The path to get to where you want to be isn’t always easy, Minnesota Wild winger J.T. Brown can tell you.
When he heard taunts and racist slurs slung his way as a child, his team and coach stood behind him. When he raised his fist during the U.S. national anthem to protest injustice, the first and so far only NHL player to do so, the team’s owner asked what they could do to help.
Now, Brown, a 28-year-old married father of two, wants young hockey players to know he’s got their backs.
His path to the NHL began like so many others’ have, playing hockey with his friends.
Brown grew up outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, in the Rosemount-Apple Valley area. The son of a professional football player, Brown played football, baseball and basketball; but, when it came time to stop dividing his time between the sports, his interest narrowed to hockey.
He took his first steps on the ice when he was 3 or 4 years old.
“I don’t know if that’s necessarily skating, but just getting out there,” Brown laughed during an interview with the Black Girl Hockey Club. “Obviously you’re holding on for dear life. You’ve got more or less your parents helping you out.”
Brown got into organized hockey when he was 6 or 7 because all of his friends played hockey and he wasn’t about to be the only one left out, he said.
They played on different sports teams together, he said, and he wanted to make sure that when it came to hockey, they’d be on the same team there, too.
“At the end of the day, like hockey for me was just what drew my love more than any other sport,” Brown said. “I love playing all the other sports, but, for me, hockey was always my favorite.”
‘This was a game for me’
Playing with his friends on local ponds and rinks, Brown and company didn’t emulate the NHL’s hockey greats. There wasn’t a nearby professional team to occupy their time. The North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993, when Brown was just learning to skate. The youngsters instead looked to the college athletes for inspiration and pretended to be them when they were on the ice.
The University of Minnesota was closest for him growing up, he said, and he and his buddies made it to quite a few of the Golden Gophers’ games.
“So I think that was what made the college hockey aspect a little bit more appealing to me as a younger kid, because I could see them or I could go see the games, versus obviously not having a professional team during that time,” he said.
He kept playing with organized teams, too. For the most part, Brown, whose father is black and mother is white, was the only player of color on his team, though there was a brief stint where he did have another mixed-race teammate, he said. He didn’t pay much attention to it when he was younger but noticed it more when he was between the ages of 10 and 12. Brown said his own team was made up of the same kids he’d always played with, some of whom were his best friends, but the players on the other teams would say things.
“But I think that’s more when you start to hear some stuff from the other teams and then you’re like, ‘Well, wait,’ and you’re thinking about it, like, ‘Yeah, actually I haven’t played with many black people. I don’t even really play against very many black people,’” he said. “So I think, again, the younger I was it wasn’t even really a thought and then as I grew older it started resonating with you.”
Brown credits his youth hockey coach for sticking up for him and giving him the support he needed to fight through the negativity and racism he then found directed at him. Brown said there were plenty of times throughout his childhood on the ice where he was told he should be playing basketball or just outright called the “n-word.”
“I think of one story where a guy on the other team called me the ‘n-word,’” Brown said. “Obviously I came back to the bench, you know, super frustrated, mad, sad, tears in my eyes — a range of emotions at a young age. [My coach] kind of just said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I told him what happened. He called a time out, called the ref over. The ref said he couldn’t do anything because he didn’t hear it.
“My coach said, ‘Well, if you’re not going to do anything, we’re not playing.’ So we quit the game. We lost the game, which didn’t matter, but for me that kind of showed, like, hey they had my back and this was a game for me. For me, that was a good moment in my career pushing me forward.”
Brown said a lot of young players may not have the same response from their coach and that’s one reason he thinks growing the game and reaching out to more minorities is important.
“The other side of it is that not everybody has that culture, not everybody has somebody who is willing to lose a game for it. So you know that’s why growing the game is such an important thing to me because not everybody will be afforded that opportunity and how many kids may quit because of that,” Brown said. “Most people, they might not have the coach or someone sticking up for them. You’ve gotta win. Every team wants to win, every team wants to play the games — I’m sure it might not have been the most popular decision with some parents to forfeit the game because everybody is paying good money to be playing these games — but he knew what was right.”
