“If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.” – Willie O’Ree
HI there, your intrepid hostess/reporter Amy here. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I have had some free time on my hands lately, so during the last week of Black History Month, I decided to take some self-study history courses.
This actually started when Julie and I had the insane opportunity to meet one of the pioneers of the sport of hockey, Willie O’Ree, at the Hockey on The Hill event earlier in the month. He is an incredibly giving, talented, warm man, who also happens to be the Jackie Robinson of the NHL.
I wanted to learn more about him, and by extension, the history of people of color in the sport. This lead me to a film by Davon Kwame Mason called Soul On Ice: Past, Present & Future, which documents the full experience of black hockey players, from the pioneers, to current players, to the story of young prospect and Ontario native Jaden Lindo, and his quest to be drafted into the NHL. I also decided to take advantage of the NHL’s American Legacy Black Hockey History Tour, which was making a brief stop at the Canadian Embassy in DC for a few days. The 525-square-foot mobile museum, which is housed in a trailer, recognizes the game’s black trailblazers, champions and young stars. It has been traveling to schools, community rinks and NHL arenas in several cities this month, and is full of information (including scenes from Soul On Ice looped onto video monitors) and memorabilia.
The following is what I learned in my self-imposed study sessions. And this stuff is just the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended).
The Coloured Hockey League
In 1895, 25 years before the Negro Baseball Leagues in the US, and 22 years before the formation of the NHL, the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes was formed in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was comprised of sons and grandsons of American slaves who had made their way to Canada via the Underground Railroad. It is said to have had h many as a dozen teams with over two 400 total players before it was disbanded around 1930. It is also believed to be the origin of two of the most familiar plays in hockey today. The Coloured Hockey League was the first league to allow a goaltender to leave his feet and drop to stop a puck, and it was said to be Eddie Martin, a player on the Halifax Eureka, to have taken the first slapshot in 1906.
Herb Carnegie was a well-known amateur Canadian player for the Toronto Young Rangers and Quebec Aces during the 40’s and 50’s. In that time, he formed the first and only all-black forward line in semi-professional hockey with his brother Ozzie, and Manny McIntyre.
In one famous 1938 incident, Conn Smythe, the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, watched Carnegie play as a member of the Toronto Young Rangers. He is alleged to have said either that he would accept Carnegie on the team if he were white or that he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could turn Carnegie white. There has never been an official confirmation or denial of the statement – is has become a part of hockey legend, as it were.
In 1948, Carnegie was given a tryout with the New York Rangers and offered a contract to play in the Rangers’ minor league system. However, he was offered less money than he was earning in the Quebec league and turned down all three offers made by the Rangers organization during his tryout. There were no negotiations – he was told he could either take the deal or go home, and chose the latter.
Carnegie and others believe that racism played an important part in keeping him out of the NHL. Others interviewed point to his decision to refuse the New York Rangers’ offer to play in their organization. Valid arguments could probably be made for each – this author thinks it was likely a little of both.
After retiring from the game of hockey in 1953, Carnegie started the Future Aces Hockey School, one of the first hockey schools in Canada. In 1954, he wrote the “Future Aces Creed” in an attempt to foster respect, tolerance, diversity and sportsmanship among young people. In 1987, he established the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation to provide scholarships for colleges and universities.
Thanks in part to the recent efforts of the NHL and his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, even some of the most casual hockey fans know about Willie O’Ree. I thought I did, too. But I learned something that I didn’t know before about him. So the story that I knew was that about halfway through his second minor-league season with the Quebec Aces, O’Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins of the NHL to replace an injured player. What I did NOT know, was that O’Ree was blind in his right eye due to being hit there by an errant puck two years earlier, which normally would have precluded him from playing in the NHL. However, O’Ree managed to KEEP IT SECRET (he only told his sister – not even his PARENTS knew), and made his NHL debut with the Bruins on January 18, 1958, against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first black player in league history. He played two games that year, with center Don McKenney and right wing Jerry Toppazzini as his linemates. He came back in 1961 to play 43 games, and scored 4 goals and 10 assists in his NHL career, all in 1961.
