Hockey Central

Black Hockey History

Jackie Robinson's debut with baseball's minor-league Montreal Royals in 1946 changed sports forever. Until then athletes of black African descent had largely been banned from most mainstream sporting leagues in North America. Robinson experienced racial abuse not only from spectators but his on-field rivals, and some players on his future major-league team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, asked to be traded rather than take the field with him.

During the next decade the National Football League and its rival the All-American Conference, as well as the Canadian Football League, and the National Basketball Association integrated their lineups. The National Hockey League did not follow suit until 1958 but it alone of the big sporting leagues claimed that it never had any restrictions. It could point to the participation of black athletes in many levels of organized amateur and professional hockey since the past century.

Why, then, were there no blacks in the NHL until 1958? At first glance the answer was simple. Hockey players until the 1970s were drawn largely from Canada and that country's black population was tiny. Moreover, some suggested there might be cultural reasons that precluded even Canada's limited black population from playing the game. The NHL, strongly rooted in Canada, could claim that it shared the Canadian tradition of open-mindedness on matters of race so if there ever were black hockey players good enough to play in the NHL, they'd get their chance.

Herb Carnegie, however, has cast doubt upon the NHL's professed heritage of fair hiring. As well, the celebration at the 1998 All-Star Game of the 40th anniversary of Willie O'Ree's NHL debut raised additional questions about the atmosphere encountered by pioneering black players.

Even today, this atmosphere can, at times, turn foul. Several black players were subject to racial taunts in NHL games in 1997-98. The most notable was Chris Simon's on-ice slur against Mike Grier of the Edmonton Oilers. Grier, an American black and son of a National Football League administrator, had already found his somewhat unique identity a significant issue in the United States. Perhaps because of this he worked as a volunteer in the Hockey in Harlem program that brought the game to under-privileged children in New York.

Few could understand how Simon, an Ojibway native from Wawa, Ontario could be so insensitive to the reality of another minority member of the NHL. "That's what was strange to me, that is was someone who has his background and his race," Grier said. In any case Simon, who apologized directly and quickly to Grier, was suspended.

So What's the Truth?

Any fair study of black hockey participation must begin with the national origins of its players. As noted, until recently they were almost overwhelmingly Canadian. In the mid 1960s, for instance, the six-team NHL had only one non-Canadian (Boston Bruin Tommy Williams from Duluth, Minnesota.) Statistically, until that time the odds had never favored a large number of black players. Canada's black population as late as the 1950s comprised just over one-tenth of one percent of the national total. There were only 120 NHL jobs, meaning that if all players were Canadian, the entire black population of Canada would have been a single candidate along with four other applicants for one statistical position.

The background of NHL players has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, but even this has not necessarily helped the chances of black athletes because it has been due to the influx of players from American colleges, Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic and other European countries.

Only in the United States has there been historically substantial black communities and these have hardly been hockey hotbeds. Other sports such as basketball, football and baseball offered better infrastructure and more apparent opportunities. By the start of the 1997 season, 22 blacks had played in the NHL.

The Early Days of Hockey

Hockey's initial era of mass fascination occurred in the 1890s when what was an almost folksy game suddenly attained organizational and promotional support.

At the same time, however, the number of black in Canada was plunging due to the return of many former slaves to the United States. A populace that numbered over 60,000 (nearly two percent of the national total) prior to the American Civil War had tumbled to just over 16,000 by 1911, a number that amounted to one-fifth of one percent of the country's total. Despite this, members of that remaining population played the game. It was an early indicator that they felt themselves to be a part of the emerging identity of the new country.

In 1899 Hipple "Hippo" Galloway, the son of Mr. and Mrs. William Galloway, long-time residents of Alder Street in Dunnville, Ontario, played for the Woodstock team in the Central Ontario Hockey Association. A Woodstock paper under the headline Colored Hockey Players noted: "Galloway is a right good sport and thoroughly game player. He withstood all kinds of punishment in Hamilton last week and fairly won his spurs. The colored player is proverbially cool and collected, so essential to Hockey." Galloway's hockey record is largely unknown, although there are references to a two-goal night in Hamilton and a couple of excellent passes to set up goals in Paris, Ontario.

Galloway was not alone. Charley Lightfoot of the Stratford team was a second black player in the league and accorded recognition as one of the better players in the Central Ontario Hockey Association. This was the darkest era of Jim Crow legislation and imposed segregation in the United States. Despite Canada's more liberal heritage, the shameful parroting of American models led to Galloway's banishment that summer from an Ontario baseball league because an American import objected to his presence. Galloway left Canada to barnstorm with a black baseball team and a local sportswriter cried: "An effort should be made to keep Hippo in town. Our hockey team needs him."

The Colored Hockey League

At the same time a Colored Hockey League was formed in Atlantic Canada, replication the Negro Baseball Leagues in the Unites States. It is unclear whether players were forced to develop a separate institution because of racial exclusion or if they felt, like many other minorities in Canada, the need for their own association as a means of retaining a community identity.

The Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes formed in 1900 included teams from Africville (the Seasides), Dartmouth (the Jubilees), Halifax (the Eurekas), Truro (the Victorias) and Amherst (the Royals). It was a Nova Scotia-based league but at least one other province, Prince Edward Island, had an all-black team featuring five members of the Mills family and two others that played all-white teams on the island and black teams in Nova Scotia.

Most fans were white and paid admission of 25 or 35 cents. Crowds often numbering 1,200 expected not only good hockey but occasional self-mockery or clowning, and would show their contempt if they were not forthcoming.

Exhibitions by black hockey teams in Nova Scotia continued well into the 1920s and their playing innovations included a rule allowing the goalie to fall to the ice to block a shot before such legislation entered the NHL rule book.

Bud Kelly

No other part of Canada had the size and proximity of a black population to support the kind of league found in Nova Scotia. Yet so powerful was the metaphor of hockey to the Canadian experience that black children were determined to play the game.

In the first two decades of the 20th century Fred "Bud" Kelly was, according to Frank Selke, "the best Negro hockey player I ever saw." Kelly claimed that his first pair of skates were two whiskey flasks that he found on his father's Ingersoll farm and tied to a pair of shoes. Gliding across the snow gave his his first taste of skating.

In 1916 Kelly was a member of Selke's seven-man 118th Battalion hockey team based out of London, Ontario, which played at the intermediate level of the Ontario Hockey Association. While a member of Peterborough's OHA senior team, he was scouted by Bruce Redpath, manager of the NHL's Toronto St. Pats (later the Maple Leafs). In a game against Toronto Varsity, Kelly flubbed a breakaway opportunity deliberately set up to see if Kelly could put the puck in the net. "I was so flabbergasted by the fact that neither defenseman even laid a glove on me that I just stopped and let the puck roll off my stick," Kelly recalled. The St. Pats never contracted him.

Kelly believed that race did not play a part in his lost opportunity and in fact suggested that so-called amateur hockey held better rewards than the NHL. Small-town entrepreneurs would make payments under the table and find players jobs in the off-season. Kelly worked as a chauffeur for the McClary family in London, a position he held for a half-century.

George Barnes and the St. Catharines Orioles

Another outstanding black player of that era was George Barnes, who played in the 1920s for Cayuga at the intermediate level in the Ontario Hockey Association. Barnes was part of a local community descended from black slaves.

According to Dunnville historian E.G. Hastings: "In a contest in Cayuga on December 30, 1929, with Caladonia as the visiting team, Barnes was involved in an incident in which an Indian player on the Caladonia team, Wid Green, received a severed muscle in the groin and succumbed from loss of blood. It was recorded as the first known hockey fatality in the OHA."

In 1937 an all-black team, the St. Catharines Orioles, played in the Niagara District Hockey League against white teams. They were affiliated with a local quarry operator, Walker Brothers. It's unclear whether black players were barred from other teams or of they chose to form their own team as an outgrowth of local community life.

St. Catharines' black population had numbered in the thousands prior to the American Civil Was but declined slowly as former fugitive slaves returned to the United States after the war. Nevertheless it still had 700 members in the 1930s and its hockey team was largely made up of ancestors of one of the community's founding members in the 1850s, Adam Nicholson.

To its credit, organized hockey did not practice the out-front, deliberate, exclusionary and all-encompassing policy of baseball. Further evidence of this was the career of Sam Bright, a nephew of George Barnes, who played in the late 1940s and early 1950s for the Fort Erie Spears of the Niagara District Hockey League. Pay and the level of play in senior hockey were often comparable or better than those of the National Hockey League.

As for the NHL, its own practices are somewhat more ambiguous, and its role more sinister, in regard to the black hockey player.

Herbie Carnegie

It has been argued that the absence in the 1930s and 1940s of a black hockey player on the superstar level of baseball players such as Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson refutes any notion that the NHL practiced discriminatory hiring. The experience of at least one player challenges that assumption.

In what is now the North York portion of what is now known as the megacity of Toronto, the best black player of his era, Herb Carnegie, played pond hockey with his brother Ossie. In the early 1930s he entered his first organized hockey competition at Lansing Public School. His father, born in Jamaica, cautioned him against his boyhood dream by telling him: "They won't let any black boys in the National Hockey League."

Carnegie advanced through the-then tough high school circuit and played junior hockey, practicing regularly at Maple Leaf Gardens. One day his coach told him that the shadowy figure watching in the upper blues was Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe and that Smythe had indicated he'd sign Carnegie immediately if only someone could make him white.

Carnegie has lived with the comment throughout his entire life. While others have corroborated the intent, Smythe himself never publicly spoke on this issue and there is no direct evidence that such a sentiment formed a part of official NHL policy.

It's unlikely, however, that the NHL ever contemplated being a leader among North American big-league sports in opening its doors to black athletes. The history of sports segregation had its roots in the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War. It was the time immediately before hockey's rules were set down and the game began to grow. By the time the NHL was established in 1917, the separation of the races in sports was simply an accepted reality.

