Twenty years ago, the Chicago Blackhawks made Dirk Graham the NHL’s first black head coach
The former Blackhawk also was the first team captain of African descent
Coming off a 30-39-13 record, 0-6-1 season-ending finish and the Chicago Blackhawks’ first season without a playoff berth in 29 years, team owner and president Bill Wirtz spent two months navigating the murky waters of a NHL coaching search.
Wirtz and general manager Bob Murray had flirted with the idea of Terry Murray or Barry Melrose taking over for Craig Hartsburg, who was fired at the end of the season. But something kept telling the pair to look inward at Dirk Graham.
The former Blackhawks captain, the first team captain of African descent in the NHL, was one of two men Murray consulted about how the team should proceed with its coaching search and how to get the perennial playoff team back to the postseason.
When Wirtz and Murray considered that they wanted someone who exemplified Blackhawks hockey, it became apparent that Graham was their man. On June 29, 1998, he became Chicago’s 31st head coach and the first black coach in NHL history.
“This man personifies it more than anybody I know,” Wirtz told the Chicago Tribune. “To play in playoff games with a broken kneecap. … When Dirk Graham and Denis Savard left [the meeting at the end of the season], they didn’t know it, but that’s who we decided right then and there was going to be our next coaching staff.”
Graham said Blackhawks hockey meant “commitment to the team, commitment to your teammates. Playing with heart, playing with desire. Showing up every night.”
And that was something that gave Graham pause when Murray and Wirtz approached him about the idea. Graham, who spent six of his almost eight seasons in Chicago as a team captain, was the kind of person who was consumed by hockey when he played.
The Regina, Saskatchewan, native played 862 regular-season and playoff games over a dozen seasons in the NHL. “Magic,” as the right wing was named for what he could do on the ice, became the first black winner of the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defensive forward. The following season, he helped lead Chicago to the Stanley Cup Final in 1992, where the Pittsburgh Penguins swept them.
“He was a great captain,” Blackhawks defenseman Eric Weinrich said. “As a leader, there aren’t many better. He was a quiet leader, but when he said something, it made sense. I don’t think more than 10 times a year he’d really snap, let everybody know how he felt, but everybody always responded.”
Center Jeff Shantz said: “If he’s the kind of coach he was as a player, he’s going to be good. He was so good on the ice, his intensity, the will to win at all cost.”
Graham took a week to decide if he was ready to do that again, especially with a family. It was no matter to him or the team that he’d spent only one season as an assistant coach and one season as a pro scout, but if he wasn’t 100 percent certain he could balance his family with the responsibilities of being an NHL head coach, then he’d forgo the opportunity.
His family backed him, and the next question became how would a coaching unit of Graham, Savard and Lorne Molleken, with a combined one year behind an NHL bench, fare?
“I don’t think this coaching staff is going to come in and create any special miracles,” said Graham. “Any changes in attitude have to come from the players. We can lead in that role, but eventually it comes down to the players.
“I believe in commitment to what you’re doing, and we’ll certainly demand that from our players as well. Do we have enough talent here to win the Stanley Cup next year? I don’t know. Do we have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot and make the playoffs? Definitely. It’s a matter of commitment on the players’ part, coaching staff and management. I expect us to play well early and succeed early.”
Graham’s tenure would last only briefly, however. After 59 games and a 16-35-8 record, which was good for dead last in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks fired Graham on Feb. 22, 1999.
Asked about the one thing he would change about his experience or something he’d taken away from it, Graham smiled and told the Tribune, “Our won-loss record.”