Lennie Childs (Silver Springs MD) was never going to be a prototypical hockey player or coach. In fact, the Janesville Jets associate head coach has been breaking molds and barriers since his first days on the ice as a developing mite.
With 116 games played in the North American Hockey League as a player (also with the Jets) before playing four years of college hockey at Concordia (WI), the young man knows the league and game as well as any coach.
He also knows what it takes to be a successful player of color, and overcoming obstacles, on the road to college hockey and beyond. Childs’ successes in life are evidence that character and hard work will always elevate levels of opportunity.
At first glance, one will look at the discussion as a reaction to current events, and that is the truth. This is a different take on how the game treated a player (and coach) of color in contrast to all the negativity we are seeing displayed across the country.
I think it is fair to say that our sport rejects division and Childs’ story supports that thinking.
Childs returned to Janesville in November 2018 as assistant coach. He was recently promoted to associate head coach alongside Parker Burgess.
Childs’ focus with the Jets is on the defensemen and the team’s penalty kill. He guided the PK to an 81% success rate in 2019-20, good for second-best in the Midwest Division. His defensemen featured four Division-I commitments, two of which were earned in-season. As associate head coach, Childs also plays important roles in the Jets’ player procurement.
A conversation with Lennie Childs
SH: Did you always know that you wanted to play hockey as a kid, or did you try out other sports as well?
LC: I liked the traditional sports like basketball, football, and baseball, but I never tried out to play anything organized. My grandfather introduced me into tennis when I was 3 and I thought that was going to be my path. I didn’t really find out that hockey was going to be my sport until a rink opened five minutes from my house when I was five years old. We saw a sign around the city that said learn to play hockey and my parents just told me to go for it!
SH: What was your parents’ reaction to your decision to play hockey?
LC: They loved it. I think they were happy that I chose something off of the beaten path. They supported me all of the way and made their own personal sacrifices to make sure I could keep playing it. My grandparents had to help a lot and finances struggled because of hockey. I never saw the impact from that because my parents never took their foot off the gas pedal with hockey.
SH: What was it like walking into an ice rink when you were 5 years old and have never tried hockey before?
LC: I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was nervous, it’s kind of intimidating. It’s not just like picking up a basketball and finding a random park with no one around to critique you. It was a big building, with a ton of people, and you are hauling this gear around your shoulder. Not to mention, you have no idea how to put it on. I was met at the door by Nelson Burton, a former NHL player who started the youth program that I joined. Nelson greeted me by my name with an infectious smile, and was so welcoming. Because of that greeting, I knew I was accepted.
SH: Were there other black players in your local association or on your teams in youth hockey? Did kids on your team or opponents treat you differently because you were black? How so? What did you do to overcome the early challenges and stick with hockey?
LC: I don’t really remember many black players in my organization that were my age when I started mite hockey, and honestly it really didn’t matter to me. I was classified as a hockey player, not a “black” hockey player. It was not until I was around 8 or 9 that I got my first racial slur on the ice. I didn’t really know how to act, I was stunned. I didn’t think my skin color had anything to do with playing a sport. My teammates reacted for me, they stood up for me, same with my coach and the other program that the kid played for. At that point, my parents told me to be prepared for it. I can remember them saying that people were going to tear me down because that was the only way they could stop me. So I made it my mission to be the most positive and energetic person. I thought, if I can be good everywhere else, people shouldn’t care that I was black.
SH: Who was your favorite player growing up and why?
LC: I had two and they weren’t the big name stars. Richard Zednik and Mike Grier. Both played for my hometown Washington Capitals. Both went hard and played with an edge. They played a team game and seemed to be loved by their teammates. I’m not going to lie, seeing Mike Grier being the same color as me, I studied his game and thought it was the coolest thing ever. I even got to meet him at the Capitals locker room after a game when I was a peewee.
SH: You tendered with Janesville in the NAHL. What was it like moving from a large urban area in Maryland to a smaller community like Janesville? How did the community treat you when you arrived?
LC: I really wasn’t sure how things were going to go in a smaller town like Janesville. I had only heard great things of it being a blue collar town with unbelievable people. As soon as I arrived for our main camp, I got to know the billet families and fans that came to watch. They welcomed me with open arms. You never really know how these things work as a black kid moving into a white billet home. No one ever mentioned my race and I was treated like a real son. It was awesome to not be seen as anything other than a hockey player.
SH: You were one of only a few black players in the NAHL back then. What was that like?
LC: I had a great experience in the NAHL. I kept that same positive and energetic mindset that I hoped would be my characteristics other than me being black. I wanted to change the stereotype of what people thought of my race. I feel that a lot of people respected that and I have a ton of friends that I played against in the NAHL to this day.
SH: Looking back at your playing days, what was most memorable for you?
LC: It would be for sure the guys on the team. Our Janesville teams were super close and still keep in touch today. There’s just something about being a part of a team and going to compete every day. We cared about each other on and off the ice and always had each other’s backs. Hockey is a lifetime bond.
SH: It’s a while since you made the transition from player to coach. How has that been for you and your family?
LC: It’s been awesome, I have a great wife who is all about hockey and has been with me every step of the way. She is the one that pushed me to go back out East after college to pursue coaching. There has been a lot of apartments and U-hauls in our 4 years but it’s what we do and we love it.
SH: What lessons did you learn as a player that have been most helpful to you early in your coaching career?
LC: Preparation and compete. I was fortunate to have some really great coaches that taught me how to prepare myself and go out to compete to your fullest extent. There really is no excuse not to go as hard as you possibly can. This is something I try to show the players I work with now. It’s fun to work hard!
SH: The coaching community within junior hockey is a very tight group. Which coaches have you been able to identify with the most?
LC: It’s pretty crazy to think that I am coaching against guys in the profession that were coaching against me when I was a player. A lot of coaches have taken the time whether it’s in our league or higher up, to sit down a have conversation with me with genuine interest. They have time for me and that is something that I will never forget. There is a bunch of coaches that smile, introduce themselves, and give you the time of day. Those are the guys I love learning from.
SH: Your nickname is Lenergizer. People say you have endless energy and positivity. How have those attributes helped you as a player and now as a coach?
LC: As a player, people knew that I wasn’t going to quit on the ice or quit on my team. As a coach, I think it stems exactly from that. I coach because I believe that I can work with players to get them to a level they never would have thought they could get to. There is an insane amount of adversity that you hit in your career, but if you can go at it with positive energy, you can overcome a lot of it. If I can get that message across to the players, I feel like I have done a good job.
SH: What are your coaching goals, are you ready to be a head coach?
LC: My goal is to go as far as coaching is willing to take me. It’s going to be challenging and there will be a lot of doubt about me for sure. I finished at D3 hockey, a great level, but doesn’t give you a huge jump in coaching conversations. My goal is to learn as much as I can in order to make the players the best they can be. It’s about the players and I would love to be able to coach at the highest level in the future.
SH: What insight would you like to pass onto other players of color as they approach the junior level of play?
LC: I don’t want minorities to hesitate jumping to junior hockey or even young players with picking up a hockey stick. For every racial slur, there are hundreds of people who stand up for you. Unfortunately, racism is still in the world, but there are millions of hockey people who don’t care about color one bit. Every single coach and teammate I have had made sure that they had my back when someone used the n-word against me. The hockey community is one of the strongest around and if you work hard and are a good person, you will create lifelong bonds. It’s a great game with a ton of support and if I could do it over again, I would choose hockey every single time.