Paden Taylor: The Black Evanston H.S. Hockey Player Breaks Barriers

By Isi Frank Ativie

Photos by Mark Marich

Since the 1960s, the Evanston Township High School Wildkits hockey program has taught many Black kids to achieve greatness on and off the ice. From Carlos Matthews, the first Black player to join the Wildkits’ organization during the late ’60s, to Ari Sushinski, the first Black girl to play on the boys’ high school varsity team two seasons ago, the program welcomes all players regardless of color. 

Now the Wildkits boast its newest Black hockey phenom in 18-year-old senior forward Paden Taylor, who arrived at Evanston Township High in 2020 amidst the pandemic and has been loving every minute of it. 

“They made it really easy for me to come in and just settle down with the team in general,” said Taylor. “There’s just a long history of good Evanston players coming through. They just pretty much passed it down to me, and I’m just trying to keep it going.” 

Born and raised in Evanston, Taylor started his expedition in this sport when he touched the ice for the first time at age three at the original Robert Crown Ice Arena. His mother, Sharon, first involved him in a mommy-and-me skating session. One day after one year into the program, their skate instructor spoke to her and made a suggestion that would change his life forever.

“The coach of the facility who was giving the lesson said to me that Paden looked bored because he wants to skate fast,” she said. “So then, Paden took speed skating for two years. And one day, when we were in the speed skating rink, a hockey coach came by. He was looking at Paden and wanted to talk to him. And there was no going back.”

For Taylor, he vividly remembers discovering the sport for the first time. 

“We were on the small rink doing that,” he said. “And I would wander over to the bigger rink at Robert Crown and see a hockey practice going on. I thought that was pretty interesting.” 

By age four, he eventually started playing the coolest game on earth. Taylor said he immediately felt this incredible enjoyment of holding a stick in his hands and gliding on that large sheet of ice. 

“Honestly, I didn’t know too much of what I was doing,” he added. “I don’t know. I was just having the time of my life. It was just very enjoyable being able to try something new that seemed fun to me from the outside looking in. Just to be able to touch a puck with some friends at the park district, it was such a fun experience.” 

Taylor went on to play 10 seasons for the suburban youth hockey association before attending high school as a freshman. By then, more coaches were fully aware of his skills, which were gradually improving. 

“Super skilled,” said Evanston Township High School varsity coach Evan Nielsen when discussing his first impression of Taylor. “I joke with him all the time that I wish I had a little of his creativity in my game. Very smooth and plays with tempo. Very creative and just like a fun player to watch. And a very rewarding young man to coach.” 

“I definitely plan to keep on playing. Especially being a minority in the sport, to where I can stand out…” – Paden Taylor

Nielsen, a former White Chicago Wolves defenseman who played for Evanston as a high schooler during the 1990s, took over the full-time head coaching job last September. He met Taylor when he rejoined the Wildkits program and became a brief skills training coach two years ago. 

“He’s a pretty quiet kid,” Nielsen recalled. “Obviously, when I got to know him more, we talked pretty regularly. You can tell that this is a kid who loves playing hockey. You can just see the joy in his play.” 

Taylor played his first year of Evanston Township High School ice hockey for their junior varsity team full-time but made appearances in a few games for the varsity squad during that spring season as a freshman. 

“The JV season was pretty good for me,” he added. “Honestly, I didn’t score too many goals. But I did have a lot of points in just assists. And going into the varsity level, I kind of had to change my game a tiny bit, especially since I was a freshman. So, I kind of had to be more of a grinder on that team. But, the transition was really smooth for me.”

Taylor became a full-time varsity member the following Fall, and his progression grew from that point. So much so that he recorded 24 points last season as the Wildkits established a historical record of 42 wins with only 20 losses. Unfortunately, his team lost in the sweet sixteen round of the state tournament against Stevenson High School with a disappointing score of 6 – 2.    