When asked in the Soul On Ice documentary about O’Ree, Kevin Weekes, former NHL goaltender said, “He only had one eye? Imagine if he had two!”
The More Recent Past
After O’Ree, it took 14 years for another black player to arrive on the scene. Mike Marson was drafted 19th overall by the Washington Capitals in 1974. He played for five seasons in the NHL for the Capitals and the Los Angeles Kings. He speaks of getting death threats (letters cut from magazines and newspapers) addressed to him both in Landover (the original home of the Capitals) and at his home, that said things like “Watch Out Nigger. You’re playing the white man’s game.” When he played in Philadelphia, he recalls being told that there were snipers stationed at points in the arena in case someone tried to take a shot at him. For playing hockey. While Black.
Tony McKegney signed a contract with the now defunct WHA Birmingham (Alabama – there was hockey in Alabama? OK) Bulls, only to see the owner illegally renege on the deal after fans threatened to boycott the team for having added a black player to its roster. However, the NHL would later come calling, in the form of a draft pick by the Buffalo Sabres. McKegney would go on to score over 300 career goals, including 40 in the 1987-88 season. His total of 78 points in one season would remain the highest ever recorded by a black player until Jarome Iginla came along. He registered nine 20-goal seasons in a career that lasted over 900 games. I had never heard of him until this week.
The first black American to play in the NHL was Val James, who grew up in Long Island, one of six children, and the son of a Zamboni driver. While he was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings, he never ended up playing for them at the NHL level, and it wasn’t until the 1981-82 season that he made his NHL debut with the Buffalo Sabres, and played a few games with them before being sent down to the Rochester Americans, where his role as one of the leagues most prominent enforcers grew. He came back up to the NHL to play a few games for the Maple Leafs as well, but a shoulder injury forced his retirement in 1988.
Grant Fuhr treated hockey fans to a decade of stellar play for the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s. He won a total of five Stanley Cups and was a six time All-Star. He set a number of firsts for black hockey players in the NHL, including being the first to win the Stanley Cup and being the first inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He also still holds a stunning number of NHL goaltending records, including
• longest undefeated streak by a goaltender in his first NHL season – 23 in 1981–82.
• most assists in a single season by a goaltender – 14 in 1983–84.
• most games played by a goaltender in a single season – 79 in 1995–96.
• most consecutive appearances in a single season by a goaltender – 76 in 1996
There are currently 25 black players on the 31 20-man rosters that make up the NHL. Now, this doesn’t account for other players of color, but I don’t think it would grow that number by a whole lot. The most common barriers to kids of color accessing hockey as a sport that they can enjoy and learn and play are socio-economic.
Hockey equipment is expensive, there often are not rinks in a lot of urban or low-income neighborhoods, and hockey isn’t as easily played as a pick-up game on a playground or schoolyard like basketball or football. The Hockey Is For Everyone initiative spearheaded by Willie O’Ree and the NHL is helping to address these needs. I could write another 1500 words on this initiative alone, but instead I will let you know that it includes programs like Ice Hockey in Harlem and the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation and (our favorite) the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Program. In addition to hockey, these programs all have academic components as well, and kids have to maintain a certain GPA to participate. As of 2015, more then 45,000 kids have gone through the Hockey Is For Everyone program.
More diversity is brought into the game of hockey each year, but we need to be the change we wish to see – as fans or recreational players of the game, as journalists, as podcasters, and on and on.
Below is a list of resources that I not only used for this article, but encourage you to explore and take your own self-study course. There are also some great organizations listed to whom, should you have the time or means, you could please consider volunteering your time or donating your dollars.
Ice Hokey in Harlem, Fort DuPont Ice Arena, Snider Hockey, Future Aces
Black Ice, Breaking The Ice, Fly In A Pail of Milk, Soul on Ice Gear
And last, but most certainly not least, big shouts out to the Black Girl Hockey Club for being super awesome women who are working hard and having tons of fun while making the sport more accessible to women, especially women of color. We heart you, big time.