I’ll start by saying this – I don’t consider myself a trailblazer.
I get asked about certain things I accomplished … about being the first Black coach in Canadian university hockey, about being the first Black player to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins, about being the first Black player to represent Canada at the Olympics.
I guess I don’t really think about these as ‘firsts’. They were just part of my hockey journey, regardless of the colour of my skin. People ask me about being a Black player, but I only thought of myself as a hockey player.
I'm nowhere near the type of player Jarome Iginla is and was, or P.K. Subban. They weren’t Olympians because of me; they were Olympians because of the talent they had. It wasn’t because they were Black; it was because they were great players.
But to be mentioned in the same conversation as them? That’s something pretty special.
This is a pretty Canadian thing to say, but I was a hockey-obsessed kid. Because my dad was involved in hockey, it was just natural that my brother and I played. We were lucky enough to live on a street in Toronto that had city rinks at both ends, so we had access to ice all the time. And when it wasn’t cold enough, we played ball hockey day and night. We lived and breathed the game.
I got into organized hockey on those same rinks, playing outdoors. I played in the Catholic Youth Organization (which was strange, because I’m Protestant) in my early years and won a provincial championship. I moved on to the Metro Toronto Hockey League (today it’s the GTHL) and played there through Midget.
Being from Toronto, such a multicultural city, I was rarely the only player on my team who was Black, or at least from a different cultural background. I can’t say there was never name-calling or racial comments, but they were few and far between. I've heard stories from other guys about how terrible the racism was, and not even wanting to go to the rink. I never really experienced that. Was there something underlying that I wasn't exposed to but people were talking behind my back? Maybe. But to my face? Not so much.
Once I got to junior, a couple of times there was some name calling, which ended up – I'm not proud to say this – in a fight after it happened. But it wasn't something that deterred me from going to the rink or made me really uncomfortable, and we had family discussions about it all the time.
Family has always been so important to me. By the time I started playing hockey and my brother started playing hockey, my dad was kind of out of the game. So we only heard the stories of his days on the ice. And they were so much fun to hear.
In the early 1950s, my dad ended up in Mount Forest, Ont., about two hours northwest of Toronto. He travelled with another guy for a potential job, and after he got on the ice and they saw how he played, they wouldn’t let him leave. Apparently, they hid his clothes so he had to stay.
Dad ended up playing Intermediate hockey with the Mount Forest Redmen on an all-Black line with Howard Sheffield and Gary Smith , which was pretty rare back then. But it’s a great piece of history and something our family is so proud of.
My dad coached my brother and I a little bit when we were young, but not for long. He wasn’t an overbearing hockey parent that yelled at the rink or anything like that. He was pretty quiet, but one-on-one, his thing about hockey was scoring. It drove me to want to score all the time, and if you look at my career numbers, I think I did okay!
After my junior days, I ended up with a full scholarship from U.S. International University, which was based in San Diego and was going to play NCAA Division I hockey. I headed south, not really knowing what to expect. I spent a year down there and we played some great college teams. That’s where I took off as a player. My stats were really good against great competition and academically I did really well. Because of that, it allowed me to get into the University of Toronto.
I loved playing at home. It was the right level for me, and the confidence I got from those years led me to Sarajevo in 1984.
The journey to become an Olympian was an interesting one. From my performance with the U of T, I had earned a scholarship from Hockey Canada … I think there were only 50 or so handed out across the country. As a recipient I ended up on the radar of the national team and was invited to Calgary to be part of the team during the 1983-84 season leading up to the GamesI went through the process but didn’t think I had any real chance. Up against guys who were drafted into the NHL, the odds were just not in my favour. I was on the bubble and always having to prove myself.
That season was an absolute grind. We were based in Calgary, but I think we only played eight games there all season. We played series against the United States, we played against the Russians, we went to a bunch of tournaments in Europe, and I think it was maybe 80-something games. I'd wake up in a hotel room and I wouldn't know where the heck I was because we travelled so much.
When we got back from a tournament in Sweden, a few guys, myself included, were given the option of returning to school. We weren’t being cut, but we were told there was no guarantee we’d make the team.
But this was the Olympics. When would this opportunity come around again? Probably never. So I was committed. The odds were against me – they were bringing guys in and out all the time from different places – but I still had a lot of confidence. Even at the last minute, I think they had thoughts about maybe not keeping me, but I ended up on the top line in the Olympics. So things just worked out.
