How Anthony Duclair wants to bring hockey to Haitian community

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FORT LAUDERDALE — Anthony Duclair said it hit him right in the heart.

It was May 2021. Duclair was in his first season with the Florida Panthers, the sixth team of his NHL career. He was scrolling through social media on his couch when he saw a tweet from Imran Siddiqui, who had taken his 6-year-old son, Musa, to a Build-a-Bear Workshop. Musa, a Panthers fan, chose a stuffed toy and dressed it as a hockey player.

Musa named the bear Duclair. He told his father it was “because he’s brown and plays hockey, like me.”

Duclair had seen young fans express their admiration for him before. This hit differently.

“It was just … chills,” Duclair said. “This hit me right in the heart.”

That moment was one of many — some good, some regrettable — that led the 27-year-old NHL player to create the Anthony Duclair Foundation with the goal of bringing hockey to underserved, diverse communities starting with those in the Panthers’ market.

“We have a lack of representation in this league right now. It’s tough to grab onto something when you don’t know that it’s there,” Duclair said. He timed the debut of his foundation to NHL All-Star Weekend in South Florida and the start of Black History Month.

“This isn’t just going to be another player foundation. I’m going to be really hands-on with this. I’m going to be there as much as I can, and make sure that I’m present for these kids,” he said.

While he wants to bring hockey to everyone he can, Duclair said he especially wants to help it grow in south Florida’s Haitian community. Both of his parents are from Haiti originally.

Duclair has visited the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami. He wants to build ball hockey rinks there, hold hockey camps and potentially subsidize the cost of ice hockey for young players in the community.

But, most of all, he wants to have a personal presence doing it.

“I want to do something tangible. Not a one-off,” he said. “I look forward to building a relationship with these kids. To hear their stories when I tell them my story.”

Duclair’s story begins in Montreal, where, he said, “you’re put in skates whether you like it or not.” His father put him in skates at 2 years old. Duclair found that he didn’t just like hockey — he loved it.

“Whatever sport you’re playing, you just want to play. Make yourself happy. Make others proud. For me, that was hockey,” Duclair said.

Duclair would be the only Black player on his youth hockey teams. His family would frequently be the only Black fans in the stands.

“As a kid, you don’t see color. Until you’re reminded of it,” he said. “Being Black and being Haitian and playing hockey — which is a predominantly white sport, as we all know — I have a lot of great memories. It’s opened up so many doors for me and my family. With that being said, it came with a lot of pain. Some of the worst memories I carry with me to this day. Experiences that have haunted me for life.”

Like when Duclair was 8 years old and parents at youth games would make monkey gestures toward him. Like when opposing players would use racial slurs against him.

“That kind of thing gets in your head. It leads to a lot of sleepless nights,” Duclair said. “As Black people, we learn to internalize things. You feel like you can’t relate to anyone. That you can’t go to anyone to talk. For me, that’s how my childhood was. As much as I loved hockey, there was a part of me that was absolutely disgusted by it. And I know that I’m not the only one.”

Duclair hopes sharing his story will let young players of color know that they’re not alone.

“Parents tell me that their kids want to quit hockey because of incidents that I went through and that my little brother went through,” he said. “I want to make sure that other kids know that I’ve overcome that and it’s possible for them to overcome that to go where they want to go in life. To not be stopped by racial gestures and stuff like that.”

Duclair scored 31 goals in the 2021-22 season. Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Duclair started planning out the foundation during last offseason, although the idea had been running through his head for years. The Panthers’ Brett Peterson, the first Black assistant GM in the NHL, came to him last August and said they had to do something for Black History Month, especially with the All-Star Game being held in Sunrise.

“My mind started rolling and starting my own foundation was a no-brainer. To help the next generation and to tell my story,” Duclair said.

He reached out to Thomas Eugene Jr., the senior director of diversity, equity, inclusion and multicultural affairs for the Panthers. Eugene suggested a handful of communities on which to focus the foundation’s efforts: Little Haiti, North Miami and Liberty City among them.

Duclair had time to work on his vision because of some unfortunate circumstances. After a breakout 31-goal season in 2021-22 — a career high — Duclair had surgery in July to repair an Achilles tendon injury. He has yet to appear in a game during the 2022-23 season, although Florida expects him back in the lineup soon. During his recovery, Duclair hunkered down to find ways to execute plans for his foundation.

The night before the NHL All-Star Game skills competition, Duclair hosted a cocktail gala on the roof of a Fort Lauderdale hotel to launch the foundation. Teammates, friends and fundraisers were in attendance. So were members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, a player-led organization formed to “eradicate systemic racism and intolerance in hockey.” Duclair is one of its founding members.

The launch was a success. The Panthers donated $100,000 to Duclair’s foundation. The NHL Players’ Association donated $50,000 in funds and equipment from the NHLPA Goals & Dreams program.

“This guy leads with his heart,” the NHLPA’s Chris Campoli said of Duclair. “That’s clear. I work with industry growth and youth hockey in partnership with the NHL. South Florida is a place where we can do a lot.”

Duclair hopes to organize a hockey camp at the Panthers’ IceDen practice facility this summer. Meanwhile, he’s scheduled to have a camp with Bokondji Imama of the Arizona Coyotes at a rink in Pierrefonds, Quebec, where he skated as a young player.

Whether it’s Canada or Florida, Duclair said it’s vital to give young athletes opportunities to learn the game — and to know they’re not alone if they experience some of the things he did.

“So many communities and so many ethnicities don’t know anything about hockey. These are underserved communities that I want to reach out to and lend a hand,” he said. “And let them know that they’re loved. And that they’re supported.”

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