Dr. Tunisha Singleton on Ontario Reign’s All-Black Line: I’m So Proud of Them

Apr 30, 2021; Anaheim, California, USA; Los Angeles Kings center Quinton Byfield (55) before a face off against the Anaheim Ducks during the first period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 30, 2021; Anaheim, California, USA; Los Angeles Kings center Quinton Byfield (55) before a face off against the Anaheim Ducks during the first period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

Looking back on the Ontario Reign’s historic all-Black line from March, I speak with Black Girl Hockey Club’s Dr. Tunisha Singleton about the achievement.

To suggest that this season has an important one for the LA Kings would safely be regarded as an understatement. While they may not have garnered the success they had hoped to, the Kings nonetheless underwent a crucial juncture from a development standpoint. Many rookies got their first taste of the NHL this season with the Kings, including, most recently, Quinton Byfield, who has spent the majority of the season with the AHL’s Ontario Reign.

Preparing for his NHL debut, there was palpable anticipation for Quinton Byfield’s long-awaited NHL debut, kicking off a stint that lasted six games.

While he was deemed to be NHL-ready once the Kings selected him second overall last October, the Newmarket, Ont., native also made history, becoming the highest-drafted Black player in NHL history. The youngster’s introduction to the professional ranks, however, marked an adjustment period.

In his first 13 games with the AHL’s Ontario Reign, Byfield scored just one goal and six assists to go in hand with a -15 rating. Byfield, though, remained patient, persevering through his slow start to find himself a comfort level and garner confidence in his game.

With effort comes reward, and Byfield was no exception to this, tallying seven goals with six assists over his next 17 outings.

En route to his turnaround, though, Byfield became a part of another chapter in history.

On March 21, Byfield was paired on a line with Akil Thomas and Devante Smith-Pelly to become professional hockey’s first all-Black line since the 1940s when ‘The Black Aces‘ of Herb and Ozzie Carnegie, along with Manny McIntyre, played together.

Thanks to a combined six points from the trio of Byfield, Thomas, and Smith-Pelly, the Reign went on to defeat the Bakersfield Condors 5-4 in a shootout.

Especially over the past few years, the subject of diversity and inclusion in hockey has been at the forefront. Whether it was from verbal abuse from opponents, fans, and coaches or in the wake of senseless race-related crimes like the murder of George Floyd last summer, diversity and inclusion have become a major priority in professional hockey — and in all sports.

I recently had the privilege of speaking to Dr. Tunisha Singleton, a Sports Entertainment consultant with a Ph.D. in Media Psychology and Interim President on the Black Girl Hockey Club‘s Board of Directors, for her insights on the history made by the aforementioned all-Black line.

I asked Dr. Singleton how she reacted upon first hearing that Byfield, Thomas, and Smith-Pelly making history.

“My first reaction upon hearing about the history these three young men made can’t be described as anything but pride and joy,” Singleton beamed. “Pride for seeing Black excellence despite all the social obstacles and hurdles in front of them; and joy for seeing them simply do what they love and excelling at it at the same time. I’m happy to see them all get recognition, each as individuals performing at a high level and as a contribution to the Reign as a whole. I’m so proud of them.”

Related Story. LA Kings’ Quinton Byfield: New Exclusive Spokesperson for Upper Deck. light

While this was a sport- and even societal-altering achievement, some may focus instead on how — or why — it has taken seven-plus decades for an all-Black line to form in professional hockey. While all-Black lines have existed at other levels — Akil Thomas’s father playing on two of them — it has been generations since the professional ranks have celebrated this sort of achievement.

For Dr. Singleton, though, the long wait has not deterred her pride in the accomplishment in the least.

“The gap doesn’t diminish the achievement for me at all,” she noted without hesitation. “It just makes what they did, and continue to do as individuals, that much more impactful. I saw an interview from Akil Thomas where he said, ‘Maybe we can inspire more Black kids to feel like they have a place in the game.’. That is nothing to be diminished. Now, more than ever, the intersection between sports and society is being re-emphasized. More Black kids, boys, and girls are watching and paying attention. My hope is that it won’t be that long again before we see more Black men and women be given more access and opportunities to succeed.”

With her role and contributions to the Black Girl Hockey Club, Dr. Singleton has experienced first-hand an array of achievements made by the Black community and the BIPOC community as a whole. The Reign’s all-Black line is included in this, and it is something the non-profit organization has reveled in.

“The response I got from colleagues when I told them about this was the same for everyone: They all said ‘Wow, really?! GOOD!'”, an emphatic Singleton reflected. “They want to see more diversity on the ice and are always bring up the same question, ‘Why don’t we see more Black players?’, ‘What’s wrong with hockey?’

“The collective attitude around hockey culture is that this is a ‘white sport,’ a marginalizing narrative that I and everyone at Black Girl Hockey Club are working tirelessly to change through our equality-based programs and initiatives.”

While the Reign’s trio has since been split up — especially with Byfield’s NHL call-up — it is imperative not to let this act as a deterrent.

Regardless of whether Byfield, Thomas, and Smith-Pelly will become a line combination again, the pairing of the three is a significant step forward in the fight for inclusion in hockey.

Hockey is, indeed, for everyone, and that is being reinforced not only by the aforementioned trio but by the Hockey Diversity Alliance and also the aforementioned Black Girl Hockey Club.

We do not have to be Black to be passionate about the fight for inclusion, but we do have to be empathetic. To succeed in this fight, we need to understand why this battle is so crucial. For starters, it is key to remember that we need to listen and accept what needs to be done in the battle for inclusion, even if we are not all able to identify with the struggles on a first-hand level.

The more inclusive the game of hockey becomes, the better we will all be, and the more pride we can take in being fans of the sport.

Quinton Byfield, Akil Thomas, and Devante Smith-Pelly may not have intended to become a part of history, but the contributions of these three men are only one example of many for how wonderful and diverse the game of hockey truly is.

For the Los Angeles Kings, in particular, the organization has been first-class in terms of inclusion. The drafting of Byfield, the formation of the aforementioned all-Black line, and the hiring of Blake Bolden are just three examples of this, with each instance brought in to potentially alter the success of the franchise both on and off the ice.

Related Story. Matt Roy on LA Kings’ Masterton Nomination: It’s an Honor. light

As for those who were waiting for this to happen in the NHL, they didn’t have to wait long.

On the opposite side of the country — Sunrise, Fla. to be precise — the Tampa Bay Lightning started an all-Black line on Monday night against the Florida Panthers. The line of Mathieu Joseph, Gemel Smith, and Daniel Walcott, who was also making his NHL debut, formed the historic line.

While Lightning would go on to lose the game by a 4-0 count, the defeat was far superseded by the event.

While it may not signify the end of the fight for inclusion, these achievements — from the Reign and the Lightning — both mark a very important chapter in that fight, paving the way for promising days ahead. Challenging, yes, but promising nonetheless.

It can, and will be, done. We just need to keep fighting: carrying determination, resilience, and, of course, empathy with us on the path to ultimate success, to where this is no longer historic but rather the norm.

*If you’d like to learn more about the Black Girl Hockey Club, or learn about their events, campaigns, and the inspirational stories they share, be sure to visit their website at blackgirlhockeyclub.org or follow them on social media: on Twitter (@BlackGirlHockey), on Instagram (@blackgirlhockeyclub), or on Facebook.