Shawn Wheeler — the former Charlotte Checker and Black hockey pioneer — gets his due

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

During a recent weekend in Georgia that served as a moment of triumph for Shawn Wheeler, the former Charlotte Checkers hockey star, he received two things:

An induction, and an apology.

The induction came when Wheeler earned enshrinement into the ECHL Hall of Fame, an honor he said “came as a total shock.” He became only the second Black person to make the ECHL Hall, which honors notable contributors to one of minor-league hockey’s most famous leagues.

The apology? That came during the same weekend at a bar in Savannah, Georgia.

Wheeler said a former opponent, whom he didn’t want to name, was sitting with Wheeler as part of a small group telling hockey stories. Then the old foe dropped his head and spoke softly.

As Wheeler remembered it, the former opponent said: “It always bothered me, Shawn, what I said to you back then. I don’t know why I did it. I’m not that person. I apologize.”

The incident in question had happened 30 years before, and Wheeler had almost completely forgotten it. It had been just one of many times that an opposing player, or a fan, or occasionally even a coach, had said something that denigrated Wheeler in some way, whether it was a comment about the color of his skin or a stereotypical insult about Blacks and their ability to play hockey.

In hockey, even now is an overwhelmingly white sport, occasional prejudice was such a fact of life that this incident was only one of many — and far from the worst — that Wheeler experienced.

But Wheeler accepted the apology, as well as the accolades, that weekend. Then he continued on with his life in Charlotte, where he’s now far removed from hockey and is a 57-year-old man with three children who makes a living in pharmaceutical sales.

As we celebrate Black History Month, though, Shawn Wheeler is an altogether fitting athlete to remember, due to both the fire and the grace he showed on the ice as a star player and later the head coach for the Charlotte Checkers.

Born in New York, Wheeler moved at age 5 to Canada with his mother after his parents divorced. It was there that he learned how to skate and play, in hockey’s frigid heartland, and also where he first had to cope with racial taunts.

There have been a few great hockey players over the years in the National Hockey League — Jarome Iginla, Grant Fuhr and P.K. Subban among them — but not enough for Wheeler’s color not to be considered unusual everywhere he played.

In 1994, Shawn Wheeler was both a player and an assistant coach for the Charlotte Checkers.
In 1994, Shawn Wheeler was both a player and an assistant coach for the Charlotte Checkers.

As he told me in an interview in 1994, when I first met Wheeler in the year that we both arrived in Charlotte: “I’ve heard every racial slur you can think of, from ‘Go home, Buckwheat!’ to things a lot worse. ... I’ve gotten verbally abused pretty badly.”

Wheeler survived and thrived. He went to college at Wisconsin Stevens Point, where he won two national hockey championships at the Division III level. Then it was onto minor-league hockey, where he played and coached for a decade, from 1990-2000.

Wheeler’s best success came with the Checkers, who at the time were in the ECHL, which is hockey’s equivalent to Double A baseball (the Charlotte franchise, which has had several incarnations named the “Checkers,” now play in a higher league).

“I could play,” Wheeler said. “I could skate. I could shoot. I could put the puck in the net. I had talent but I was physical. ... I could fight, too, if I had to.” Indeed, Wheeler still ranks among the Checkers’ all-time leaders in both points and penalty minutes.

Wheeler had several all-star seasons in the ECHL, and he moved up to the next level for part of his career too. He even went to three different NHL training camps, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Wayne Gretzky but never making an NHL squad or playing in a real NHL game.

“Back then I thought I was going to be Gretzky’s linemate and drive a BMW and have a mansion beside Shaq,” Wheeler laughed. “It didn’t quite work out that way.”

In 1998, then-Charlotte Checkers Head Coach Shawn Wheeler speaks with his players during a break in the action against the Florida Everblades at Independence Arena.
In 1998, then-Charlotte Checkers Head Coach Shawn Wheeler speaks with his players during a break in the action against the Florida Everblades at Independence Arena.

Instead, Wheeler first went into coaching after his playing career ended. After serving as both a player and an assistant coach with the Checkers for several years under John Marks, he became the Checkers’ head coach in 1998, replacing Marks. That lasted for one full season and about half of another, before Wheeler got fired. Never a head coach again, Wheeler ended up with a career record of 43-48-14, all with the Checkers.

“I was never upset with the Checkers about that (firing),” Wheeler said. “It’s a totally different organization now anyway. ... It’s life. You don’t win, it’s not a fit, whatever. They said we’re going one way, and you’re not invited to come with us (as coach). I’m not the first and certainly won’t be the last.”

In 1994, Shawn Wheeler posed on the ice prior to a Charlotte Checkers season in which he was both a player and assistant coach. A star minor-league hockey player in the 1990s for several teams, Wheeler was inducted into the ECHL Hall of Fame in 2024.
In 1994, Shawn Wheeler posed on the ice prior to a Charlotte Checkers season in which he was both a player and assistant coach. A star minor-league hockey player in the 1990s for several teams, Wheeler was inducted into the ECHL Hall of Fame in 2024.

After that, Wheeler was a regular on local sports talk radio for several years, both as a guest and then eventually as a co-host at Charlotte’s WFNZ. On his various sports shows, “they hardly ever let me talk hockey,” Wheeler laughed. “There was a lot of ‘What’s wrong with the Panthers?’” (It’s comforting, in a way, that at least some things never change).

Eventually, Wheeler decided to try pharmaceutical sales, and he works now under the Johnson & Johnson umbrella. He has never left Charlotte and has now been in the Queen City for 30 years.

Does he get recognized?

“Sometimes people recognize my voice, from the radio days, before they recognize me from hockey,” Wheeler said.

As for hockey, Wheeler still keeps up with the sport and said he likes that it has become somewhat more diverse over the past three decades. “You do see some Native Americans, some Hispanics, some Blacks,” Wheeler said. “There are people of color who are prominent players.”

Shawn Wheeler, pictured in 2024, was a star player for the Charlotte Checkers in the 1990s. He was one of the few Black players in minor-league hockey during his career and recently was inducted into the ECHL Hall of Fame.
Shawn Wheeler, pictured in 2024, was a star player for the Charlotte Checkers in the 1990s. He was one of the few Black players in minor-league hockey during his career and recently was inducted into the ECHL Hall of Fame.

As for his ECHL hall of fame induction, what Wheeler is proudest of is that he has been honored for his accomplishments.

“Reflecting on it,” he said, “I’m just proud that people recognized my skill and my work ethic. It wasn’t because of my color, even though being Black is what I am. That’s not going to change and I wouldn’t want it to. But I was recognized for what I did on the ice. I got a chance to do something I loved, and I did it the best that I could.”