will come.”
Whenever Byfield’s debut arrives, however, Blake is confident the team’s newest young star can handle the pressures — on and off the ice.
“He’s got a little character, a little charisma, which is always good,” Blake said, having gotten to know Byfield over several video calls this summer. “[He can be] a poster child for kids to follow now.”
By the end of Tuesday night, that idol status already was beginning to set in.
Kane, a co-head of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, posted congratulations to Byfield over Twitter. So did current Kings prospect Akil Thomas, a former teammate of Byfield’s during last winter’s world junior championships.
Congratulations to @byfield55 on his 2nd Overall selection and becoming the highest drafted black player in history.
— Evander Kane (@evanderkane_9) October 6, 2020
“That’s something that’s super positive and I want to continue to spread positivity and awareness to that subject,” Byfield said during an interview on NBCSN. “It’s an exciting moment for me. I’m just really happy about that all coming together.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.