“The game I love… it’s for everybody”
The Minnesota Wild’s Matt Dumba is used to standing out in the game that he loves.
The 24-year-old defenseman, known for his physical and fearless style of play, was having what was shaping up to be the best season of his NHL career until injury sent him from the ice for the rest of the season.
Growing up in Alberta, Dumba was often the only player of color on his youth teams.
Born in Regina and raised in Calgary, Dumba started skating when he was 3 years old. His father, Charles, would flood the family’s backyard to build an outdoor rink. It was easy for him to get out onto the ice to practice, he said.
“You learn quick that falling doesn’t feel good,” Dumba told the Black Girl Hockey Club. “[Hockey] became my favorite sport… I just stuck with it.”
He played a number of sports before settling on hockey. His best friends played the game and he wanted to play, too.
“I love the speed of it, how it’s changing all the time, the momentum, the direction of players,” Dumba said. “It’s definitely the fastest game on earth, especially with how fast guys are skating on the ice.
“That really draws me to it.”
Dumba didn’t look like the other kids on the ice, but it didn’t matter to him. His mother, Treena, is Filipino and was adopted by a British woman, who had also adopted several other children of different nationalities to raise as one family, Dumba said. His father, Charles, is of Romanian and German descent. He said growing up with his diverse family taught him not to see race as a barrier.
“Growing up, I was always the one kid on the team that wasn’t white, that had some type of color,” Dumba said. “People don’t always know what to say. You know, little kids are mean and don’t even know what they’re talking about with that stuff.
“It was tough — it was tough when I was little.”
His parents, he said, taught him to take the high road in situations like that.
“The only reason kids were ever saying racist things or comments was because they saw I was playing my game and being the best I could be and that was all they had on me,” Dumba said. “I definitely stuck up for myself but at the end of the day that’s just — you feel bad for those people and how they see the world.”
Dumba said it makes him sad to continue to hear stories of children being picked on because of their race, but he believes it is getting better for those children.
Dumba had a good group of friends when he was young who wouldn’t stand for anyone being mean or making comments about his race, he said.
“At the end of the day, they’re words,” Dumba said. “And it’s very hard to wrap your head around [it], but if we all come together, you see that unification, that we’re not going to stand for that and you’re not going to get a reaction out of me because I’m too mentally resilient. I’m above that. I don’t need to stoop to that level.
“It took a long time for me to get there, but it’s something kids have to go through and that makes me sad.”
Seeing players who looked like him may have helped. Growing up, Dumba loved the Flames and the Mighty Ducks (both the Anaheim team and the Disney movie franchise), he said. His favorite players were Jarome Iginla and Paul Kariya, both wingers.
Dumba knew he wanted to make hockey his career when he was 13 or 14 years old.
“I started to see some of the older kids in front of me that I knew I could play with moving on to junior league and I kind of just aspired that for myself,” he said. “That’s where it all came around. Just came closer and closer. You just get more hungry for the opportunity. I was fortunate enough to get drafted to the NHL and I haven’t looked back.”
Dumba was drafted seventh overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by the Minnesota Wild, an experience he said was pretty crazy and kind of nerve racking, but overall a “big, awesome experience.”
Because of the lockout, Dumba went down to the Red Deer Rebels, and continued to work on his game there while he, and the rest of the League, waited for the labor dispute to be resolved. “It was good,” he said. “I needed to develop a little more, take my game to the next level.”
He came up to the Wild for good in 2015 notching 26 points for 81 games, including 10 goals.
Dumba’s game has only improved. His physical style of play and fearlessness make him a formidable opponent who isn’t afraid to deliver big hits and make big shots.
He’s also not afraid to scrap with other players, though one such incident ended his 2018-2019 season early. Dumba suffered a torn pectoralis muscle in December when a punch he threw at Calgary’s Brady Tkachuk missed its mark. He said it was disappointing to miss the rest of the season. He’d racked up 12 goals and 10 assists in the 32 games he played in and was on track to have his best season yet for the Wild.
After surgery to repair the muscle, Dumba is still recovering.
“It’s a long process, but I’ll be back,” he said.
That the injury came in a fight against a Calgary player is one of those little quirks in the universe.
“They’re not my favorite team anymore,” he said with a laugh.
His family and friends still live in Calgary, he said, adding with a chuckle that after his injury his mom “don’t want to hear from nobody. It’s pretty funny.”
Going from a hockey crazy city like Calgary to the State of Hockey was an easy move for Dumba.
“I don’t know how I would handle being somewhere that isn’t a little hockey crazy,” he said. “It reminds me of home. That makes it easy for me.”
Shared Struggles and Solidarity
Dumba said he hasn’t endured any instances of racism while playing in the NHL. He said it’s been good in the League.
“Guys are more grown up, more used to playing with other guys,” Dumba said. “Guys on your own team, if someone said something like that, they wouldn’t accept it. I know that for a fact.”
He said there’s some camaraderie among players of color. No, they’re not all friends and they don’t always know each other, but there’s still a connection.
“There’s that significance of the hardships and stuff that all of us have faced at one point or another in a sport like hockey, which is sad to say,” Dumba said. “But when you can look across at a guy and know that you both went through something like that, I don’t know on what scale each guy, but everyone has gone through something like that and it’s sad to say, but that brings people together. Just knowing that struggle that you guys can share.”
Dumba said the League’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative is a start, but he thinks more can be done.
“I think, like everything, it’s going to take a little bit of time to grow. They’ve got the right idea going but now you put it on the players, on the guys who can really try to carry that load,” he said. “I think it will be good.”
Dumba said he wasn’t sure what the League or individual teams could do to bring in more fans or potential players of color. He said he thinks people of color are more accepting of the game. He said he thinks when more players of color are prominently marketed to fans, it resonates more with fans of color and future players.
“They find it more interesting and can relate to other players of different nationalities or colors and link that back to themselves,” Dumba said. “I think that’s probably where you see the most growth.”
He said now he can give back and try to change the game from a diversity standpoint.
“Because it really is, the game that I love — it’s for everyone,” he said.
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Kalei Forga got a surprise after Sunday night's @minnesotawild game! After helping #BGHC and the Forga fam meet their GoFundMe goal so that Kalei can attend an overseas hockey tourney, Matt Dumba surprised them all with a little one-on-one time post game. Also in the mix was St. Paul mayor, Melvin Carter, and @soulonicemovie filmmaker, Kwame Mason. What a cool experience! #hockeyisforeveryone #blackhistorymonth #blackgirlmagic
Dumba has reached out youth players of color to help where he can. In January, the family of Kalei Forga, a 12-year-old hockey player from Minnesota, asked the Black Girl Hockey Club for help in raising money for a trip to Europe where Kalei was invited to play on Team Minnesota in an international hockey tournament. The Club tweeted out the call for help and Dumba saw it, retweeted it and donated to the cause.
He said hockey is an expensive sport and that you pull whatever string and do whatever you can to play. He had a similar opportunity when he was younger and wanted Kalei to be able to participate.
“I just wanted her to build those bonds like that,” Dumba said. “She’s so cute. She had the passion for the game in her eyes. The family was a very sweet, very helpful family.”
He met Kalei in February at a Wild game. The two talked for a bit and he gave her an autographed jersey.
“It’s rewarding when we can meet someone like Kalei,” he said. “You see a little bit of yourself in them and you know hockey is trending in the right direction.”