By Dan Robson
Jay Sharrers didn’t set out to make history; he just wanted to be part of the game he loved. When, as a teenager, it was clear that he wouldn’t make it to hockey’s elite level as a player, he simply vowed to get the NHL anyway he could.
At 16, he traded his hockey sweater for pinstripes. Six years later — after rising rapidly through the minor-hockey ranks, officiating in the Memorial Cup and at the World Juniors, and advancing through the minor pros — Sharrers stepped onto the ice at the Boston Garden as the Bruins took on the Quebec Nordiques. It was Oct. 6, 1990. Sharrers, just 22 years old, became the first black official ever to work in the NHL. At the time, he didn’t think too much about it. When his thoughts strayed from the game itself, he was mostly focused on the fact that his boyhood idol, Guy Lafleur, was on the same ice as him, playing with the Nordiques in his final NHL season.
“For those first couple of years — being young and making the jump as quickly as I did — I really had to focus on not being star-struck by the guys I was on the ice with,” Sharrers says. “You had to try to not be a spectator and remember that you still had a job to do.”
“I didn’t think about it [then] to the extent that I did later in my career, when I realized there were people who acknowledge or looked up to the fact that I was a black kid from Western Canada,” he says. “I always just thought of myself as a kid from Western Canada whose father happened to be black.”
Sharrers faced plenty of racism on his rise to the NHL, particularly during his time as a junior hockey official in places like Spokane, Seattle and Portland. That’s when the taunts from the crowd were most common, he says.
For the most part he just ignored the verbal abuse, and he always refused to let it get to him. “I was used to an environment where people were not happy to see me on the ice regardless. And that was just because of the jersey I was wearing,” Sharrers says. “So what they were yelling didn’t really matter, because they were going to yell anyway.”
Sharrers’s late father, Dan, was black and his mother, Barbara, is white. When Dan was 35 years old and working for the Jamaican government, he travelled to England to take a training course at Oxford University. On the journey home, aboard a ship sailing to Montreal, he met Barbara, a Vancouverite who had been travelling through England with a friend. They fell in love during the three-day sail across the Atlantic and carried on the romance by mail. Five years later, Dan emigrated from Jamaica to marry her.
“The sense of confidence and self-belief that they instilled in both my brother and I kind of prepared me [to face racism],” Sharrers says. “It was just ignorance. It was lack of tolerance. But it never really bothered me, because I just considered the source.”
When Sharrers told his father that he wanted to forgo university to pursue a career as a referee, his parents were initially reticent. Being a sports official didn’t seem like a stable career path to Dan, Sharrers says. But when he got hired in the NHL and Dan got to come and see his son work his craft, he was able to see the significance of his son’s accomplishment. “He was very proud and happy and supportive,” Sharrers says of his dad, who passed away in 1995. “I’m glad we got to share that experience.”
On April 3, 2000, Sharrers returned to the big leagues to referee a game in Philadelphia between the Flyers and the Florida Panthers. Much more attention was paid to his debut as the NHL’s first black referee than had been when he first joined the league as an official back in 1990. “I kind of chuckled about it because I’d already worked for 10 years in the NHL as a linesman,” he says. “But sometimes linesmen are a secondary footnote to the craft of officiating.”
Sharrers eventually moved back to his position as a linesman, working in the NHL until a bad hip forced him into retirement after the 2016 playoffs. In more than two decades of officiating, Sharrers says he faced only one overt incident of racism from a player. He reported the comment to his superiors and the matter was dealt with internally, he says. “I’m happy to say that, despite the fact that when I started there were not a lot of black players and no black coaches in the league, I never really experienced much [racism] at the NHL level,” he says.
Looking back, Sharrers says he first realized the significance of his place in the game in 2001 when he spoke with Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first black player in 1958. O’Ree and Sharrers were on an NHL diversity task force together. They sat and shared stories about their experiences in the game — and as different as their paths had been, Sharrers realized that they were both important figures in the struggle to make the game more diverse. “I think that’s when it kind of dawned on me — and not to say that I experienced the kinds of struggles that he did — but I probably took a little more pride in the fact that what I had accomplished was kind of in the same vein as what he had done,” says Sharrers.
Today the NHL has more black stars than ever before on the ice, and Sharrers sees progress in the participation of minorities in all aspects of the game. Now watching from the sidelines, he says he hopes that growth will continue — and he plans to keep doing his part, passing on his story to a younger generation. He was able to relate his experiences to Shandor Alphonso, who became the second black official in the NHL in 2014 and who saw Sharrers as a mentor.
“He and I developed a pretty good relationship,” Sharrers says. “He looked up to me for what I had done in the game and what I had been through. He picked my brain in terms of what it took to be a pro.”
Sharrers says he’d love to see even more young black kids who love the game of hockey consider officiating as a way to take part professionally — just like Alphonso. “For me to look back and to think that, in terms of the game of hockey and officiating, that I was one of the first, it’s a very rewarding feeling — not just to see people participating, but to see them excelling,” Sharrers says.
As he considers the highlights of his long career — those seven Stanley Cup finals, or officiating in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver — Sharrers takes a quiet pride in being part of so much hockey history. In the end, he made good on his dream of making it to the NHL and hopefully cut a new path for other black men who love the game to find their place in it, too.