Carnegie may not have been a superstar on the level of banned baseball players but he was something special; a great skater and goal scorer who won most valuable player awards in the superior Quebec Senior League, from which an eventual teammate, Jean Beliveau, graduated, as did NHL legends Doug Harvey and Jacques Plante. Finally, in 1947 the New York Rangers invited him to their camp but Carnegie had to negotiate his way through the Ranger farm system before being offered a contract to play just below the NHL.

The Rangers may have been imitating baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers, who had Jackie Robinson play a year of minor-league ball before his Brooklyn debut. They were not prepared to offer Carnegie a big league start and he opted to return to Quebec where the pay was better.

By failing to give Carnegie a big-league contract the NHL lost an historic opportunity to position itself as the one major league that had never discriminated.

Willie O'Ree

In some ways it was only a matter of time before a black player made the NHL. The NHL's black pioneer debuted in the city whose American League baseball team was the last to hire a black player. Both occurred around the same time. Willie O'Ree, ironically dubbed "King of the Near Miss" in a Hockey Pictorial Profile in 1964, played his first game for the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958. The near-miss label described his inability to score goals despite his great speed, which presented him with more opportunities than most hockey players.

Born in 1935 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, O'Ree played junior hockey in Kitchener in the mid-1950s before graduating to Quebec City's minor-league pro team. Called up by the Bruins in midseason, he managed only four goals in 45 games over two seasons. Nevertheless O'Ree made a career out of his average talent, particularly with the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League and later with San Diego in the 1960s.

At the tome O'Ree said: "They've called me the Jackie Robinson of hockey, and I'm aware of being with the first, and of the responsibilities, but I'm also aware that there have not been, and are not many, colored players able to play hockey, that there has never been the discrimination in this game there was in baseball, and that I didn't face any of the very real problems Robinson had to face."

In a later video documentary produced on his life, O'Ree did discuss a damaged right eye which restricted his playing ability and, more seriously, ugly incidents such as a racial taunting and butt-ending in the mouth from a Chicago Black Hawks player. It resulted in a fight and a vicious reaction from Chicago fans who were shocked that a black man would retaliate.

Other black players of O'Ree's era included Arthur Dorrington, a Canadian who signed with the Atlantic City Seagulls of the Eastern Amateur League in 1950, and O'Ree's Los Angeles teammate Stan Maxwell, the only other black player in organized hockey in the early 1960s.

Below the surface of NHL recognition were players like John Utendale. He played alongside Mark Messier's father Doug on the junior Edmonton Oil Kings, who went to the Western Canada finals in 1957. He later attended and played for the University of British Columbia.

Another pioneer hockey player, Windsor resident George "Kirk" Scott, was later memorialized in the International Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame. Scott, who attended Patterson Collegiate in Windsor in the late 1950s, was an acknowledged "rink rat" at the city arena who often came to school in need of rest. He played Junior B hockey in the Windsor area.

The Contemporary Scene

Mike Marson, who played 196 NHL games beginning in 1974, was the first of the contemporary black hockey players to enter the league following a long hiatus after O'Ree's career.

He recalled playing in Chicago where he was probably the only black person in the entire arena of 20,000 people: "A lot of people have never been faced with that type of difficulty or awareness. They miss the whole concept of what it's like to be the minority in a situation like that and the psychological setup you have to put yourself through going out on the ice night after night and the opposing teams are calling you whatever, and the guys are spitting in your face and then you're dealing with whatever goes on in the dressing room with your teammates."

Tony McKegney, with nearly 350 NHL regular season and playoff goals, including a 40-goal season in 1987-88 with the St. Louis Blues, was the first bona fide star of African-Canadian background. Born in Montreal, he was adopted by a family on Sarnia at the age of one and learned to play in the local system. "Sometimes I would wonder why I was trying to be a pro player when there were none to look up to. I'm proud of the fact that I was the first black to establish myself in the NHL [first appearing in 1978]. Now there are a few. I hope that helps youngsters who need someone to emulate."

The most successful black hockey player had been Grant Fuhr from Spruce Grove, Alberta, the number-one goalie for much of the Edmonton Oilers' Stanley Cup dynasty years of the 1980s when their superstar lineup included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri. It was a dazzling young team with great unity.

Gretzky could recall no instances of explicit racism on or off the ice and that black-white issues were raised only in the context of dressing room camaraderie. Fuhr was the first black to have his name on the Stanley Cup. Though Fuhr's career was interrupted by a suspension in the fall of 1990 after he admitted to substance abuse, it resumed successfully with Toronto and St. Louis.

Other significant black personalities have included John Paris from Windsor, Nova Scotia, the first black head coach in professional hockey who led the Atlanta Knights to the International Hockey League championship in 1994, and Anson Carter, a member of Canada's World Championship team of NHL players in 1997.

Carter's parents were both natives of Barbados and part of the great immigration boom of the modern era. They at first attempted to discourage his hockey playing because the sport was too rough, but despite being behind his Scarborough mates in skating ability he eventually surpassed them all. Carter went on to a university career with the Michigan State University Spartans and was a member of Canada's World Junior champs.