With the right pair of glasses and one of those tweed jackets — the kind with patches on the elbows — Jordan Samuels-Thomas could easily pass for a college professor.
The glasses, the jacket, his trimmed beard and his deep, baritone voice give the South Carolina Stingrays forward a scholarly vibe anytime he enters a room. The only thing missing from the ensemble would be a customary professorial pipe.
And Samuels-Thomas has the academic chops to pull it off in the classroom, too. He has bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism and master’s degree in sports journalism from Quinnipiac University, where he was a star hockey player.
When Samuels-Thomas is not on the ice, he works as a freelance journalist for a national sports website, breaking down special teams in the NHL, offering analytical data-driven stories and profiling the habits of the league’s top players, while providing his readers with a unique insight compiled from his five seasons playing professionally in North America and Europe.
Samuels-Thomas is also one of the few African-Americans playing pro hockey — currently there are less than 20 black players in the NHL and only a handful in the ECHL.
Samuels-Thomas isn’t your typical professional hockey player.
“There’s life after hockey,” Samuels-Thomas said. “You can’t play forever. I’d still like to stay involved in the game in some capacity when my playing career is over.”
Right now Samuels-Thomas’ primary focus is on getting the Stingrays into the Kelly Cup playoffs for the 25th time in the franchise's 26 years of existence. After winning just one game in the month of February, South Carolina has won four straight and Samuels-Thomas been one of the key components in the Stingrays’ recent success.
“He’s a guy that has the potential to be a dominant presence every night in this league,” said Stingrays head coach Spiros Anastas. “When he controls the puck behind the net and below the goal line, he’s almost unstoppable. He’s really bought into what we’ve been trying to do and his presence has been felt the last few games.”
Growing up in West Hartford, Conn., Samuels-Thomas followed hockey and began to think about a career in journalism.
“I loved the game and the best way to learn about hockey was through the coverage in media,” Samuels-Thomas said.
After playing at Bowling Green for two seasons, Samuels-Thomas transferred to Quinnipiac, which was just a slapshot away from ESPN’s world headquarters in Bristol, Conn. There he got in touch with ESPN's Barry Melrose and John Buccigross, who helped him get more involved in the business.
“They were great mentors,” Samuels-Thomas said. “They really helped me connect with other people in the business. NBC was only about an hour away too, and I was able to do some things with them as well.”
Samuels-Thomas has played nearly 200 games in the American Hockey League, spending the better part of three seasons on the West Coast with the Ontario Reign and San Diego Gulls – both farm teams of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.
It was there that Samuels-Thomas connected with a local sportswriter and his journalism career got its start.
“I had never written for any publications, but I had written a lot for my master’s thesis,” Samuels-Thomas said. “I think because I’ve played at a high level, it gives me a unique perspective on what happens on the ice.”
Samuels-Thomas has written about the strengths and weaknesses of the Ducks and Kings, specifically on special teams. He’s broken down why some power plays are more successful than others around the league.
“I try to be objective as possible and that’s why context is really important to me,” Samuels-Thomas said. “I played with some of these guys, so they know where I’m coming from. I think having played at a high level, it gives me a certain amount of respect with the guys. I understand that I haven’t played in the NHL and it’s easy to sit back and criticize players and systems, which is why context is so important.”
The feedback from players and readers has been generally positive.
“There are some guys who’ve reached out to me and were like, ‘you saw that on the video’” Samuels-Thomas said. “They don’t take it personally because of the context I try to bring to everything I write.”
In February, Samuels-Thomas held a round-table forum with Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL's first black player in 1958, along with San Jose forward Evander Kane and Minnesota winger J.T. Brown to discuss diversity in hockey and the NHL.
“It’s a challenging subject because there’s not much diversity in the game right now,” Samuels-Thomas said. “There’s a lot of diversity as far as nations, but not skin color. Evander and I knew each other from the draft and J.T. and I were linemates in juniors together. I know it was tough for those guys to be completely honest because they still have jobs in the NHL, but they did a great job giving their opinions.
"They want to see the game grow and the best part is that they are active in trying to reach a wider audience.”
Samuels-Thomas, who became a father earlier this month, vividly remembers in middle school when his class celebrated Black History Month. It was an uncomfortable feeling that still lingers with him to this day.
“I recall walking into my sixth-grade history class on the first day of February and feeling like I had accidentally walked into the wrong classroom,” Samuels-Thomas wrote in February. “The classroom had been transformed into a time capsule for black history which meant my classmates and I would be looking back at some of America’s darkest times in history. This time of the year also meant that for the next month I would have to endure an awkward combination of looks, questions and encounters one might expect as the lone black kid in a class of 11-year-olds to face.”
It's a feeling he still gets today.
“As a black man playing a predominately white sport, there have been times — usually due to ignorance — that I’ve felt the same uncomfortable feeling I felt back in Grade 6,” Samuels-Thomas wrote. “When I’m in the dressing room or being evaluated by an organization or scout, I want to be evaluated based on my play on the ice or the caliber of person I am — not the color of my skin.”
There were not many African-American role models for Samuels-Thomas to look up to in the sport. He remembers getting a hockey stick from Mike Grier, one of the few black players in the NHL when he was growing up.
“That made such a huge impact on me,” Samuels-Thomas said. “I still have that stick.”
Samuels-Thomas is trying to expose more kids to the game of hockey. But unlike basketball or football, which are relatively cheap sports to pick up, hockey requires a financial investment that might be out of reach for some families.
“There’s a huge price tag that comes with playing hockey,” Samuels-Thomas said. “I was lucky my parents supported me. I remember my dad would plow snow for extra money so I could get gear. Playing hockey isn’t as easy as going picking up a basketball or throwing a football. Rinks cost money, so does ice time. There are some segments of the population that are just going to be priced out of the sport. The big thing for me is making sure hockey is accessible for everyone.”