Jason Payne has been promoted to head coach of the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones, making the former assistant the only Black head coach in North American men's pro hockey for the 2021-22 season.
The Sabres are the NHL parent to the Cyclones and have supplied a few players to Cincinnati each year since 2017. Goalies Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Jonah Johansson and Michael Houser all played with the Cyclones before moving on to the Rochester Amerks and then making their NHL debuts with the Sabres in 2021. Some Sabres draft picks and minor-league free agents have regularly shuttled between Cincinnati and Rochester.
Payne replaces Matt Thomas, who coached the Cyclones in their last two seasons before Cincinnati opted out of the 2021 season due to Covid-19 considerations. Thomas left on Monday to take a job as an assistant coach with the AHL's Providence Bruins.
Thomas was the ECHL's Coach of the Year in 2019 after leading the Cyclones to the league's best record in the regular season (51-13-8), and was 38-17-8 when the 2019-20 season was canceled due to the onset of the pandemic.
The Cyclones have prided themselves on their staff diversity. Their vice president/general manager is Kristin Ropp, the only woman running a team in the ECHL, AHL or NHL. Their former radio broadcaster, Everett Fitzhugh, has been hired by the expansion Seattle Kraken to call their games and is the NHL's only Black announcer.
Payne, 45, grew up in Toronto and had a 14-year pro career as a player. He played for four teams in the AHL, including the 1999-2000 season when the city was an Anaheim affiliate, and his career closed in 2009 in the ECHL for Wheeling.
Prior to coming to Cincinnati, Payne's roles included time as the player development coach of the Ontario Hockey League's Niagara IceDogs and as GM of the Georgetown Raiders of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, the loop that has included the Buffalo Jr. Sabres.
Payne is also the owner of the Precision Skating School in Toronto, where he's worked with players of all levels from Pee Wee to professional.