Photo: Mike Ashmore
Anyone who’s seen Gerald Coleman play for the Trenton Devils this season might be surprised to learn that the first hockey puck he ever laid eyes on went flying past him.
It’s been a long road since the soon to be 24-year-old goalie first put on skates at the age of eight — a road that’s taken him to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows — but it seems to be a road that could return him back to one of those high points, his brief NHL stint with the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2005-06 season.
But to think about where the road could end for the friendly Illinois native, you must first go back to where it all started.
“There was a local rink about a mile away from my house, and my sister was doing figure skating,” recalls Coleman of his first foray into hockey.
“One day I was over there with her, I just wanted to pick her up and walk her home, and I looked up and saw something fly right by me. It was a puck. I didn’t really know what it was, I kind of looked at it trying to figure it out what it was, I’d never seen it before.”
Coleman, eight years old at the time, watched the hockey game and went back home that day to ask his mom about possibly playing hockey.
“When he was eight, I relented and let him sign up for Learn to Skate,” recalls Coleman’s mother, Sarah Wright.
And how did that go?
“I quit,” said Coleman with a laugh.
“I was bigger than everyone else that was three and four, and I kind of got away from it for a year or so, then got back into it.”
According to Wright, she bought Gerald used hockey equipment at Play It Again Sports and he played with younger children in beginner hockey classes. Following that, he played defense in a recreational league. It was after that experience when he started blossoming into a goalie.
“During the following summer, I sent him to a hockey camp,” Wright said.
“According to his father, he spent the whole time watching and talking to the goalies. Without telling me, they went out and bought pads, skates, helmet, glove and blocker. The glove and blocker were the teal and blue of the then Anaheim Mighty Ducks. I was upset, mainly about the cost, little did I know it was only beginning.”
Gerald would try out for a travel team in Evanston, Ill., dealing with comments from fellow players, such as “the shooter tutor is better than you.” And for a while, perhaps it was.
Coleman was cut from that team, recalls Wright.
“We were sitting outside the rink and he was trying not to cry when he was cut from the team. I had no idea where he was going to play,” she said.
“One of the dad’s came up to us, and said he was a coach in Skokie, the next town over and he had been a goalie. Jim Nelson said we should come over to that rink and he would work with Gerald and he would coach Gerald on his house league team. After a few practices, I got a call from the Squirt A coach asking if Gerald would play on their team. It was definitely a learning experience for us all.”
As it turns out, Coleman got good. Very good.
In 1997, when he was 12 years old, Coleman became involved with the NHL’s Diversity Program, specifically with a Chicago based group called, “PUCK” (Positive Upliftment for Chicago’s Kids). It’s quite interesting that the person who became the first graduate of the program almost never became involved with it in the first place.
As the story goes, Gerald had gone to the Evanston rink with his dad to help out with a clinic for skaters that needed a goalie for practice. His father started talking to one of the few other African-Americans dads at the rink and it turned out he knew someone else who was involved with the program. The Willie O’Ree All Star games, as they were called, were scheduled to be in Chicago that year (1997). Unfortunately, for them, they only had one goalie and desperately needed another. The idea was to not only teach them to play hockey, but to include educational components and financial support.
Coleman would go on to play in the All-Star Games at the United Center in March of 1997, but participating in the program served a much greater purpose for the goaltender, whose mother is white and father is black.
“When you are 12, searching for your identity, trying to fit in a sport where you are different than everyone else, and being in middle school is a difficult time of your life,” Wright said.
“While we were managing on our own financially (barely), the Diversity Program showed Gerald that it was possible to be black and a hockey player. It also showed him that there were other kids like him and he wasn’t the only black hockey player. I think participating in the Diversity Program helped him mentally to cope with adversity. He probably would have continued with hockey, but it might have been more difficult.”
Coleman’s role in the NHL’s Diversity Program would lead many to call him a role model for some of the up and coming players with diverse ethnic backgrounds.
“I don’t really see myself as a role model, because I haven’t really stayed up there,” Coleman said.
“You have guys like Iginla and Grant Fuhr, who’ve stayed up there, and guys like Simmonds from L.A., they’re more role models.”
At the age of 15, Coleman was named to the United States National Under-18 Team, and got to skate on the same sheet of ice as many of the country’s top young players at the time, players like Ryan Kesler, Patrick Eaves, Brett Sterling and Patrick O’Sullivan.
“It was unbelievable, I had a blast,” said Coleman of the experience.
“Getting to go overseas is unbelievable. My team in Chicago went over to Sweden when I was 13, and ever since then I’ve just wanted to travel the world with hockey. Because of hockey, I’ve been to so many different places; Russia, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic. It’s nice to see different cultures and see what everything else is about. But getting to play for your country is unbelievable. You know how big hockey is in Canada, so getting to play those guys in the Under-17’s and beating them at the World Juniors was a fun experience.”
What also served as a fun experience for Coleman was getting to team up with Al Montoya, who joined the U.S. National Under-18 Team in Coleman’s second and final season with them in 2001-02.
