Bryce Montgomery found himself in an uncomfortable position, facing down what has to be one of a hockey player’s greatest fears: He was 18 years old, in his NHL draft year, with basically nowhere to play.
The defenseman was preparing for his second year with the London Knights, eager for a bigger role with the Ontario Hockey League team coached by Dale Hunter, when the OHL canceled the 2020-21 season because of the pandemic.
That left everyone scrambling, including Montgomery. Finding available ice time in rinks was problematic. But game competition? That was a huge problem.
“Really a bummer,” Montgomery said last week.
While limited to a handful of games in showcase invitationals, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound D-man was still drafted last week — in the sixth round by the Carolina Hurricanes. Montgomery is happy it all worked out.
“I didn’t know where I was going to go mainly because I didn’t have a season,” Montgomery said in an interview with the News & Observer. “Honestly, I was just hoping to hear my name called by the end of the day because it was such a dream.”
It took almost all of the second day of the draft. Montgomery said he had gathered with his family in a hotel room, watching, waiting.
“We were getting very nervous by the end of the fifth round,” he admitted.
Finally, there it was on the screen: Carolina, sixth round, No. 170 overall, Bryce Montgomery.
“We all went wild,” he said. “It was definitely a moment I’ll never forget.”
Nor will his father.
A proud father
Matthew Montgomery grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, the son of the first female officer in the St. Paul police department and later the first female African-American to be elected to the St. Paul city council.
Debbie Montgomery was a civil rights activist who at 17 became the youngest member to serve on the national board of the NAACP. She was in the March on Washington in 1963. As a freshman at the University of Minnesota, she went to Alabama in 1965 to march from Selma to Montgomery in supporting voting rights.
She joined the St. Paul police department in 1975 and served 28 years — “I was a bad mama jama,” she told the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder in 2017 — before her work on the city council. She also was a founder of the Mariucci Inner City Hockey Starter Association.
Matthew Montgomery always loved hockey, even if the sport, and some of those around it, weren’t always good to him.
Montgomery had racial slurs and other forms of hate speech aimed at him in high school. In games, he was called “watermelon man,” and worse. Cruel stuff.
“I never let it bother me. Why waste the energy?” he said in an interview with the N&O last week, echoing the words he used 30 years ago.
Matthew Montgomery played college hockey for St. Mary’s University, a Division III school in Winona, Minnesota. A two-time All-American, he set the school’s single-season record for most goals by a defenseman (20) that he said still stands.
After college, Montgomery said he was recruited by the CIA, working out of the Langley, Virginia, headquarters. He later joined the Prince George’s County, Maryland, police department, retiring after more than 20 years and taking a job in sales.
Learning the game
A USA Hockey Certified Coach, Matthew began teaching others the game. Bryce and brother Blake, 16 and recently drafted by London, as well, grew up in Bowie, Maryland, with a father who was a loving, supportive parent but also a demanding hockey coach, pushing them to be better.
Matthew hired power-skating coaches. Bryce and Blake never lacked for equipment or instruction, Matthew said, despite the expense.
Asked why more Blacks aren’t involved in hockey, Matthew Montgomery quickly replied, “One word: money.”
“You don’t have African-Americans playing because it’s so ... expensive,” he said. “You have these programs, like in the NHL ‘Hockey is for Everyone,’ but it’s so expensive. Equipment, ice time, playing in leagues. For Bryce playing for Team Maryland it was like $6,000 tuition, and that doesn’t include travel. Blake got new skates not long ago and it was $1,200 for new skates. When I played, the price of a stick was $30. Bryce’s were like, $300.
“And we can say African-Americans, but there are white families who can’t afford it, Asian families. You have teams in Arizona and LA flying to the East Coast to play. Some families can afford to do that. Many can’t.”
Bryce Montgomery played for the Washington Little Caps 14U AAA team, then the Maryland U16 AAA team. After a year at Cushing Academy prep, he bypassed college hockey at Providence to sign with the Knights in the OHL.
Montgomery got in 33 games as an OHL rookie in 2019-20, playing behind such D-men as Ryan Merkley, Alec Regula and Hunter Skinner. Then, the pandemic wiped out 2020-21.
Montgomery found a few games in the Pandemic Hockey League in Massachusetts. More importantly, he went to the PBHH Invitational. A showcase event in Erie, Pennsylvania, it offered 10 games and had other OHL players. NHL scouts were at that one.
“It was like a sprint, with 10 games to make up for an entire season,” he said.
Matthew Montgomery didn’t believe Bryce showed that well, saying, “He was so worried about impressing the scouts and it was in his head.”
No worries, though. The Canes liked him enough to draft him.
“This was the first player we selected that really didn’t play,” Canes assistant general manager Darren Yorke said. “He’s a big right-handed defenseman that can skate. It’s going to be great for us to see him next year in the OHL and get another full year, but we were impressed by how he basically had to go a year off and got into the Erie showcase tournament and show the raw talent he is.”
Matthew Montgomery said Bryce interviewed with 20 teams before the draft, laughing and saying the New York Islanders had 18 people on their call. The Canes were not one of the 20, he said.
Bryce’s pitch: “I think I’m a big defenseman who can cover a lot of ice and really break up plays and play good defense down low and make quick ups and quick plays on the breakout. I think I can also add offense to my game.”
Matthew has since done his intel. He said he has heard good things about Tim Gleason, the former Canes defenseman who works for the team developing young D-men in the Carolina system.
“And Rod Brind’Amour. Come on, who doesn’t want to play for Rod Brind’Amour?” Montgomery said of the Canes coach.
“Bryce could not have gone to a better organization where he can develop and evolve into the player he’s going to be three, four years from now. Another thing I’m happy about is being in Raleigh. Bryce, as an African-American, oh my God he is so charismatic. He’s going to be great in the community.
“Bryce is a beast on the ice and will be great for the organization off the ice and in the community.”
For now, Bryce Montgomery is gearing up for the 2021-22 season with London in the OHL. He said he would attend a rookie camp and rookie tournament with the Canes in Tampa, Florida, in September.
“What Bryce needs is to play games,” Matthew Montgomery said. “Think about it. The OHL kids lost a whole year. He just needs to play games.”