Chris Williams, who grew up figure skating and playing hockey in north Minneapolis, says he didn’t encounter racism on the rink until he got to high school.
“Some of the guys on the hockey team were real cool, but a handful weren’t,” recalls Williams, now a pediatrician in his hometown. “I got called the N-word a couple of times by my own teammates. I got in fights. It was discouraging.”
That experience motivated him to help launch a youth hockey program in north Minneapolis in 1986. Williams, then a medical student at the University of Minnesota, started the program with Dale Hulme, a Lutheran pastor. Hulme runs New Directions Youth Ministry, which provides children with tutoring, counseling and outdoor activities.
For around $50, the program gives children aged 7–15 an opportunity to play. “We’ve broken down the financial barrier by providing equipment and transportation,” says Williams. He says most of the players are African American or other minorities — “people who don’t traditionally play hockey.”
Williams, who studied biochemistry at Northwestern, played club hockey at the University and says it was a great experience. After completing his residency at the Feinberg School of Medicine in 1992, he returned to Minnesota in 2001 and helped run the New Directions hockey program for several years. And when his 8-year-old son, Marko, started playing hockey, Williams returned to coaching.
He says his pediatric patients have suffered greatly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. He hopes hockey can bring healing.
“We want the kids to feel good about themselves,” he says. “We want them to learn the values you get from teamwork. The teammates, the families — it’s a built-in support network. With all the trauma that’s gone on here, this program has been really important.”