Late for soccer sign-ups, Leon Hayward would be ahead of his time in the game of hockey.
“There wasn’t a lot of hockey in Seattle … I ended up playing … on an accident, really. I didn’t sign up for a soccer team on time and had a friend say, ‘You should try for hockey,'” Hayward recalls.
In the fall of 1993, legendary New England skills coach Paul Vincent’s 18-year-old son Paul Vincent Jr. was playing major junior for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League, and the Haywards housed the player as his billet family.
“That became a lifelong bond for all of us,” said Hayward, who forged a relationship with the Vincents and having transferred as a high school sophomore, went coast to coast for prep education at Tabor Academy.
In Marion, Hayward became a football tri-captain, a member of the Seawolves’ lacrosse team and kept building on hockey. He was Tabor’s Sophomore Male Athlete of the Year, recipient of the 1997 Rip Perry Trophy (finest team spirit, sportsmanship and outstanding play in football) and won two hockey awards, the 1997 Lucien O. Lavoie Trophy (most improved) and the 1998 Coach’s Award (MVP).
After his 1998 graduation, Hayward played Division I hockey at Northeastern University, where he was recipient of the Huskies’ Unsung Hero Award. He went on to play five full seasons of pro hockey, including 100 American Hockey League games. He helped lead Trenton to the 2005 ECHL championship and was named Finals MVP.
But, like many young African Americans skating in the wake of trailblazers like Willie O’Ree, Alton White and Val James, Hayward was not unique as a hockey player. Rather, it is his emergence as an impactful prep and college coach that has his hockey stock climbing.
“This (honor) is probably more for my coaching career than my playing career, but I just knew Tabor was a place for me, and when I looked at schools I knew that Northeastern was a place for me,” said Hayward, who had not been back on the Marion campus since coaching against Tabor behind the Governor’s Academy hockey bench almost 10 years ago.
On Saturday, Hayward was inducted into the Tabor Academy Athletic Hall of Fame, alongside girls’ sports coach and builder Joan Roller, wrestler Jim Henry and the 2001-02 championship girls basketball team.
Along with his wife Jessica and sons Ellison and Harlan, his mother and some Tabor teammates, Hayward’s three coaches, Dr. Anthony Kandel (football), Tim Pratt (hockey) and Ian Patrick (lacrosse), were in attendance.
“I just felt like the coaches cared about me here at Tabor, not only in hockey but all of the sports I played,” said Hayward, who did not know when he was attending Tabor that he was the Seawolves’ first African-American varsity hockey player.
“There was less pressure there then if I had known,” he says, noting a growing awareness of his rare place once he got to college. “When we went to the deep south states, it became very important to me that I played well just because of the one black family at a game and (let’s say) they have a kid … I wanted him to have someone to cheer for.”
Hayward had two black teammates during his freshman year at Northeastern, where he would later earn a master’s degree in Leadership in 2014.
Having coached at Avon Old Farms and the Taft School, The Governor’s Academy made Hayward the first African-American head hockey coach in New England prep schools. Since then, his recruiting has helped raise the profile of Colorado College to a national power and is now the first assistant coach, helping build a fledgling Division I program at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The NHL Coaches Association BIPOC Coaching program, which aims to identify and develop future coaches and general managers, has its eyes trained on Hayward.
“I did development camp with the (NHL New Jersey) Devils this year. … It was kind of an internship,” said Hayward. “You never know what the future holds, but I love coaching college hockey.”
Dating back to the 1970-71 season, Joan V. Roller brought girls athletics into the 20th century and then the 21st at Tabor with 46 years of service, passionately coaching basketball but championing the cause of equal treatment for girls in all sports.
Her work was twice recognized by Tabor, first with the Joan V. Roller Award (to the player who demonstrates unselfish commitment and outstanding contribution to Tabor’s girls’ varsity basketball program) and in 2011 when the refurbished varsity basketball court in Stone Gymnasium was named for her and husband Richard.
Marion native Jim Henry (Class of 1975) achieved success in football, wrestling and crew and did so in the wake of three older brothers who had preceded him at Tabor. After his sophomore year, Jim rowed at the 1973 Henley Royal Regatta, in his junior year was a starter in all three sports, and then a captain in all three sports in his senior year.
A recipient of academic awards in subjects, including Russian History and Spanish language, Henry earned a journalism degree at the University of North Carolina and joined the US Navy, serving three years of active duty.
The past president of the New York-based International Motor Press Association has run 17 marathons since age 46.
The 25-0, 2001-02 Tabor girls basketball team didn’t just get over nemesis Philips Andover in double overtime to capture that winter’s NEPSAC championship, that team changed the trajectory of its own program and shifted the regional power structure.
The Seawolves’ dramatic victory may have felt like the end of a journey, but it created a new one for future Tabor teams, setting the table for a 20-year legacy of seven titles and 16 total finals appearances.
The Seawolves were comprised of senior captains Sarcia T. Adkins and Sierra Yaun, junior captain Kristina L. Baugh, seniors Bethany Anderson Jackson and Maggie J. Zayko, juniors Naimah D. Abdullah, Whitney J. Ffrench, Mary E. Lewis, Leah M. Mendes, Alina K. Wolhardt and Caitlin Milbury Young, freshmen Tara L. Miller and Courtney Beal Scalice. They were coached by Will Becker and assistant Airami Bogle Bentz, and junior Jaunelle R. Chapman was their manager.
Tabor Academy Athletic Hall of Fame
By Mick Colageo