In 1970, UB entered uncharted territory by hiring Ed Wright, the first Black head coach in NCAA hockey history.
Nearly five decades later, Seth Van Voorhis — a 5-foot-3 coach of color, like Wright — took his place behind the Bulls’ bench as an assistant coach for UB’s ACHA D-I club team.
Van Voorhis coached UB for three seasons, until 2022, when he departed to coach Hilbert College women’s hockey in its inaugural NCAA season. Like Wright — who was hired before UB’s second season in the NCAA — Van Voorhis joined a Hilbert program in its infancy.
When he learned about Wright’s impact on UB and hockey history, Van Voorhis immediately sought a meeting with the legendary coach and attended Wright’s induction into the UB Athletics Hall of Fame in 2022.
“It was such an amazing experience to shake his hand and talk to him about not only the game of hockey, but his experience,” Van Voorhis said. “He’s a pioneer just based on having the courage to be a head coach at that time.”
From the moment Ed Wright laced up his skates as a junior in Canada to his coaching career at UB, he endured “unspeakable” treatment. Fans spat death threats and slurs, officials handicapped his teams, and restaurants refused him service. At one point during his career, the burden became so heavy that he developed an ulcer that required surgery.
“This s—t is not easy,” Wright said. “I remember what it took out of me, I used to tell people when I started my position at UB I was 6’5, 250 pounds, and when I left I was 5’3.”
Wright said he triumphed thanks to his “inner confidence” and “blessings from above.”
Wright won over 138 games in 12 seasons at UB, founded the UB recreation and intramural sports program, and became the NHL’s first Black scout.
Thanks to monumental sacrifices from athletes like Wright, Jackie Robinson and Willie O’Ree, all U.S. pro sports leagues are integrated and publicly promote inclusion.
But hockey still trails far behind other sports in diversity. In the NHL, over 80% of league employees are white, while less than 4% are Black. The NHL has fewer than 30 Black players, paling in comparison to the NFL, NBA and MLB.
In recent years, the NHL established programs designed to “combat racism” and “accelerate inclusion efforts.” Van Voorhis is a member of the NHL Coaches’ Association BIPOC program, which “aims to specifically support Black, Indigenous and coaches of colour in… skills development, leadership strategies, communication tactics, networking and career advancement opportunities.”
“It’s just an honor to be part of that. You get to have all these meetings together and talk about the game of hockey,” Van Voorhis said. “So many seminars they’ll have, and it’s just great to see the diversity in the game.”
Van Voorhis said he believes the sport is “headed in the right direction” and pointed to the diversity in coaches and players across the game.
“Hockey truly is for everyone,” he said.
Van Voorhis commended women coaching men’s hockey and men (like him) coaching women’s teams. Van Voorhis thanked trailblazers like Wright for the opportunities he and others have today.
But, he lamented the ongoing racial tension in the sport — and the nation.
“You hear about players in the minor leagues and players even in the NHL having to deal with [racism] still. It’s honestly scary, and it’s despicable,” Van Voorhis said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done with the game and just in life, honestly. There’s still that blockage that is stopping them from seeing everybody as people all together.”
Wright pointed to respect as the solution. He dedicated his life to coaching and teaching others and he experienced powerful, lasting connections formed by sport.
“It’s a deep bond of absolute and complete respect, to the core,” Wright said of his players and teammates. “It’s a tie that goes beyond the physical. It’s a spiritual tie. You don’t see color.”
Van Voorhis also sees himself as a resource and mentor to his players.
Van Voorhis’ position at Hilbert College is his first NCAA coaching gig. He says he was attracted by “the newness of it,” where he’d “be learning the ins and outs of NCAA hockey from a first-person standpoint.”
“Coach Seth has been an integral part of our inaugural program,” Hilbert women’s head coach Cole Klubek said. “His work ethic and dependability make him a great role model for our players as they advance into adulthood.”
Van Voorhis said he’s motivated most by competition and hopes to continue to work toward coaching at the “highest level.”
While Van Voorhis’ career is blossoming, Wright, 78, reflects on his journey and the challenges he faced. He recognized the strength and drive Van Voorhis possesses, saying that the “great little young man” is “extremely devoted to becoming a coach.”
Ryan Tantalo is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org