When the 17-year-old U.S. goalie got his first U18 Worlds start against the Czech Republic, he faced a barrage of shots – 18 in the first period alone. Yet Mbereko recorded 30 saves, good for a 96.8 save percentage, en route to a 2-1 win.
It’s just another example of the important contributions that players of colour are making to USA Hockey’s success in IIHF competition as our sport becomes increasingly diverse.
“He’s been our biggest fighter and our biggest backbone for this team,” said U.S. captain Red Savage of Mbereko.
Hailing from Aspen, Colorado, Mbereko has a history of sporting success in his family. His father Isaac played professional rugby and cracked Zimbabwe’s national team. Isaac has also served as Mbereko’s personal trainer and offered tips on mental toughness.
The last decade has seen significant strides in on-ice representation among minorities.
Black stars like Seth Jones and K’Andre Miller have propelled USA Hockey to the podium at the U18, U20, and World Championship levels recently.
Miller, currently completing his New York Rangers rookie season, owns silver medals from the 2018 U18 Worlds and 2019 World Juniors. Miller used his NTDP training as a springboard to two strong seasons with the University of Wisconsin.
Yet the increasing diversity in USA Hockey’s ranks extends beyond the ice. Staff members from different backgrounds are paving the road to success in a sport traditionally dominated by white men.
Currently in Frisco, hockey operations manager Brij Singh and team doctor Aneesh Garg are keeping the wheels turning smoothly for the American U18 team.
Singh, who is of Indian Sikh heritage, grew up in the San Jose area, and his favourite Sharks players were Marco Sturm and Patrick Marleau. He played a wide range of sports, including baseball and basketball. “The national sport of India, where my parents were born, was field hockey, so I played that growing up too,” Singh noted. Roller hockey and ice hockey were also on the menu.
In his teens, Singh decided to pursue a career in sports business, landing internships with USA Field Hockey and the US Olympic Committee’s Diversity and Inclusion program. He also got a corporate social responsibility internship at NHL headquarters in New York, working under future deputy National Lacrosse League commissioner Jessica Berman, whom he cites as a major influence.
“From selling tickets to writing programs to creating new ticket designs for sponsors, it was a really cool experience, and I can thank a lot of people in the program for kind of keeping me around when they could have pushed me away,” Singh said.
With the U18 Worlds, Singh is currently covering his first international event as the Brendan Burke Internship recipient. It’s named after Pittsburgh Penguins director of hockey operations Brian Burke’s late son, who passed away in 2010. A major part of Singh’s job includes travel plans and other logistics for NTDP teams competing in domestic and international tournaments. In Frisco, arranging meals, meetings, and bus transportation are all in a long day’s work for Singh, who also serves as the team’s video coordinator.
He applauds USA Hockey’s renewed emphasis on diversity as a means of seeking excellence.
“I think we’re in a unique position here with USA Hockey because we’re the front face of hockey in our country,” said Singh. “If I were to go to another country, I would love for the U.S. team to look like America. And if we limit ourselves to only one group of people or one race, we’re not doing ourselves a service by bringing in the best candidates here. Hopefully USA Hockey will continue to move forward and ultimately find the right people to keep winning medals, have success on the international stage, and represent our country.”
Dr. Garg – simply known as “Doc” among his USA Hockey colleagues – grew up in Connecticut. He went wild at 16 when the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years in 1994, and also played college and semi-pro baseball. Garg was inspired to get into medicine primarily as a way to stay in sports. He’s built an enviable resume that includes an internal medicine residency at Yale and a fellowship at the Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, Alabama.
The University of Alabama provided an entry point into hockey for Garg, as he cared for the medical needs for their NCAA Division III hockey team. When he met Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey’s chief medical officer, new doors opened. He told Stuart: “You know, one of my professional goals was to work one tournament with USA Hockey in my entire life.”
Garg worked the 2017 Frozen Four tournament in Chicago. “Then Dr. Stuart asked me to do the World U-17 Hockey Challenge for the ‘01-born team, and I’ve done a tournament a year ever since then. I really, truly appreciate it.”
Garg echoed Singh’s thoughts in regard to diversity within hockey at all levels: “I think it's really important, just in terms of the betterment of the program. The more inclusive you can be, the better the talent pool becomes, the better the competition becomes, and that’s on and off the ice.”
He added that accessibility is one of the biggest factors in making hockey more inclusive for aspiring players from different backgrounds: “How do you make it affordable and accessible for those that don’t have the ability to spend money on the equipment and the ice time? I think it starts from the top down in terms of a financial standpoint if you want to have a better product, a more-wide ranging product. Can you put more money into marketing or community outreach where rinks are being built and you’re providing instructions to get more people involved, more people skating?”
Naturally, USA Hockey – along with the IIHF and other federations worldwide – still has plenty of work to do in terms of the challenge of making hockey a more diverse sport. For example, a 2020 survey indicated that only 6.2 percent of NHLers that year were players of colour. Nonetheless, progress is certainly being made in North America, including USA Hockey’s appointment of Stephanie Jackson as Director of Diversity and Inclusion and the NHL’s appointment of Kim Davis as Executive Vice President of Social Impact, Growth Initiatives, and Legislative Affairs.
And at the 2021 U18 Worlds in Texas, with names like Mbereko, Singh, and Garg, we’re getting a glimpse of a more inclusive future.