By Lisa Wallace
Hoisting the Stanley Cup above his head will be a memory Mathieu Joseph will never forget, but events off the ice left just as indelible a mark.
Joseph is a member of the champion Tampa Bay Lightning and its only Black player.
While sequestered in the NHL bubble for the 2020 playoffs, the league followed the lead of many other professional sports associations and postponed games for two days in support of player-driven protests for the racial issues that were shaking up the United States.
As a Black player, the racial issues touched close to home for Joseph, a Canadian raised just outside of Montreal, Que., by a Haitian father and Caucasian mother. The 23-year-old has endured his own moments of racism, but he wanted to be a voice for change.
“Justice has always been important to me,” said Joseph. “Not just racial injustice, but in general. You can ask my mom. Since I was young, I had a tough time seeing injustice in anything. This was very easy for me to relate to because of the color of my skin and the way I grew up coming from an inter-racial family. It was definitely easy for me to put myself out there and give my opinion about what I think is right and what I think we should do.”
Joseph admits he had racial comments thrown his way from the time he was young, but tried not to let them beat him down.
“I was able to brush them off for the most part, but when you hear them in the moment it’s draining,” Joseph said. “It made me stronger, I think, and helped me be the person I am today. I have great parents who taught me values on how to react to that and reminded me that not everyone in this world is good and to move past and be stronger for it.”
Joseph’s parents never made race a focus for their boys.
“My husband and I we really focused on respect,” said Joseph's mom, France. “Respect for the environment, respect for groups, respect for the rules and the community. Respect for the differences in life and respect for who you are. If you’re respectful of the differences of others than others will be respectful of your differences as well.”
It’s a message Joseph took to heart and has allowed him to speak candidly and honestly following the events after George Floyd’s death, as well as the shooting in Wisconsin of Jacob Blake.
Being one of the few Black players in the predominantly white NHL made Joseph someone others looked to for guidance and further the discussion within the hockey community.
“I made it clear to guys that I was willing to talk and help and they could reach out to me if they wanted to talk about anything,” Joseph said.
One of those was teammate Curtis McElhinney, who looked to collaborate with Joseph on a project he had in mind. McElhinney had a mask that he wanted to have painted and asked Joseph to help choose a design that would help raise awareness. The end product featured Black athletes who were trailblazers in the fight for equality, a fist flanked by the words Black Lives Matter and the Martin Luther King quote “Lightning makes no sound until it strikes.”
Seeing their son take an active role in helping educate others came as no surprise to and her husband, Frantzi.
“We felt great pride,” France said. “That Mathieu feels challenged by this social issue is not surprising; all forms of injustice have always made him react. But the fact that he chose to step out from the normal ranks and hierarchy that a team sport sometimes has, and he realized that he has a certain platform and can be a lever for the message of change and to take action in an authentic way, despite the fact he was able to live with fewer negative events himself, I found it necessary but above all courageous and responsible."