The next steps
Brown was signed as a free agent by the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning in March 2012 and played his first game with the club three days later on March 31 against the Winnipeg Jets. He recorded his first NHL assist on April 7, also against the Jets.
He was sent down to Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, to develop further. He played 51 games with the Crunch in the 2012-13 season tallying 10 goals for 28 points. He played 13 with the AHL team in the 2013-14 season before being called back up the “big club” in Tampa. He’d play 63 games that season with Tampa, recording 4 goals, including his first NHL goal against Arizona, and 15 assists. He also got his first taste of the gauntlet that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Brown and the Lightning would be back in the playoffs the following season. After a 50-win season, the Bolts entered the playoffs 2014-15 playoffs high up in the Eastern Conference rankings, but the team and Brown knew the real work was ahead, knowledge he now carries with him.
“It’s a grind — you forget about how long the season is and how taxing it can become to get that point,” Brown said.
After a playoff run through the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens, the Bolts were crowned the Eastern Conference Champions after defeating the New York Rangers and faced off against the Chicago Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup. But it wasn’t to be.
“Had we won the Stanley Cup, that would have been good obviously, but looking back now I can say it was a great experience to play in the Stanley Cup Finals,” he said. “But also the pain of losing after all the blood, sweat and tears throughout the season — it’s really tough. It’s a tough thing to do.”
Making a difference on and off the ice
He moulded his game into what the Lightning needed. He’s a forward with the ability to knock players off the puck and make them rethink their moves. He’s brought more gritty, defensive qualities to his game.
“It kind of forced me to change my mindset of how I wanted to play to stay in the NHL and do what the team asked of me,” Brown said. “Now it’s been a long enough time where that’s more my role and whatever the team needs of me is more or less the attitude I take into games.”
Is it easy to take that mindset? Not at all, Brown said, but not everyone is going to have the same impact on the game.
You don’t get to the NHL without being a standout player at some point in your career, he said. Maybe it was high school, or college, or juniors — at some point all of the players in the league were among the better players on their team, but most have had to change their role to fit what the team needs.
He said everyone wants to score goals and have that kind of effect on the game — as a fourth-liner you’re never going to get the same praise as the top-line players.
“You know at one point at the top of your career, you were that guy,” Brown said. “So I think it’s obviously a time you’ve got to check your own ego and figure out what’s most important to yourself — and if you can’t do that it’s probably going to be a tough time.”
Brown is a team player and puts his team first on the ice, something that’s always been important to hockey and hockey culture. The game doesn’t celebrate individuality. The shield on the front means more than the name on the back.
“It’s very team-oriented; they don’t really celebrate individuality,” he said.
He said for most hockey players in post-game interviews, there are about 10 answers that are exactly the same that can answer just about any question. The answers often skew toward team performance and what the team has done and will do and are rarely about individual performance.
“I don’t think any other sport has that. But it’s more like they’re not going to do anything to put themselves in the spotlight or take spotlight away from the team, so it’s always the same mantra,” he said.
So when Brown raised his fist from the bench on Oct. 6, 2017, during the U.S. national anthem in protest of police brutality and racial inequality, he did so knowing he was breaking away from the team and, if only for a moment, calling attention to himself for reasons outside of hockey.
He said it was a longer process for him to come to the decision to act. Things that had been happening in the U.S. and the birth of his first child spurred his decision. As an adult, he said he’s able to heal better and that he’s mature enough to know that when bad things happen it isn’t the fault of one collective group or another, but he also had an innocent child who he wanted to ensure had the best possible upbringing.
He wanted to make the world a better place for his daughter and his way of doing that was to keep the conversation about racial inequality and police brutality going.
“Hockey is a different world, but at the same time I wanted young kids to know that the hockey world wasn’t just ignoring it and what was going on — that somebody in hockey had their back,” Brown said.
He wanted the younger black kids playing the game to know they had somebody who knew what they were going through, who they could look up to.
Part of the process in deciding to stage a silent protest was figuring out what he wanted to accomplish, his “endgame.” He raised his fist for one game and had received death threats for it.