Winning Despite Racism 

Paden Taylor goes for the score

In this sport, it’s very evident that most Black hockey players experience traumatic memories of racism at early ages, especially once they start playing. That wasn’t the case for Taylor early on. 

“Unfortunately for me, anything before high school, I haven’t really dealt with any racial issues playing hockey,” he stated. “So, it was pretty smooth.” 

But his mother, Sharon, recounted a moment when she experienced an unpleasant instance that involved her then 12-year-old son. It occurred when he played a house league game against an opposing team. 

“I think a coach or family member got upset and said something that was kind of derogatory,” she added. “I can’t remember what was said, but I remember we spoke to the house league about it. The (opposing) team was losing, and the person got mad and said something racial. Right away, it was reported and addressed.” 

Taylor would soon have a vivid memory of racial prejudice years later when the Wildkits faced their hated rivals, New Trier High School, in a game last season.

“We would usually have problems with them racially,” he said. “They (the New Trier High School Trevians) ended up saying slurs at the end of the game. And then that also started a huge fight.”   

Taylor is also no stranger to being constantly mistreated by officials during games by receiving futile penalties. Especially in one match against Neuqua Valley High School from the state tournament’s first-round match-up on Feb. 17. 

“There were three penalties from the whole game for our team, and all of those three penalties were from me,” he stated. “But they were all some pretty soft calls.” 

Taylor was penalized for retaliating against an opponent after being struck in the face. 

“I was in the face-off circle with another guy, and he slashed my stick. And I slashed his stick back. The ref said don’t do it again. And then, we go back to the face-off, he got aggravated again. And he (the opponent) pushes me, and I ended up getting a penalty. Even though I didn’t retaliate the second time.”

Taylor remembers another moment when referees tormented him a few months later at a spring league game versus a team from Willowbrook, located in the western suburbs. 

“Honestly, just in Evanston with refs, we’re not really the best chemistry-wise,” he added. “They tend to not like Evanston just in general. The most recent spring year and this upcoming fall year, we definitely have the most minorities on the team that I have ever seen. And unfortunately, we did not have calls going our way that game. It was some pretty bad calls, definitely some one-sided calls. But we were able to fight through that and win that game.”   

An Inspiration for Others

Paden Taylor in action

The Wildkits eventually went on to win, and Taylor’s love for the game would never waver regardless of being accosted with what he describes as racial taunting and discrimination. His enormous presence has undoubtedly inspired other Black kids to learn about the game and become part of the next generation for the future. Taylor can immediately feel the immensity of youngsters looking up to him as their hero. 

“When I got to Robert Crown for practices and games, and I see some minority kids, especially Black kids, I definitely get some stares,” he said. “And I definitely get some questions about me playing hockey, if it’s fun, and if I’m good or not. And they do seem pretty interested into what I have to say.”   

Now a senior, he started this season on a bright note by scoring four goals, including a hat trick against Oak Park and River Forest High School on Sept. 23, his birthday. 

Next Fall, he plans to take his talents to either the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign or Indiana University Bloomington to play collegiate hockey and major in computer science. Those schools have club hockey programs that compete in the Division I American Collegiate Hockey Association. 

“I know I will have a little free time on my hands,” he mentioned. “I will like to use it for hockey. I definitely plan to keep on playing. Especially being a minority in the sport, to where I can stand out and some extra stares and questions towards me, that also motivates me as well to become the best.”

As his hockey career comes to an end, Taylor is grateful to join only one program that has given him the platform to grow and shine like the Black high school hockey star that he is. Taylor, who wears No. 71 on his jersey, strongly advocates for other Black kids to play the “coolest game on earth.”

“Don’t be scared getting into it,” said Taylor on the advice he would give a Black kid who may be interested in playing this sport. “Once you find the right people and team, the people around you will start to support you. And just make sure you have fun with it; don’t force anything. Always just keep your head up because people will be coming for you because you look different.” 

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