In 1985, five-year-old Del Morris took a Chandler sports field trip to the ice rink at the Robert Crown Community Center and discovered an interesting activity called “ice skating.”
He started his hockey career the following year. Since then, Morris has gone on to break down racial barriers in the sport as a hockey coach and director, as well as inspiring a new generation of young black players in Evanston.
The Evanston native played for his first team in the Wildkits youth hockey program, where he participated for years. In one season, Morris even played as a goalie for the Wildkits youth travel team and a defender for the home league team simultaneously, just to get more playing time.
He later played one 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 the high school club’s team. The Evanston Township High School graduate says he once played with a sore throat and a 99-degree fever for the Wildkits.
Morris was named the Most Valuable Player on the High School Team 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 years of play. “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 ones in our league, so playing against other teams made it difficult when racial slurs were said.
“I didn’t have anyone in my organization that looked like me other than 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 junior hockey team New Mexico Ice Breakers for three seasons before ending his competitive career.
However, he had no plans to walk away from the game. Then, while attending New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, where he played lacrosse all four years, he also worked as a goalie coach for the women’s hockey team. Following her stint with the Pilgrims, Morris graduated from elementary school in 2006 and worked as a goalie 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 the fall of 2006. In 2015, he was named Illinois High School Hockey League Coach of the Year; Morris was also mentioned as the Chicago Blackhawks Coach of the Month in 2012 during his early years as head coach of the Evanston Township High School varsity.
“When I graduated from college, I realized how happy coaching made me,” Morris said. “I also wanted to give back to the program that helped me fall in love with the sport. I wanted to make a point of providing great training to the Evanston community.”
Morris said he wanted to be a coach and director since he was 12 years old. The former Evanston Wildkit player’s dream would come true in 2013 when he was named the program’s youth and high school hockey director.
Morris, the only African-American to lead a program at the state’s amateur hockey association, said he had to face racial clashes with spiteful individuals.
“Racism is the most challenging issue I’ve had to face,” Morris said, discussing his time in hockey, both on ice and as a coach and director. “When playing, I never went a season without some sort of racial commentary or insult at every level I played. As a coach, oftentimes kids from opposing teams, or even coaches and parents, have initial feelings that I don’t belong. No matter the level, I’m attached to a sport with a history and I don’t look like the role from afar.”
Though he has faced racial adversity, Morris is revered by fellow black coaches and former Evanston players. His presence and dedication to the sport of hockey inspired many African-American Evanstonians to become highly motivated and ambitious in the sport.
“I think he has a real passion for it,” said former Evanston youth hockey coach Darius Mack. “He has a very good impact. Not many guys can… handle parents and train younger kids. I think he has a good passion for the game; he is competitive enough and wants to push the kids.”
Mack, also a former Wildkits black goalie, played against Morris’ younger brothers and coached against the Evanston high school team.
“In high school, he’s very good about what he started doing, implementing more of a professional style,” Mack said, referring to how Morris’ players approach the sport with a professional mindset. “Implementing this kind of professional-style thing has been a huge help to a lot of kids who are developing skills.”
While hockey is not known as racially diverse, Evanston’s youth hockey program has been training blacks and other players of color since the 1960s, when Carlos Matthews was the first black youth to play in the Wildkits hockey program. Since 1967, more than 60 black athletes have played for the organization.
Morris has a few companies breaking down color barriers within the Wildkits organization: freshman Ari Sushinski just made history by becoming the first black player to make the city’s high school boys’ varsity a few months ago. Morris coached her when she started her hockey career with the Wildkits.
Morris said influencing and inspiring black kids to play at their best means a lot to him. It’s clear he wants to be the main driver of the show and bring a smile to every player’s face.
“It’s great to be the hockey director,” Morris said. “There is nothing I would rather do at this point. It’s everything I wanted for myself. It means the world to me that I can help make others comfortable enough to try this sport. I hope my presence will help build diversity within our sport and our community.”