Long-awaited hockey milestone happened suddenly for Greenway
BOSTON — Jordan Greenway didn’t have much time to think about being a pioneer.
The Boston University forward was preparing for his junior year last summer when he heard that USA Hockey might be calling on collegians and minor-league pros to fill out its Olympic roster. It was only after NHL players were officially ruled out and Greenway made the team that a reporter told him he would be the first African-American man on the U.S. Olympic team.
“I’m happy I’m the first. I hope I’m the first of many,” he said last month after practicing with the Terriers on campus. “Hopefully I inspire other kids to want to do the same thing, try something different.”
A 6-foot-6, 238-pound winger who has 25 points in 28 games for the Terriers this season, Greenway played in the 2017 world championships and was second in points on the U.S team that won the world junior championship last year. He could be the first American to win both world junior and Olympic gold.
USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher called Greenway “one heck of a hockey player” who also has the potential to awaken an interest in hockey in communities that traditionally haven’t played it.
“I think a lot of kids saw him do it in the world juniors last year,” Kelleher said. “Hopefully, more and more people and families that watch the Olympics will be drawn to our team and the success they had. And hopefully some kids or some families identify with Jordan and are inspired to get involved with our game.”
Raised by a white mother in Canton, New York, a village about 20 miles from the Canadian border, Greenway said he is used to being one of the only African-Americans on the ice — or at family gatherings.
“I’ve been able to fit in pretty well,” he said. “I’ve grown up in a white population. So it really hasn’t been anything different, just a way of life for me growing up. It hasn’t been different at all.”
Greenway played for BU in the Beanpot on Monday night, assisting on the Terriers’ second goal in a 3-2, double-overtime victory over Harvard. But when BU plays in the championship game next week for Boston’s college hockey bragging rights, Greenway will be in South Korea. (Harvard’s Ryan Donato also is heading to the Olympics, on the same flight.)
Growing up about 2 hours from Lake Placid, Greenway said he dreamed about playing in the Olympics “like every kid does.” But he wasn’t thinking about Pyeongchang or even Beijing in 2022; he had his sights set eight or 12 years down the line.
“I never thought it would come this soon, like before I graduate from college,” he said. “But I’m excited it’s happening this year and I’m going to take full advantage of it.”
A 2015 second-round draft pick by the Minnesota Wild, Greenway is a big forward who said he likes to get in front of the net and “wear a team down.” Growing up, he modeled his game after players like Kings and Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds — “not really because he’s African-American,” he said, chuckling at the coincidence.
“It’s more just because I think him and I have a similar game style,” Greenway said, adding Joe Thornton to the list of role models. “He’s a big body, in front of the net a lot.”
Also on the list: Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s color barrier when he played for the Boston Bruins in 1958.
“He was definitely somebody I looked up to when I was a kid,” Greenway said. “I just hope I can be the same inspiration for another kid, and hopefully a lot of kids can look up to me like I looked up to him.”
The respect is mutual.
Speaking at a Boston Bruins game last month to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his milestone debut, O’Ree said he was happy to see Greenway topple another barrier. And though he advised Greenway just to work hard and do his best, he also said that it might take some time for the importance of the moment to sink in.
“When I first stepped on the ice in the Montreal Forum and became the first black player to play in the NHL, it really didn’t register with me until after the game. None of the media came up and said, ‘Mr. O’Ree, do you realize you just broke the color barrier?’
“I read it in the paper the next morning,” he said. “And said to myself, ‘I made things happen.’”