Montoya, currently in the NHL with the Phoenix Coyotes, was drafted sixth overall by the New York Rangers in 2004, and vividly recalls his experience as Coleman’s teammate.
“You just knew that you had to be at your best, because he was going to push you every single night,” said Montoya before a February AHL game in Rochester.
“He really helped me with my career, pushing me and battling me and making me be my best.”
The 24-year-old was happy to learn that his former teammate was playing well in Trenton.
“He’s always been a battler, been a gamer,” said Montoya, who grew up with Coleman near Chicago.
“He’s a great goalie, he’s just got to get his chance, and when he gets it, he’s got to keep playing well. It’s good to see him playing well.”
Coleman joined the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights for the 2002-03 season, and had an up and down year, going 6-9-3 with a 3.30 goals against average and .892 save percentage. But the Tampa Bay Lightning liked what they saw and chose him with the 224th overall selection in the seventh round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
At his billet’s house in Ann Arbor, where Coleman was going to school at the time, he and his sister were watching the first round on television.
Coleman says he was told different things about where he might be drafted.
“I was highly touted coming into that year, and I kind of struggled in my first year with London,” he said.
” They had said maybe late third round to the seventh, so I was a little disappointed it was later than I thought it would be, but just to get drafted by Tampa Bay was an honor. They were a good organization at that time, so it was good.”
Determined to show the other 29 NHL teams they were wrong for passing him over — six times, no less — Coleman returned to his junior team with a vengeance, going 56-10-2 over his final two seasons there. Those numbers include an incredible run in 2004-05, where he helped the team go on a run over 30 games without a loss to start the season, posted a goals against of 1.70 and recorded an uncanny .941 save percentage.
“I made so many friends, I’m probably going to be living there for the rest of my life,” said Coleman of his time in London.
“(In 04-05), we had seven or eight guys who played their first game in the NHL the next season. And I was one of them, which was a great honor. The team we had was just terrific, you can’t say enough. Great offense, great defense. And our coach, Dale Hunter, was unbelievable. He taught us how to be NHL players and how to be professionals on and off the ice.”
After a season like the one he had in his final season with the Knights, many expected Coleman to replicate that in his pro debut the following season. The Lightning assigned him to the Springfield Falcons of the AHL, and after getting off to a good start, he struggled. The numbers — 14-21-3, 3.88 GAA, .880 save percentage — paint a pretty ugly picture.
“It was an eye opener,” Coleman said.
“Everything’s faster, guys are a lot bigger, there are older guys, guys with wives and kids. You learn this is your job, you can’t just show up to the rink, get on the ice and think you’re going to be good. You come everyday, you’re expected to work hard and do what you’re expected to do to get to the next level.”
But it wasn’t only the speed of the game and the size of the players that was a part of the transition Coleman had to make from juniors to pro. A larger schedule that included more games packed together didn’t help either.
“I was the backup for the first two or three weeks, and then our goalie got called up and I took over,” he said. I did pretty well then, out of 14 games, I think I won 13, but then our team kind of fell apart I was good up until about Christmas, and that’s when it kicked in, just playing so many games. We only play like 60 games in juniors, and there you’ve got to play 80, and there’s three in three’s and the travel. It just kind of caught up to me and wore on me that first year.
Since that season, in which he played 43 games at the AHL level, he’s played in just 35 since then. 2005-06 remains his only full season in the American Hockey League, with stints of 14, 18 and three games coming over the past three years.
But even with that said, Coleman doesn’t feel his numbers from that season with the Falcons are being held against him.
“If anyone saw that team and knows the Tampa Bay organization — and you can look at it now with Norfolk too — they don’t have a good team, they just worry about guys in the NHL,” he said.
“They only care about their NHL team. They don’t care about development. They only care about a couple guys, and then they just throw guys in. When I was there, we had a good team, but they didn’t want any veterans. By the end of the year, we only had two guys over the age of 25 playing. And you can’t have that in the AHL, you have to have veterans. We were all 20, 21 years old, and it’s tough on the team. It was tough, but my next few years with Portland, I put pretty good numbers up, so hopefully that explains a lot.”
Bad as it may have sounded, Coleman’s 2005-06 season wasn’t completely lost. Just 20 years old at the time, Coleman went from seventh round draft pick to NHL goalie on November 11th, 2005, replacing John Grahame for the third period of a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers at Philips Arena.
“It was an unbelievable experience, but I was scared,” admitted Coleman.
“I was sitting there, and I think it was 2-1 in the middle of the second period. (Lightning head coach John) Tortorella comes down to me, and he goes, ‘Kid, you’re going in for the third period.’ I look at him like ‘oh no,’ and Marty St. Louis is sitting right next to me and goes, ‘Don’t worry kid, you’re ready to go.’ So I just kind of said OK, here we go. They scored another goal, (Ilya) Kovalchuk got a hat trick in that game, so I’m going in and it’s 3-1.”
