Changing The Face Of Hockey

By Cecil Harris
Updated: December 28, 2007

NEW YORK — As a teenager in Chicago, Gerald Coleman decided he wanted to play hockey for a living. He let nothing stand in his way.

Not his skeptical parents, who assumed his love of hockey was a fad. Not the neighborhood children, who were puzzled by his devotion to a sport they had never played, watched or understood. Not even his ninth-grade gym teacher, who gave the 6-foot-3 Coleman a lower grade for choosing hockey over basketball.

“Why are you playing that white man’s game?” Coleman recalled the teacher, an African-American, saying. “I told him: ‘I don’t see hockey that way. I see it as a sport that I have fun with.’ What he said just made me more determined to make it in hockey and prove him wrong.”

As the goaltender for the Portland (Me.) Pirates of the American Hockey League, Coleman, 22, has seen his determination pay off. He is one of nearly four dozen black players to have competed in an N.H.L. game, playing twice during the 2005-06 season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that drafted him in 2003.

The Pirates are the top farm club of the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks, which means Coleman is a phone call from returning to the N.H.L., in which he would join 13 black players. Among them are Calgary Flame right wing Jarome Iginla, a two-time league goal-scoring champion; Ottawa Senator goalie Ray Emery, who played in the Cup finals last season; New Jersey Devil goalie Kevin Weekes; and New York Ranger rookie left wing Nigel Dawes.

Coleman found hockey at a rink where his sister Gwen used to skate. His parents got him into a program called Positive Upliftment for Chicago’s Kids, which promotes diversity in the game and receives funding from the N.H.L. The program provided Coleman with a chance to compete and, eventually, with a role model.

He was 13 when he saw history in the face of Willie O’Ree, the N.H.L.’s diversity programming director. O’Ree became the league’s first black player when he entered a game as a left wing for the Boston Bruins at Montreal on Jan. 18, 1958. The Bruins will honor O’Ree at a game against the Rangers on Jan. 19 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his debut.

O’Ree, who at 72 retains a robust physique, devotes much of his life now to finding players like Coleman.

“I tell the kids they should set high goals and work hard to make them happen,” O’Ree said in an interview in New York. “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Between O’Ree and Coleman is a select legacy of black players in the N.H.L., a roster that includes Grant Fuhr, the goaltender on the Edmonton Oilers‘ five Stanley Cup-winning teams from 1984 to 1990 and the only black inductee in the Hockey Hall of Fame; Tony McKegney, the first black player to score 40 goals in a season, with the 1987-88 St. Louis Blues; and Herb Carnegie, who received a tryout at the Rangers’ camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1948, the year after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier.

O’Ree was from one of two black families in Fredericton, New Brunswick, which had been a stop along the Underground Railroad.

“I had a rink in my backyard, and I used to skate to school,” said O’Ree, the youngest of 13 children. “Within 15 miles of where I lived, there were four ice rinks run by the city. Fortunately, I had plenty of places to play.”

From age 13, his goal was to play in the N.H.L. He knew that black players had competed in other leagues and that there had been a Colored Hockey League in Canada that folded in the 1920s.

Nothing could deter him. Not the racial slurs he heard on the ice. Not being spat upon or doused with drinks by spectators. Not an opponent’s deliberate attempt to injure him. Not even the loss of sight in his right eye.

O’Ree was playing for the Kitchener Junior Canucks in a game in Guelph, Ontario, in 1956, when he skated toward the net to screen the opposing goalie. A deflected slap shot hit him, damaging his right retina. He ignored the doctor, who said he would never play again, and said he told only two people about his blindness: Stan Maxwell, a black teammate in the minors; and his sister Betty Robinson.

“We knew we couldn’t tell our parents,” Robinson, 74, said by telephone from Montreal. “They would have stopped him from playing, and I knew how much hockey meant to him.”

The Bruins’ organization knew nothing of his blindness. Eye tests were not part of the preseason physical. Boston regarded him as a fast and smooth skater, somewhat erratic with the puck and sometimes unable to finish plays. When the club needed a wing to replace an injured player for a game at the Montreal Forum, the Bruins summoned him from the minors.

“It didn’t matter to me if he was red, yellow or black, as long as he could play hockey,” the Bruins coach at the time, Milt Schmidt, now 89, said by telephone from his home in Westwood, Mass. “Had we known he was blind in one eye, he wouldn’t have played in the league, no.”

O’Ree played two games with Boston in 1957-58 and another 43 in 1960-61. He scored four goals, his first being the eventual game-winner in a 3-2 victory against Montreal at Boston Garden on New Year’s Day 1961.

These days, he is helping to fill a pipeline of top N.H.L. prospects, one that includes Coleman; Florida Panther center Anthony Stewart and his brother Chris Stewart, a right wing in the Colorado Avalanche system; and P. K. Subban, a defenseman in the Montreal Canadiens organization.

O’Ree travels throughout North America, making speeches, holding clinics and handing hockey sticks to many boys and girls for the first time. The N.H.L. reported that it had spent $6 million on its diversity programs since funding began in 1995. The league contributes to 39 such programs, including New York’s Ice Hockey in Harlem, Cincinnati’s Hockey Kids in Dire Straits and Minnesota’s Mariucci Inner City Hockey Association.

“Why don’t more blacks play hockey?” O’Ree said, repeating a question. “We need more rinks. To play hockey, you need to be on the ice. You could be the best inline hockey player or the best street hockey player, but to really play hockey you need to be on the ice.”

For O’Ree, that experience came in Canada. For Coleman, it happened in Chicago — with inspiration from O’Ree.

Coleman said, “The history of who he is and what he went through inspired me to show people that we can do a lot more than play the typical sports like football and basketball.”