It all blends together for Isaiah Saville.
Over his hockey career, there’s been a lot of change. For example, Saville, born in Anchorage, Alaska, attended four different high schools before ending up at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
However, as a black hockey player, one constant is the racism he has faced both within his sport and outside of it. Saville said that the racist treatment has happened so often that he can’t remember the first time he experienced it.
“It’s kind of just like a normal thing sometimes. It’s so sad to say, but for me, I can’t pinpoint that one time because it’s happened multiple times, so it kind of all meshes together,” he said. “It’s so consistent with the society we live in now that it’s all the time and you feel like you almost have to just like, go with it.”
Saville is currently the only African-American player on UNO’s hockey team. In fact, he is the first black player to play for the Mavericks since Alex Hudson in 2012.
Of course, Saville has had a long journey in getting to this point. He started playing hockey in Alaska when he was “around five or six years old.”
“I started skating on our local rink here and kind of just fell in love with that,” he said. “And I’m a goalie so I put on the pads one time and I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
Saville started playing goalie at 8 years old, and played hockey locally before starting for West Anchorage High School. After winning the state championship and earning all-state honors his freshman year, he moved to Colorado and played for the Colorado Thunderbirds on the U16 team.
While in Colorado, Saville committed to UNO during his sophomore year of high school. Despite looking at other colleges in the midst of his hockey travels, his only official visit was to Omaha. Even so, he said that the process was “stressful.” The facilities and atmosphere of the rink helped Saville decide on the Mavericks.
“Omaha wasn’t always like the spot to be for a hockey team, wasn’t always the top-20 program every year,” Saville said. “But out of the places I visited and places that I thought I wanted to go to college, nowhere really compared to Omaha with the feeling that you feel when you’re there. It felt like home.”
While Saville is currently the only black player for UNO, he’s been able to build a special relationship with assistant coach Paul Jerrard, who is also black. Jerrard has had experience in the NHL as both a player and assistant coach, and was consistently either the only black coach or one of the only black coaches during his stints on the bench.
Jerrard said one of Saville’s most notable and valuable traits is the way he carries himself as a black hockey player.
“He’s a real likeable kid, he’s a great teammate,” Jerrard said. “But one of the things he does real well as a person of color in the game is he just carries himself with a confidence, a swagger, and he looks to be a good example by the way he acts, talks and walks.”
Following his year in Colorado, Saville spent the next two years playing junior hockey in Minnesota and Kearney, Nebraska.
He also represented team USA in the 2018 World Junior A Challenge, and won a gold medal with the team after shutting out Russia in the championship game.
In 2019-20, he started his college career in Omaha. However, a few months before his freshman year started, he was selected in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft as the Vegas Golden Knights selected Saville in the fifth round with the 135th overall pick.
The Golden Knights hold Saville’s rights until 30 days after he leaves college, and are able to offer him a contract any time before that. As of now, that has not happened.
On his journey to this point, he’s had a much different experience than many of his peers in the sport. Hockey is a predominantly white sport that has historically had few black players, so Saville stands out for more than just his talent.
“It’s definitely a little different game, being a African-American black person just in general in this society,” he said. “…more specific to hockey there’s definitely been like problems with that. You see hockey’s more dominated by white people in the sport so there’s definitely been some challenges with that, just kind of not being a, quote unquote normal hockey player.”
Saville said he has heard people call him the N-word for a long time, along with hearing racist stereotypical jokes about “eating fried chicken or watermelon or like grape soda.”
“People mean it as a joke or something but it’s obviously something that, you know, it’s racist. It definitely hurts,” he said. “…I tend to just try and kind of push it off with the little things like that.”
However, he said that every team he’s been on throughout his career has been “amazing,” and he’s gotten support from his family, teammates, and coaches such as Jerrard.
“[Jerrard] and I have a really good relationship together on a like, I wouldn’t call it a father-son relationship, but he’s like a mentor, obviously he’s one of my coaches, but he also is more than that,” Saville said. “And I know I can always go to him with anything, especially with racist comments or anything like that. I know that he has those same problems going on in his life so he can relate to them with me.”
After COVID-19 hit, Saville, along with many other players, headed home. However, he has still been able to talk with Jerrard and build that unique relationship.
“With all the kids we do some wellness checks on them, just checking in on them, and obviously when I talk with him, my conversation is a little different,” Jerrard said.
In these recent months, the conversations around racism in hockey have ramped up. In April, a Zoom call between fans and a black prospect for the New York Rangers, K’Andre Miller, was hijacked by an individual who joined and began posting racial slurs in the chat. In May, black hockey player Akim Aliu wrote a piece in The Players’ Tribune about the racism within the sport.
Since then, the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has sparked nationwide protests and conversation about racism and police brutality. Athletes and athletic programs around the country have spoken up on the issue. Saville said that it’s been inspiring to see people speaking up on these problems more than ever before.
“I feel like this is like the first time people are really coming together and bonding together and making this society better off for what it can be instead of so much racism,” he said. “Seeing the support from all my teammates, all my friends, family, my school, other schools everywhere, it’s really heartwarming.”
Miller’s incident in particular hit hard for Saville. Saville is a close friend of Miller’s, having met him at a national camp when they were 15. Since then, the two have grown closer and closer, even getting together sometimes to celebrate the Fourth of July.
When the news came out about racist slurs being thrown at Miller, Saville tweeted in support.
“Truly disgusts me…,” Saville said in the tweet. “K’Andre is one of the most genuine guys I’ve met and does not deserve this one bit. No one does. He is a brother to me and represents the African American community greatly.”
While the two tend to have more “buddy-buddy talks” and don’t always want to talk about the problems with racism within the sport, Saville did have conversations with Miller about it.
“It was a hard experience for him to go through. And, I mean, good on him for staying strong,” he said. “I talk to him daily. He’s one of my better friends. And so him and I have talked about that and stuff and obviously reached out about that.”
Jerrard said that he thinks it’s “great” that hockey players have been speaking out against racism. He said that it’s helping people to understand the battles players of color have to go through, even at the highest level.
However, Jerrard said one of the more important things about their message is that they could be inspiring the next generation of black hockey players.
“There might be kids of color in the stands watching the game and dreaming, and saying ‘hey, anything’s possible,’” he said.
Saville has already started to influence the next generation. For the last four years, he’s mentored another black goalie who is younger, but has already experienced racism from kids around him.
“He had troubles with racism in the sport from little kids,” he said. “Like, It’s kind of crazy how it’s not just grown adults, but the kids feed off of that and see, ‘Oh, these people are doing it. I think this is the right thing to do, that I’m going to be racist as well.’ And like, I kind of helped him get through all those tough times.”
Despite these issues, Saville sees progress being made. He said that the direction things are going in is encouraging and he wants to be part of making that history. For now, he said that players have to persevere and fight through the issues present in the sport to make change.
“You just got to fight through it,” Saville said. “And you got to stand up for what you believe in. You got to stand up for the sport you love. No matter what race you are, what gender you are, you gotta fight for what you believe in.”