Black Jewish NHL player Jordan Harris has a goal: to diversify hockey

World News

(JR) — Growing up watching hockey, Jordan Harris knew how rare it was to see a player like him on the ice. Out of roughly 700 players in the NHL, only a few dozen are Black.

In 2022, the 23-year-old defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens joined the ranks of hockey players of color. But Harris is also one of roughly a dozen Jews in the league, putting him in a class of one: the NHL’s only Black Jewish player on the ice.

Now in the midst of his second full season, Harris told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that growing up in a biracial Jewish family has taught him to treat people decently. It “helped me a lot in terms of building relationships,” he said.

He also hopes his personal example can inspire other kids to see a future for themselves in professional hockey. Harris is a member of the NHL Player Inclusion Coalition, which works to make the sport more diverse. And late last month, during a panel for the Canadiens about diversity in hockey, he spoke publicly about his Jewish heritage and how that contributes to the cause.

“It’s great to think that maybe there’s some young players out there who hear my story and can relate to it somehow. I think that’s fantastic,” Harris said. “Hopefully there’s kids that will read an article about this or see stuff about the Player Inclusion Coalition I’ve been doing and be inspired to continue the path.”

A native of Haverhill, Massachusetts, a city on the border with New Hampshire, Harris didn’t always know the extent of his Jewish roots. His father Peter, himself a former hockey player who was drafted by the New York Islanders in 1986 but did not make it to the NHL, is Jewish and half Black. The younger Harris explained that his father was adopted from a Jewish orphanage. His mother, who is white, is not Jewish.

Harris said Passover, which he and his family celebrated every year with his father’s side of the family, was a particular highlight.

“That was me and my brother’s favorite night of the year because of all the food and family and just excitement around the whole tradition,” Harris said. “We’re not overly religious, but it’s really, really cool just to learn more about my culture and where it came from.”

He and his brother took a DNA test last summer that confirmed their Jewish ancestry. He said the results were “really neat to see, but honestly didn’t change my outlook on my family,” which he already considered Jewish.

“I grew up not knowing much about my heritage on my dad’s side but that didn’t take away from how close our family was and how proud I was to be raised the way I was,” he said. “I still saw myself as part of our Jewish family even before knowing my DNA result.”

Living in Montreal, Harris said he is still learning about the city’s sizable Jewish community — which is estimated around 90,000, Canada’s second-largest behind Toronto. Harris said he celebrated Rosh Hashanah last year with his girlfriend and her boss, who is Jewish, and plans to spend Passover with them, too.

“That’s really, really cool just to continue those traditions and meet people and hear about their stories and upbringing,” Harris said. “And it’s really, really cool to be in Montreal and now learning about the large Jewish population there.”

Gabe Pulver, a co-host of the Canadian Jewish News’ “Menschwarmers” sports podcast, told JR that the rich Jewish and hockey traditions in Montreal could help Harris gain new fans.

“The history of Jewish Canada definitely goes through Montreal,” Pulver said. “There’s a ton of hockey fans in Montreal who have been there for a very long time, especially Jewish hockey fans.”

As fans learn about Harris’ Jewish background, Pulver said, “he is going to get an untold number of fans overnight.”

To Pulver, Harris’ Jewish identity may be especially valuable in Montreal, whose fans are generally slow to warm up to American players who don’t speak French.

“Canadian hockey fans, anywhere, in any city in the country, love their local players,” Pulver said. “If you’re not from there, to get beloved, you have to sort of be a little extra. So this is a great way, I think, for him to connect with the community.”

At least one Jewish Montrealer is likely to meet Harris — on the ice, that is. Devon Levi, the Jewish goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres, played with Harris at Northeastern University and hails from the heavily Jewish Montreal suburb of Dollard-des-Ormeaux. Harris said he may see Levi outside of the NHL season as well, as Levi’s family has invited him over for Jewish holidays.

“It shows the tight-knit community, not only in sports, but just the Jewish community in general,” Harris said.

Harris was drafted 71st overall by the Canadiens in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft but had already committed to Northeastern, where he would play four seasons before joining Montreal for the end of the 2021-2022 season.

Touted by his college coach as “the best defenseman in the country” during his senior year, Harris was a bona fide star for the Northeastern Huskies. As a junior, Harris was a semifinalist for the Walter Brown award for the best American-born player in New England (which fellow Jewish player Adam Fox won in 2019), and was also nominated for the Hobey Baker award for the NCAA’s best men’s hockey player.

As a senior, Harris was named a First-Team All-Star and the best defenseman in Hockey East, Northeastern’s conference.

Since joining the Canadiens, known colloquially as the “Habs” — short for “Habitants,” a term for the early French settlers in Quebec — Harris said the relationships he’s made are what stand out the most.

“I could just go on and on about the hockey community and how tight-knit it is,” Harris said. “I’ve been speaking out more about inclusion in hockey just because of the great relationships that I’ve been able to build over the years.”

As on many teams, the vast majority of the Habs roster is American or Canadian, but Harris also plays alongside teammates from Finland and Slovakia, two countries with few Jewish or Black citizens.

“I think that what’s great about being part of a team is that you have a common goal,” Harris said. “Yeah, there might be players from different parts of the world [where] there aren’t any Jewish people, nevertheless hockey players. My experience with the Canadiens has been great because everyone’s treated like an equal.”

Harris said he’s fielded questions about his family’s traditions but that everything comes from a place of curiosity.

“A lot of people are surprised to hear the fact that I’m Jewish, or biracial, or whatnot, but nobody’s looked at me differently,” Harris said. “A lot of people have been curious and asked about my background and I think that’s great, because the more you can learn about your teammates … I think that’ll only help relationships.”

Harris is part of a growing roster of Jewish players in the NHL that’s headlined by stars such as Jack Hughes, along with Fox and Zach Hyman. Harris said he hasn’t met many of his fellow Jewish players but joked that he could start an NHL Jewish committee to change that.

As a Jewish member of the Canadiens, Harris follows in the footsteps of former Habs including Nate Thompson and Jeff Halpern, who is now an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning. And Pulver said he is aware of at least one other Black Jewish player who has appeared in the NHL: onetime New York Islander Josh Ho-Sang, a Toronto native with Jamaican, Chinese, African and Russian-Jewish heritage.

Harris said he cherishes the opportunity to inspire young Jewish fans and be part of a small but vital Jewish presence in the league.

“I think it’s unbelievable,” Harris said. “It’s cool, because you get to represent something bigger than yourself, and I think that’s really, really special.”