The experience in Sarajevo was great. Living in the Olympic Village was different – there were armed guards everywhere and you had to check in and out all the time – but it was a lot of fun. There was an entertainment centre and we used to go play pinball, because that was a big thing back then. The day of the game, we'd go play pinball.
On the ice, we played great. We won our first four games to clinch a spot in the medal round. In the end, we had a game for the bronze against Sweden and we just couldn’t get it going. We lost 2-0. Would I love to have an Olympic medal right now? Of course. But just the fact that I was at the Olympics was an amazing experience. And we got to go to the other events and meet the other athletes. It was like a Canadian community – we went and watched figure skating when we could, we went to bobsleigh, we went to speed skating. Gaétan Boucher was in the Olympics that year in speedskating, and it was outdoors. There are a lot of great memories like that.
One amazing hockey memory led straight to another. Coming out of the Olympics, I had a couple NHL offers. I didn’t even have an agent, but Doug Lidster, who had been a roommate of mine through the season, set me up with his. I ended up in Pittsburgh and played my only eight NHL games with the Penguins. The running joke is that they were going hard after Mario Lemieux and wanted to finish with the worst record so that’s why they signed me. Did I ever realistically think I'd play in the NHL? Probably not. I was an average player as a kid. I just worked at it.
Because I played those eight NHL games, I lost a year of university eligibility. So for the 1984-85 season, I bounced around a little. I went to training camp with Edmonton, I played a couple exhibition games for Team Canada, helped it win the Spengler Cup the first time it went to Davos for the tournament and played a little bit of Senior hockey before I headed back to school in the fall of 1985.
I was finishing up teacher’s college, but halfway through the year I signed a contract to play pro in Europe starting in the 1986-87 season. It was challenging for me to complete my education, but I knew I had to do it because I didn’t know if I was going to ever make a lot of money playing hockey and I had to have something to fall back on.
I had a great time in Europe, living and playing in Vienna and Helsinki, learning more about the game and about myself. I came back for 1987-88 and had an unbelievable year in the IHL with Flint, finishing third in the league in scoring with 117 points. That took me to Maine in the AHL for a season and back to Flint before my playing career finished up in San Diego in 1990-91.
I got right into teaching when I retired, but I knew I wanted to coach. I called up Paul Titanic at the University of Toronto, but his staff was full. I ended up as an assistant at Ryerson, where we didn’t win a game all season. It wasn’t pretty, but I learned a lot. I got on at the U of T the following season, we won the OUA title and reached the national final, and I was off and running from there.
Two years later I became the head coach when Paul stepped down. It was another hockey dream come true. As a kid, I went to games at the U of T. I played my university hockey there. The rink was always packed, and to think that I was going to become the head coach was amazing.
I had no coaching experience other than an assistant coach. I fell back on some of the things I learned from the coaches that I had, and I had some great coaches when I played. And I made a million mistakes. I was probably a terrible coach at times, and sometimes I was good. We had good teams, we had bad teams.
I love the university game. The players are student-athletes in the purest form. They know they aren't going to become pros, but they want to play hockey at the highest level they can. If you can have an impact on their lives in some small way, it’s all worth it.
I stepped away from coaching in 2017 because it was time. I had the opportunity to change my life, to spend time with my family because my kids were still young enough that they were at home, and I could go to my son's hockey games, and I could go to my daughter's soccer and volleyball games. I could be a real dad and a husband, and eat dinner at home with everybody.
Today I’m an instructor at the U of T, teaching a coaching course and something called Pedagogy of Playing Games. I don't like marking, but I love teaching and I love working with the students.
So that’s me. I had a lot of fun when I played, and I made the best of my limited abilities. I worked my ass off. And that's what people do when they have a passion.
Hockey was never a job, and I am forever indebted to the game for what it has given me.
About the author
Darren Lowe represented Canada at the 1984 Olympic Winter Games, recording two goals and an assist in seven games as Canada finished fourth. He also helped Canada win the 1984 Spengler Cup. The Toronto native played 336 games of professional hockey, including eight NHL games with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1983-84, before spending 25 seasons on the staff of the men’s hockey team at the University of Toronto, including 22 years (1995-2017) as head coach.