In 1985, five-year-old Del Morris took a Chandler sports camp field trip to the ice rink at the Robert Crown Community Center and discovered an interesting activity called “ice skating.”
He began his hockey career the following year. Since then Morris has gone on to break racial barriers in the sport as a coach and hockey director, as well as inspire a new generation of young Black players in Evanston.
The Evanston native played on his first team in the Wildkits youth hockey program, where he participated for years. One season, Morris even played as a goalie for the Wildkits youth travel team and defenseman for its house league team simultaneously, just to obtain more playing time.
Later he played a season each for the Park Ridge Express and Notre Dame High School Ice Dons hockey clubs, but he returned to the Wildkits program to play goalie for its high school club team. The Evanston Township High School graduate says he once played through strep throat and a 99-degree fever for the Wildkits.
Morris was named as the high school team’s most valuable player twice. He was also one of the few Black players in the Wildkits hockey organization at the time.
“I loved every second of it,” Morris said of his early playing years. “There were hard times, being one of three African Americans on my team, but many years it was just me. And we were the only few in our league, so playing other teams made it difficult when racial slurs were said.
“I did not have anyone in my organization that looked like me besides the players. No one on the board or coaching staff looked like me.”
Morris graduated from ETHS in 1999 and went on to play as a goalie with the New Mexico Ice Breakers junior hockey team for three seasons before ending his competitive career.
However, he had no plans of walking away from the game. So, while attending New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, where he lettered in lacrosse all four years, he also worked as the goaltending coach for the women’s hockey team. After his stint with the Pilgrims, Morris graduated with a degree in elementary education in 2006 and worked as a goaltending coach for the Lake Forest College Foresters women’s team for two years.
He also returned to the Evanston Wildkits program as a youth league coach in fall 2006. By 2015, he was named Illinois High School Hockey League Varsity Coach of the Year; Morris was also mentioned as the Chicago Blackhawks coach of the month in 2012 during his early years as the Evanston Township High School varsity head coach.
“When I graduated college, I realized how much coaching made me happy,” Morris said. “I also wanted to give back to the program that helped me fall in love with the sport. I wanted to make it a point to give great coaching to the Evanston community.”
Morris said he has wanted to be a coach and director since the age of 12. The former Evanston Wildkit player’s dream would come true in 2013 when he was appointed as the program’s youth and high school hockey director.
Morris, the only African American to lead a program in the state’s amateur hockey association, said he has had to endure racial confrontations with spiteful individuals.
“Racism is the most challenging issue I’ve had to endure,” Morris said, discussing his time in hockey, both on the ice and then as a coach and director. “While playing I’ve never gone a season without some sort of racial remark or slur at every level I’ve played. As a coach, a lot of the times kids on opposing teams, or even coaches and parents, have initial feelings of I don’t belong. No matter the level, I’m connected to a sport with history and I don’t look the part from a distance.”
Though he has faced racial adversity, Morris is revered by fellow Black coaches and former players from Evanston. His presence and dedication to the sport of hockey have inspired many African American Evanstonians to become highly driven and ambitious in the sport.
“I think he has a real passion for it,” former Evanston youth hockey coach Darius Mack said. “He has a pretty good impact. Not a lot of guys can … deal with parents and coach younger kids. I think he has a good passion for the game; he’s competitive enough and he wants to push the kids.”
Mack, also a former Black goalie for the Wildkits, played against Morris’ younger siblings and coached against the Evanston high school team.
“At the high school level, he’s pretty good about what he started doing by implementing more of a pro-style thing,” Mack said, referring to how Morris’ players approach the sport with a professional mindset. “Implementing that type of pro-style thing was a big help for a lot of kids who are developing skill-wise.”
Though hockey is not known as racially diverse, Evanston’s youth hockey program has been training Black and other players of color since the 1960s, when Carlos Matthews was the first Black youngster to play for the Wildkits hockey program. Since 1967, more than 60 Black athletes have played for the organization.
Morris has some company breaking color barriers within the Wildkits organization: Freshman Ari Sushinski just made history by becoming the first Black female player to make the town’s high school boys varsity team a few months ago. Morris coached her when she began her hockey career with the Wildkits.
Morris said influencing and inspiring Black kids to play at their absolute best means a lot to him. It’s clear he wants to be the program’s primary booster and bring a smile to every player’s face.
“It feels great to be the hockey director,” Morris said. “There is not anything I would rather do at this time. It is everything I would have wanted for myself. It means the world to me that I can help make others comfortable enough to give this sport a try. I hope my presence helps build diversity within our sport and our community.“