“I didn’t set a time frame for it but it was — I was going to do this stuff until I’m able to have this and this accomplished,” he said. “And for me a big part of it was that I sat down with the owner of [the Tampa Bay Lightning] and we just talked.”
His conversation with Lightning owner Jeff Vinik led to a sit down with the chief of police in Tampa. He said they talked about how they felt about things and gave each other perspective. The chief told him that the actions of a few made the good officers look bad and that he hated it as much as Brown did.
After the conversation with Vinik and the police chief, Brown did ride-alongs with officers and went through the officers’ training process. They also made plans to bring kids and participants in the Bigs in Blue and other like organizations to Lightning games and for Brown to get involved at a local Boys and Girls Club. But those plans didn’t come to fruition as Brown was moved to Anaheim and then to Minnesota.
But the conversation was going, he said, and it was going with the right people talking about it so that people could listen to what he said and make a positive change. It was one game because he had the support and knew the framework of what he’d hoped to accomplish was in place.
“So I think, for me, my point was making sure that something good was coming from it and once that happened I was really thankful for the owner of the team,” Brown said. “We had a long conversation. He was able to say, ‘I never thought of things like that. That’s not what I have to think of in my day-to-day life and that you have to think of it that way is wrong. What do you need from me? What do you need from me so that we can get your message across?’
“I just wanted to make sure I put my mark on trying to make this place a better community. He was fully behind me and telling me whatever I needed from him, he’d get it done — [his support] was definitely a good thing to have at that point.”
The Lightning placed Brown on waivers in January 2018 and he was claimed quickly by the Anaheim Ducks where he played the remainder of the season. He then went as a free agent home to the Minnesota Wild in the 2018-19 season. He played 56 games for the Wild recording 3 goals and 5 assists, as well as 99 hits and 16 takeaways.
He hopes to work more with children in the community and on growing the game now that he’s home in Minnesota.
“I know it’s tough — that police do have a tough job, but at the same time there’s things that continue to happen,” Brown said. “As much as I can work with them, the better.”
He’s had a busy year. The Wild moved him down to the Iowa Wild, Minnesota’s AHL affiliate, for a few games during the season. He and wife, Lexi LaFleur, also welcomed their second child, Booker. The couple married in 2015 and had their first child, Lily, in 2017.
The couple are also involved in giving back to the hockey community. When he arrived back in Minnesota, he organized a tournament of his other love — online gaming. The tournament allowed a selection of gamers to play Fortnite with other NHL players. The proceeds benefited the Hockey is For Everyone campaign.
They also gave to the Black Girl Hockey Club after seeing the club’s GoFundMe to send founder Renee Hess to an event at the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. to celebrate Black History Month and Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player. He said after seeing what the club was about and hearing about the group’s first meetup in Washington they thought it was a good cause and something they wanted to stand behind. The couple donated a significant amount toward sending Hess to Washington.
“I think it’s important to have a group like that, especially a black group and a group of women,” Brown said. “I think that’s really what our game needs and our game needs more of it if we want to continue to grow. I was happy to help.”
He’s already looking ahead to doing more in his community next year.
“I definitely feel like there’s more that I could have done this year, but definitely going into next year, especially in my hometown, I feel more obligated to make sure that this is a better community,” Brown said.
Brown and wife, LaFleur, marched in the Twin Cities Pride Parade this June 2019, handing out beads and taking selfies with fans. Participating in Pride might seem a small thing to some, but it is just one more thing Brown can do to show the hockey community what he stands for.
He said it’s good to be home, especially with his growing family.
“To be home and around my family is huge, especially having two kids under two,” he said. “It’s really nice to have my parents around. They get to see their grandkids and that’s something they miss out on when we’re so far away and they only get to see them a couple times a year.
“Now it’s pretty much a weekly occurrence. It’s good for the kids to be around them. That’s what I like about being home.”
While he’s already gotten his kids out on the ice on a sled (Lily didn’t care for the skates), he said he wasn’t going to pressure them to play and planned to take his own father’s approach.
“I don’t want to be the one that’s pushing them too hard when that’s not what they want to do and then they lose the love of the game because of that,” Brown said. “I’d rather just sit back and let them find the love themselves versus me trying to push it onto them.”