And then the fun started…
“My first shot was Peter Bondra, he got a pass right to the slot, one-timer, and I made a big glove save,” Coleman recalls.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, thank God I made that save.’ And then (Bondra) was like, ‘Good job, kid. Nice save.’ So that was a good experience. But then I had (Marian) Hossa come in on me on a breakaway and make me look stupid. But I don’t feel too bad, he’s got a bunch of goals and he’s making eight million dollars, so it’s a good player to have score that first goal.”
Tortorella, who led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004, was ultimately fired and has since been named the head coach of the New York Rangers. Although he only had a brief experience with him, Coleman says he loved playing for him.
“He’s a good motivator, and I know that a lot of guys who have played for him have liked him,” Coleman said.
“Talking to him, he is a very fiery coach and he’ll get in your face, but he also is a guy that will talk one-on-one with you. When I was up there, he talked to me and said they were thinking about playing me in a game. He said, ‘You’ve done well, you’ve done everything we expected,’ so he’ll sit down and talk to you. But if you’re not doing what he expects, he’s going to come after you. And that’s what it takes, you have to have a guy to push you.”
Since that 2005-06 season, Coleman has put on no less than seven different uniforms, including the Falcons, Johnstown Chiefs, Portland Pirates, Augusta Lynx, Phoenix Roadrunners, Worcester Sharks and now the Trenton Devils.
It seems the roller coaster never stops to let him off for a breather…
“It’s difficult not knowing where you’re going to be day-to-day,” Coleman said.
“My fiance wants to come down and my family wants to come down here, and just booking flights and stuff like that, it’s difficult. But that’s just the luck I’ve had, just having to battle adversity. It only makes you stronger. You can call me a suitcase goalie, whatever. That doesn’t bother me. As long as I get a chance to play, I’m fine. Since my first year pro, this is my first opportunity to really get to play every game and show what I can do.”
While Coleman is, in fact, getting the majority of the workload and getting to show what he can do, it is all happening at the ECHL level. Over the past three seasons, Coleman has worn four different ECHL uniforms, but has never had as long of a stint at this level as he has with Trenton this season.
“I don’t really view it so much as being stuck here, I kind of brought it on myself with injuries and not playing as consistently as I’d need to,” Coleman said.
“And that’s really what I’m trying to do, just be more consistent. I really kind of started my career over again with the injuries, so it is frustrating. The goalie I played with last year in Portland, Mike McKenna, he’s playing in the NHL. So you see that and it kind of frustrates you. Not because he’s not a good goalie or anything, but just because you were in the same spot he was last year, and you didn’t get the opportunity and he did. So it is frustrating, but if I play well enough, I’m hoping with the organization I’m with now, New Jersey, and how good they are and well respected they are amongst the players, that I can get back and hopefully step in and get a chance.”
Coleman’s previous ECHL stop came earlier this season with the Phoenix Roadrunners, where he’d gotten off to a hot start, putting up a 1.48 GAA and .950 save percentage in his first four games before learning he’d been dealt to Trenton.
“I don’t want to say I was disappointed, but I was having a good time out in Phoenix and was playing well,” he said.
“Then I looked at the stats in Trenton, and it was a struggling team, but I didn’t know anything about it. So I was kind of disappointed and kind of down, but once I got here and started talking to Rick Kowalsky and started hanging out with the guys, they were unbelievable. I’ve had a blast. I’ve had more fun I think in two days here than I think I did my whole time in Phoenix.”
Depth in the organization at goaltender isn’t really something the Devils have too much of, and that’s something Coleman got to take a look at as well.
“With Brodeur being hurt, you really get to analyze everything a little bit more, because he’s not getting any younger and who knows how much more he might be injured as his career goes on,” he said.
“Clemmensen did an unbelievable job, so you’re set that way, so now you’re look at the AHL and (ECHL.) So I figure if I pay my dues down here, maybe I’ll get a chance. (Dave) Caruso had a good year here last year and how he’s in the AHL, so that’s what I’m kind of hoping for now.”
Although his numbers have taken a dip over the past month or so, the fact that the Trenton Devils turnaround as a team coincided with Coleman’s arrival is no fluke.
Through 35 games, Coleman has won 23 and put up a 2.50 goals against average and .911 save percentage.
But despite putting himself in strong contention to win ECHL Goalie of the Year honors, much of the press about Coleman has focused on his race, which is nothing new for him.
And whenever it does seem to get old, it always seems there’s a reminder just around the corner about how his story wouldn’t even have been possible just a short time ago.
“Sometimes, when you think it’s getting old, you watch a movie like The Express where he went through so much. Just going into Texas and West Virginia playing and becoming the first black athlete to win the Heisman Trophy. You watch that and you realize it’s an inspiration. Now, I just hope I can inspire as many people as I can. I hope that if kids read my story, they see you don’t have to come from a rich family to play hockey, if you just have a dream and somebody will help you along the way, you’ll have a chance. I just want to give kids hope that you don’t need a basketball or a football to make it.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com