Whenever members of the Carolina Hurricanes needed someone to talk to, about concerns on or off the ice, they sought out Doris Barksdale.
For nearly 20 years, Barksdale served as a safe place for these professional athletes to open up about their struggles. Old enough to be one of their grandmothers, she had never played hockey, but still made the players feel comfortable talking about their careers, families, and anything else they felt like sharing. She had a voice that soothed and an aura of understanding, seeming to bring peace to those who sought her counsel.
As a “motivational consultant” and counselor, Barksdale was there for every employee of the organization, not just the athletes. A company policy set by Hurricanes’ president and general manager Jim Rutherford decreed that anything shared with Barksdale was confidential. Whom she met with was kept private as well.
In a world where missing teeth and black eyes are marks of strength and commitment, Barksdale provided an outlet for players who might otherwise have remained stoic.
“I think for the most part people in life don’t want to admit that they have an issue to deal with, or there’s a problem, but the more that we get out and deal with it the better off we all are. And she was able to do that,” Rutherford said. “Always positive. She was always positive.”
Rutherford said it was an “extremely tough day” for the entire organization when Barksdale died this month. She was 77.
Barksdale got her start with the Hurricanes in 1994 when the team was still the Hartford Whalers. She was living in Detroit, where she had raised her family, and had been working in the community as a counselor of sorts for decades.
“She was about helping people. Non-stop. She dedicated her life to that,” said one of her two sons, Robert Douglas.
Long before she earned a degree in social work (she was 41 when she graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit) and became a licensed therapist, she had been helping her community. Volunteering at her children’s schools led to her establishing after-school programs to help at-risk youth and to feed the hungry.
Douglas said his mother’s work with professional athletes began more than 40 years ago, first with the Detroit Pistons and Detroit Lions. Her niche grew organically, often by word of mouth. Her career ranged from her early days working as a director of one of Detroit’s urban YMCAs to the 20 years she spent as host of radio advice programs.
She was an avid sports fan and ran track in high school. Both her sons have remained heavily involved in sports throughout their lives. The high-stress world of professional athletics proved a logical next step for her abilities to find a home.
Barksdale befriended Rutherford, a former Red Wing, in Detroit back in the 1970s. When he became general manager of a team in the Ontario Hockey League in Windsor, he was quick to bring on Barksdale as a motivational consultant. He brought her to the Whalers as well.
When the team moved to Raleigh in 1997, Barksdale came along, as did her son Rob Douglas. He is now director of production at PNC Arena.
At the time she joined the Canes, sports psychology was just becoming an established field, and it was rare to employ someone like Barksdale – someone who could counsel, absorb, listen, and be a soundboard to the players.
“Doris didn’t have a degree in sports psychology. Doris brought her life lessons to people,” Rutherford said. “From the day she was born in Douglas, Ga., to being in Detroit, to working with people, that’s what she brought.”
Raised in rural Douglas, Barksdale at times lived with her grandparents when her mother was seeking work, Douglas said. A neighbor befriended Barksdale, a white woman named Mrs. Taylor, and that relationship had a singular impact on her life.
“Because of that experience, her heart is open to everyone,” Douglas said.
It is difficult for those who knew her to explain exactly what quality Barksdale had that made others so willing to open up. It seemed to many she had a sixth sense.
“She had a very special gift of letting people solve their own issues,” Rutherford said. Just as he encouraged his players and colleagues to utilize Barksdale, he often sought her counsel personally.
“She didn’t tell me what she thought that I should do, she helped me talk about what was going on,” he said.
Barksdale also met regularly with the Hurricanes’ minor league team, the Charlotte Checkers. The Canes met with Barksdale by choice, but the Checkers were required to meet with her at the start of the season, and again a few months later.
“She would come in, and it always seemed to come at the right time,” said Jeff Daniels, a former Hurricane and the Checkers head coach and general manager.
In addition to listening and remaining positive, Barksdale encouraged players to write down their goals, and suggested books they might find helpful.
“She did a great job of having me look at the big picture,” Daniels said. “She had just a great way of reading a room, reading a situation, and people just felt safe around her.”
When she wasn’t counseling the Hurricanes, Barksdale was the team’s community development manager. Under her direction the team founded the Kids ‘N Community Foundation, which has distributed over $10 million in cash and in-kind services to local nonprofit agencies. She founded the “Pick up a Book and Read” program, which encouraged elementary school children to read more than 4.4 million pages during the 2011-12 school year.
On behalf of the Canes, Barksdale also secured clothing, turkeys at Thanksgiving, and fans during the summer months for local charities.
“People like her really keep our program going,” said Sylvia Wiggins, executive director of the Helping Hand Mission in Raleigh.
At some point in the next few months, the Hurricanes will begin their search for a new motivational consultant. It will be someone with a background in sport psychology. Unlike Barksdale, that person will likely focus on the players more than the company as a whole.
“We won’t find someone like her. Doris can’t be replaced,” Rutherford said.