KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — It was a rare morning puck drop for the Kalamazoo Wings on Monday when they welcomed the Cincinnati Cyclones. But this game also featured a first for the sport.

For the first time in ECHL history and all of professional hockey, two people of color were behind the benches as head coaches of competing teams: Kalamazoo Wings head coach Joel Martin and Cincinnati Cyclones head coach Jason Payne.

Students and staff from area school districts, including Constantine, Brandywine and Centreville, were at the Wings Event Center for Education Day.

The subject of focus was history with a healthy dose of hockey. Lesson plans included dancing, cheering and a lot of vuvuzelas. But students and their fellow fans were witnessing history, instead of just learning it.

“I think the fact there are public schools in the building and there is a lot of diversity in the building, I think, is something that makes it extra special,” said Martin said. “It’s just another step in the right direction, right? It’s going to hopefully happen again and again and again. … That’s when we maybe stop talking about it. (It) just becomes normal the more often that it happens.”

Last year, Payne broke the barrier for being hired as the first Black head coach in North American professional men’s ice hockey. With Martin following suit in 2022 as the second, it was a matter of time before the two former pro players would be in the history books again: this time, together.

“To have this chance of us both entering the league as assistant coaches … catapulted to head coaching positions … now, us going head-to-head and actually making history is something great for the league and it’s something great for hockey all around,” Payne said.

“To do that with somebody that you can consider a friend, too, in Jason Payne, that I’ve known for a while now, makes it even more special,” Martin added.

These two affiliates also happen to have women as general managers in their front offices, Toni Will and Kristin Ropp, ultimately reinforcing the sport’s message — from the NHL to its affiliates — that ‘Hockey Is For Everyone.’

“Humbling, honored to be a part of breaking down barriers in a sport. It’s happening all over in our sport — National Hockey League, American Hockey League — women coming into our sport, gay and lesbian are entering the sport,” Martin explained. “It’s awesome to be a small part of that and hopefully allowing kids that look like us to see us on the bench and hopefully one day do the same thing.”

“There’s no ulterior motive. The only motive is that I want to give other kids another opportunity where I didn’t have,” Payne added. “So now that we’re able to do that and now you see Joel and I here, allowing kids the opportunity to see that they can be also coaches as well, allowing commentators, allowing GMs … hockey itself is scoring leaps and bounds and we just want to continue doing that.”

The K-Wings ended up losing 2-1, but the first score of the game brought a lot more meaning to the occasion. It belonged to Jalen Smereck, one of three people of color on Cincinnati’s roster.