Last October, with the steamy summer heat having made way for hockey season down the hill, Penguins Foundation staffers set up inside the Ammon Recreation Center in the Hill District and greeted neighborhood kids at the door.
At one point, three boys strolled in. Here you go, guys. Take your hockey stick.
"Stick?" one boy cried out in disbelief. "I thought we were playing basketball!"
Jaden Lindo, a one-time Penguins 2014 draft pick who will soon enter his second year as the foundation's manager of community hockey programs, chimed in.
"No, we're doing a hockey clinic today," Lindo, 26, said with a grin. "Let's go."
The boy followed after Lindo, 6-foot-2 and still boasting the build of a pro-level athlete despite his affinity for Jake's Shakes from the Milkshake Factory. An hour or so later, nobody was having more fun. Well, except for maybe Lindo.
Jim Britt, executive director of the Penguins Foundation, said that type of exchange is common when they look to engage diverse Pittsburgh communities.
And moments like that are exactly why they are happy to have Lindo back with the organization, six years after they relinquished his rights as a NHL prospect.
Maybe that boy will never play hockey again. But at least he gave it a shot.
"The challenge, frankly, is that when we go into certain neighborhoods, we hear the same cliché," Britt said. "A 5-year-old kid or a 50-year-old man or woman will look at us and say, 'Black people don't play hockey.' [Lindo] can say, 'You know what? They do. Let me show you.' That's the first hurdle for us to clear."
Increasing diversity in the Pittsburgh hockey scene is at the core of Lindo's new gig with the Penguins Foundation. His responsibilities include oversight of the Willie O'Ree Academy, planning diversity programming at the Hunt Armory ice rink and engaging youth at local rec centers like he did on that day last fall.
Britt believes Lindo, genuine with an omnipresent grin, is the perfect fit for a role that gives him a chance to make an impact in Pittsburgh after all.
"Obviously, things didn't work out in my playing career," Lindo said. "But it just kind of shows, especially with where I am now, that one door closes and another door opens. And in a way, I'm still inspiring people to be a part of the game and working in the NHL, even if it isn't in the role that I originally anticipated."
Less talk, more action
After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, there was, as Britt put it, "an awakening across sports, particularly in hockey," about a lack of diversity and the need for more intentional steps to address the issue.
"We decided that we weren't going to be one of the teams making loud public statements or that sort of stuff," Britt said. "We would just get to work."
The Penguins that summer began to build a comprehensive internal plan. One part was introducing more boys and girls in diverse communities to hockey while also, through the Willie O'Ree Academy, embracing those who already played.
To lead that effort, they strongly believed they needed a Black man or woman who had played at a high level and experienced hockey culture at its lowest.
They had reached out to dozens of people across hockey, including Trevor Daley and Pierre-Olivier Joseph, to try to learn what could be done to enact change here. One thing the Penguins heard time and time again was the need for representation, for kids to be able to see themselves at the top levels of hockey.
"I'm happy to work behind the scenes," Britt said. "But I cannot be the face of this. [New team president of business operations] Kevin Acklin cannot be the face of this. We're just another white guy at a microphone at that point, right?"
Lindo had been a central figure in the acclaimed 2015 documentary, "Soul on Ice," which shone light on the challenges that Black athletes face in the sport while also tracing the lineage of pioneering Black players through hockey history.
The documentary, directed and produced by Kwame Mason, followed Lindo during his NHL draft year, when he played for Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League in 2013-14. His story arc culminated with the Penguins picking him in a scene that would inspire younger minority players chasing the same dream.
"I didn't really realize the documentary's impact on the hockey community until a couple of years ago," Lindo said. "It's definitely something I'm proud of."
The Penguins never ended up signing Lindo to a contract. But Britt had a little bit of familiarity with Lindo from his time working in hockey operations and still had his number. So one day that summer, he decided to call Lindo out of the blue to share the organization's vision to make hockey more inclusive in Pittsburgh.
The rise of 'Soul Train'
The second child and only son of Jamaican immigrants, Lindo grew up in Brampton, Ontario, one of a few cities that shot up in the diverse greater Toronto area.
His firefighting father, Nari, and mother Heather, a now-retired social worker, pushed the kids to try as many activities as possible. Jaden played piano for seven years and participated in several sports, including volleyball and track.
Early on, he liked basketball. Then a coach at a camp made everyone run "suicide" sprints. Lindo burst into tears and his hoops career was soon over.
When he was 5 or 6, he first saw hockey on television and told his folks he wanted to give that a try. Nari and Heather knew nothing about the sport and had never even put on a pair of skates. But they agreed to sign Lindo up for skating lessons. He would soon join a house league and became instantly enamored.
Lindo was a big kid with blazing straight-line speed. There was one problem.
"I would keep going straight north-south and right into the boards," he laughed.
His faulty brakes resulted in him receiving a long-lasting nickname: The Train.
Over time, Lindo developed into a standout winger and skated on a minor hockey squad that included Connor McDavid, Sam Bennett and Josh Ho-Sang.
In the summertime, he played for the Skillz Black Aces, a formidable tournament team that had predominantly Black and other minority players. Among that group, Lindo had a different nickname. Coach Cyril Bollers dubbed him "Soul Train."
Today, Lindo wishes he could go back in time and play one more tourney with those guys, sharing laughs and stories in the dressing room between games.
"I faced my own challenges growing up. Being able to share my experiences with other people made for a really warm environment. It was the most comfortable I've ever felt in a dressing room, just knowing you don't have to think about how people were going to react to you," Lindo said. "And we were really good."
From there, Lindo went on to Owen Sound, where a torn ACL during his NHL draft year took The Train off track. He finished his OHL career with 56 goals.
His time at Queen's University, which included him garnering MVP honors in one conference title game, was winding down in 2020 when his phone buzzed.
Breaking down barriers
Britt just wanted to pick Lindo's brain about his experiences during that call two years ago. But Lindo left a lasting impression. So when the Penguins, who had been on uncertain footing early in the COVID-19 pandemic, were in position to make this hire, Lindo was graduating with his master's degree in business.
Lindo had job leads but sought something that stoked his passion. This was it.
"I never thought I'd hear from them again. But life is crazy like that," Lindo said Thursday. "I'm definitely fortunate and happy to be involved with the game in a way that is meaningful to me. I love giving back to the community. I love helping to change the game and growing the game for the greater good."
Nearly a year later, Lindo and the Penguins Foundation are starting to break down barriers that Black players and other minority groups face. Atop the list are the high cost to play the sport and a lack of accessibility to local rinks, along with the "racial and mental" stigma that hockey is a sport for just white people.
During the last hockey season, Lindo oversaw free skating and hockey programs at Hunt Armory in Shadyside, the first public hockey rink built in the city in almost 25 years. He engaged different organizations to get kids onto the ice. He took a group to the Black Hockey History Game at PPG Paints Arena in January.
This summer, with the Hunt Armory rink shut down for a few months, he will make more than two dozen visits to Citiparks rec centers and other events.
Lindo also works year-round with the new Willie O'Ree Academy, which provides training and mentorship to Black youth players from the Pittsburgh area. Meeting up with those kids brings back fond memories of his Skillz Black Aces days.
"In a way, Pittsburgh's made me fall back in love with hockey," Lindo said.
It has been a good start here for both Lindo and the Penguins Foundation's diversity efforts. But he says there is still a long way to go, in the Burgh and beyond.
"There has been progress [in the sport]," he said. "And we need to continue making progress. I don't think we can be content with where things are. I think we need to continue growing as a community and growing as a game, and hopefully one day hockey can truly be for everyone, a safe environment for everyone."
Matt Vensel: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @mattvensel.