Wild defenseman Matt Dumba fell in love with hockey as 5-year-old growing up in Calgary, Alberta. He loved everything about it. The freeing feeling he got gliding on skates. The rush of adrenaline that came with scoring a goal. The reward of steadily improving his craft.
But it hasn’t been a smooth ride to the NHL. Since his early days, Dumba was teased by too many players on opposing teams simply because he looked different. His skin color was darker than most kids; his father, Charles, is Romanian and German, and his mother, Treena, is Filipino. And sometimes that teasing escalated into something more.
Though he managed to take the high road more often than not, Dumba still remembers feeling ostracized as a kid trying to play the game he loved. He doesn’t want other boys or girls to be forced to experience those type of feelings moving forward.
“My 26-year-old self is able to stand up for those kids and my past self who maybe didn’t have the courage or didn’t know how to go about it,” Dumba said. “I think I’ve figured that out now.”
That mentality is a primary reason why Dumba has been nominated for the Masterton Trophy by the Twin Cities chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. The trophy goes annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to the sport.
The award essentially has turned into the NHL’s version of Comeback Player of the Year, though Dumba’s nomination goes beyond his play on the ice.
He has made it his mission to make the game more inclusive to everyone with the ultimate goal of eradicating racism from the game completely. He also has been very vocal in speaking out against racism as a whole, especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last year.
“I have a platform to make a change and make a difference,” Dumba said. “It’d be a shame if I let that go to waste.”
Asked how he has discovered his voice, Dumba said it simply came down to mustering up the courage to speak.
“There’s a lot of self-reflecting, questioning, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ” said Dumba, who won the King Clancy Trophy last offseason in response to his leadership qualities on and off the ice. “Just the support of my family and friends through this whole process has really helped me get through that. It’s been a fun journey.”
As for the Masterton Trophy, it would be difficult to find a player who personifies the award more than Dumba on a daily basis.
You want to talk about perseverance? He has been a lightning rod for criticism since last summer when he gave a powerful speech about fighting racism within the sport, then following that up by becoming the first player in NHL history to kneel for the U.S. national anthem. He has stayed true to his message despite constant backlash on social media.
“It’s tough at times,” Dumba said. “You go through any of the comments (I get on social media posts) or scroll through my direct messages, there’s a lot of hate that’s involved with them. Just persevering through that, I’m thinking about all the kids I’m helping.”
You want to talk about sportsmanship? He has brought players together as a leading member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, an organization founded by players of color to combat racial injustice and inequality in the sport. The group has steadily grown over the past year, and Dumba is a big reason for that.
“It’s been fun getting to know a lot of guys who share the same morals and values,” he said. “They see the same things I’m seeing that are wrong with the game, things that we want to make better and push for change in this game.”
You want to talk about dedication to the sport? He has dedicated himself to growing the game at the grassroots level. In February, he hosted his inaugural Hockey Without Limits Camp at the Guidant John Rose Minnesota Oval in Roseville. It is designed to bring more diversity and inclusion to the game and provide more children the opportunity to play.
“That’s what gives me hope for this next generation of kids,” Dumba said. “Just the energy that we’re cultivating here is starting to change here in Minnesota. Hopefully it continues across North America and eventually the world.”
Even if he doesn’t win the Masterton Trophy when it’s awarded in a couple of months, Dumba can feel proud of how he is using his platform.
“It’s been really special for me,” he said. “Just getting to know myself better and feeling comfortable in my own shoes, and being able to preach that to kids who look like me and kids who want to get involved in the game and make this game more inclusive.”