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Sports >  NHL

Kraken hires former Lightning forward J.T. Brown, a champion of diversity and inclusion, as TV analyst

UPDATED: Mon., June 21, 2021

The Minnesota Wild’s J.T. Brown warms up before a 2019 NHL game against the Anaheim Ducks in St. Paul, Minn.  (Associated Press)
The Minnesota Wild’s J.T. Brown warms up before a 2019 NHL game against the Anaheim Ducks in St. Paul, Minn. (Associated Press)
By Geoff Baker Seattle Times

Newly hired Seattle Kraken television analyst J.T. Brown never considered himself an activist early in his 365-game NHL playing career.

Then came the 2016 death of Philando Castile in Brown’s native Minnesota and acquittal the following year of the police officer who shot him while he sat in a car with his girlfriend and daughter. That same year, in October 2017, the Tampa Bay Lightning forward raised his fist during the pregame playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest police brutality and racism.

Brown, 30, was the first NHL player to protest during the anthem, and his actions quickly went viral. His activism and community work, especially on improving diversity within hockey, grew from there, and over two final seasons with the Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild.

It caught the Kraken’s attention enough to pair a now-former hockey forward with zero TV analyst experience alongside potential Hall of Fame play-by-play broadcaster John Forslund in the Root Sports booth.

“I think what the Kraken are doing is a big platform for me to continue my work,” Brown said Monday after it was announced he had retired from playing – he spent the past season with a Swedish professional team – to become Forslund’s long-awaited on-air partner. “If you look at the organization as a whole and how diverse the Kraken are, we’re putting the right foot forward here for this organization starting out.

“And that empowers me to continue to try to make the game diverse. And will allow me to continue to use my platform, as well as get involved in the community and not just be only a TV analyst. I’m being allowed to be in the community and do these things that will help grow the game as well.”

The Kraken made clear Brown’s work on diversity and inclusivity put him on its broadcast radar. Brown last year was named to the NHL’s Fan Inclusion Committee, which helps develop enhanced access and opportunities within hockey for people from traditionally underrepresented communities.

He helped champion “Black Girl Hockey Club,” a nonprofit focusing on making the sport more inclusive for Black female players. An avid Twitch streamer, Brown has used that platform to raise money for the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone diversity campaign.

His only broadcast work was a lone-game radio guest appearance while injured with Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse. But he fared well during a test screening in which he and Forslund called a taped Lightning-Carolina Hurricanes game via Zoom while Brown was in Sweden. Brown joked the toughest part was not referring to his former teammates by their nicknames.

Otherwise, he’ll lean heavily on his hockey knowledge while working to improve the cadence of his delivery.

Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke held the same position with the Lightning when it signed Brown as an undrafted college sophomore in 2011. Leiweke had the Kraken reach out to Brown’s agent while he was overseas to see whether he’d consider switching to the booth.

“We try to do things a little different here, and I think it’s important,” Leiweke said Monday. “We do want to try to grow the game. We want the game to be welcoming for all. And to have J.T. in the commentator’s chair is a great opportunity to do that.”

Brown is the second person of color hired by the Kraken to a prominent on-air role, joining radio play-by-play broadcaster Everett Fitzhugh, who is also Black. Leiweke described Brown as “a hockey hero” to him for being an oft-overlooked young recruit who earned a spot with a USHL junior team, then led the University of Minnesota-Duluth to the 2011 national championship.

Though he went undrafted, Brown fought his way on to the Lightning’s roster later that year as a fourth-line forward, eventually playing in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final that Tampa Bay lost to Chicago in six games.

Growing up in Burnsville just outside Minneapolis, he always had been one of the few Black players on his youth teams. And though Brown said he doesn’t feel his skin color impeded his hockey progress, he wrote in an essay for last summer – at the height of protests over George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis by police officer Derek Chauvin – about the loneliness that sometimes took hold while playing in an overwhelmingly white sport.

“For most of my whole hockey career, I have been the only Black person or person of color on my team,” he wrote. “It is an experience that can leave you feeling like the token Black guy. An experience that makes you hyperaware of your Blackness, questioning whether or not you are acting too Black or too white. Understanding where and how you fit in can be lonely and it fundamentally shapes you as a person.”

Still, he loves hockey and said Monday he wants others to feel its pull. As a ninth-grader he preferred its “free flowing” nature and “creativity” over other sports, to where he finally broke it to his father – former Minnesota Vikings fullback Ted Harris – that he was picking high-school hockey over football. His father had no problem with it, telling J.T. he had figured out years earlier that hockey was his favorite sport.

“As much as I was dreading the conversation a little bit, he’d already known my answer and what I was going to do,” Brown said.

But Brown admits there were times that things could have gone in a different sports direction.

“There were incidents growing up in youth hockey where you finally start to realize that you may be the only person that looks like you on your team, or on other teams, and it gets a little discouraging,” Brown said. “But I’m happy I stuck with it.”

As a youth, he was once called a racist epithet by an opposing player. His coach and teammates walked out of the game when the referee refused to eject the offender.

“They definitely had my back in all these situations,” Brown said. “But that’s not the case for everybody.”

And that’s why, he added, it’s important to keep working to make young hockey players feel included. As a child, his favorite player had been future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames, who “knew how to score and was tough as nails.”

The fact Iginla was Black also played into Brown’s choice.

“It’s obviously good to see people that look like you,” Brown said. “And the NHL, they’re doing a good job making some changes. If you look at how many people of color or different ethnicities were drafted last year … there were a lot more Black players than in years past. That’s something good to see, and we want to keep that momentum moving forward.”

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