When you to stop to think about it, we’re pretty darn lucky to be hockey players/coaches/parents/officials/fans--especially here in Minnesota, a place characteristically known for having a unique hockey culture. Our community model fuels loyal followers and fans of local players and inspires future generations of hockey players. At times, we can admittedly even be a bit provincial on a high school section or state level.
Today, we wanted to take a moment to shine a spotlight onto players who have the power to inspire in a different way. We want to celebrate players who prove to young boys and girls of all backgrounds and ethnicities across the state that hockey is for everyone. That not only can you play, but you can succeed at the game’s highest levels.
We want to spotlight their perseverance, their success and their impact on and off the ice.
“It’s important that leaders within Minnesota Hockey and its associations are doing everything we can so that this list of players grows longer each year. Even more important is that the list of players of color grows longer, regardless of whether they make it to the highest levels or not,” said Minnesota Hockey Executive Director, Glen Andresen. “But the success and leadership of these players can only add to our efforts as they have shown how players of color have flourished in our game despite facing obstacles that no player should have to face at any time.”
K’Andre Miller, New York Rangers, Minnetonka
Selected 22nd overall by the New York Rangers in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Miller has instantly impressed on the Broadway blue line since his NHL debut on Jan.14, 2021. The 21-year-old Minnetonka native -- who only switched from forward to defense during his sophomore season as a Skipper -- finished among the top four Rangers defenseman with five goals and 12 points through 53 games.
The Rangers were vocal about Miller being an instrumental part of the future of the organization -- one that supported him while an anonymous ‘fan’ interrupted a live zoom in April 2020, filling the chat with racist remarks. Miller responded to the incident with a tweet saying:
"I struggle because I've never been fully accepted by either the black community or the white community. I struggle because for years I have been one of the only people of color on my hockey teams. I have been targeted because of my race when I was in youth hockey by some coaches, parents and players, but I refused to give up because of my love for the game."
Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres, St. Paul
The former Shattuck-St. Mary’s forward turned University of Minnesota Golden Gopher turned bonafide NHLer has amassed 519 points including 321 assists through 835 pro games.
Prior to NHL stardom, unbeknownst to him, Okposo was the first-ever black player to wear the Gopher jersey. Having dealt with racial slurs in high school, Okposo maintained it was important to always rise above it and be a hockey player -- not necessarily just a black hockey player.
“For me, it’s mostly a non-issue,” Okposo told the Pioneer Press back in 2007 while at the U of M. “I’m just another guy playing hockey; it doesn’t matter what the color of my skin is, it doesn’t matter what my heritage is as long as I can play the game.”
Nina Rodgers, Minnesota Whitecaps, Minnetonka
A two-time national champion with the University of Minnesota, and two-time silver medalist with the U.S. Under-18 Team at the 2013 and 2014 Women’s World Championships, Rodgers came back home to join the Minnesota Whitecaps after two seasons with the Connecticut Whale.
The 17th overall pick of the 2015 NWHL Draft, Rodgers, a Hopkins graduate was the only Black player selected.
“Just knowing that people like me can follow your dreams, they can do the same thing,” Rodgers stated. “They just need to work hard…and keep pushing.”
C.J. Suess, Manitoba Moose/Winnipeg Jets, Forest Lake
A four-year standout at Minnesota State University from 2014-18, Suess (formerly known as C.J. Franklin) has been grinding it out in the AHL with brief appearances on the big stage.
Growing up and playing for Forest Lake through high school, Suess said he is grateful to the Minnesota Hockey community for helping him feel comfortable on the ice.
“I definitely felt like I was part of the hockey culture and wasn’t standing out by any means,” Suess told Minnesota Hockey Journal in 2019. “As a kid there was maybe one or two instances that happens…but you can’t let that bother you. I feel like USA Hockey, Minnesota Hockey and the game itself is doing a great job of weeding that out.
“Everyone’s out there to do the same thing. The color of our skin shouldn’t play a matter in that.”
Dustin Byfuglien, Roseau, Winnipeg Jets
Byfuglien, who is currently in NHL limbo after 13 seasons and a Stanley Cup claim with the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks, certainly made his presence on the ice known. With a 6-2, 260-pound frame, his knack for being an offensive defenseman shined with 525 points (177 goals, 348 assists) in 869 games.
Byfuglien, the first Black player to win a Stanley Cup, had full support from his teammates in a battle against any racism or discrimination he or others faced.
“We have to be as involved in this as black athletes,” Winnipeg Jets captain and Minneapolis native Blake Wheeler said in 2020. “It can’t just be their fight.
“I look in the mirror about this before I look out at everyone else. I wish that I was more involved sooner than I was. I wish that it didn’t take me this long to get behind it in a meaningful way. But I guess what you can do is try to be better going forward.”
Mariah Gardner, Minnesota State University, Warroad
Gardner kept the family tradition alive, following in her sister, Demi's, footsteps and became a Maverick having led Minnesota in assists (60) and points (97) while helping lead Warroad to a state high school third-place finish in 2015-16. Gardiner wrapped up her senior season and four-year career at MSU with 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) in 96 games.
Crystalyn Hengler, University of Minnesota, Eden Prairie
The Eden Prairie native and Academic All-Big Ten honoree completed her junior campaign with four goals--including three on the power play--and nine points. A power defenseman, Hengler helped the 2016 U-18 squad capture gold at the Women’s World Chamopnship and was a 2018 Minnesota Ms. Hockey semifinalist.
Tina Kampa, Bemidji State University, Maple Grove
Kampa concluded her four-year career at BSU as one of the strongest blue liners, leading the Beavers defensemen with six points (one goal, five assists) -- tied for 11th in the WCHA. Kampa’s 57 blocked shots were second-most in the conference and fourth amongst all Division I women’s players.
She finished her career in Bemidji with 33 points off of four goals and 29 assists and ninth on BSU's career points list by a defenseman and ninth in career assists by a defenseman.
Maia Martinez, Union College, Maple Grove
Martinez is a 2018 graduate from Maple Grove who put up 58 goals and 55 assists in a four-year high school career. She took her talents to the Eastern College Athletic Conference and Union College, appearing in every single game during her freshman and sophomore seasons--and earning a spot on the ECAC Hockey All-Academic Team too. While her junior season was withheld due to Union's decision not to participate, you can bet Martinez will be rearing to go, topping her career highs in outstanding fashion.
Micah Miller, St. Cloud State University, Grand Rapids
“State” could easily be a part of Grand Rapids native Micah Miller’s name. From a 2014 Bantam AA state title to a Minnesota State High School championship in 2017, Miller is now helping St. Cloud State University’s quest for a championship trophy.
Wrapping up his junior season, Miller has appeared in every one of the Huskie’s games and proved to be an important piece in the Husky’s run during the Final Four this season.
Know a player who could inspire the next generation of diverse hockey players in Minnesota who we missed? Send us an email so we can expand our list!