By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
Flash Frozen (Part One)
NOTE: In recognition of the 50th anniversary of Willie O’Ree’s breaking the color line in the National Hockey League, BASN will take a peek back and elaborate on the road traveled from that moment to present.
PHILADELPHIA — Like every other Canadian kid, young Willie O’Ree spent his share of time on the ice rink back in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Like some Canadian kids, he was good enough at playing ice hockey to play it at the highest level, becoming a Boston Bruin in 1957. Unlike any other Canadians, however, O’Ree’s appearance on the Bruin roster was significant in that he became the first Black player in the then six-team National Hockey League.
Meanwhile, back in the States, Donald Seale and Ed Wright were working their way through college, and spending their spare time on the ice. Seale spent 1954-57 as a member of Clarkson University’s hockey team, while Wright played at nearby Boston University.
Wright’s love of the sport never waned, and despite pressure that many would consider unbearable, he became the first Black coach of a college hockey program in 1974, with his appointment at the State University of New York at Albany.
No Black men would appear in an NHL lineup until the mid- 1970s as forwards Mike Marson and Bill Riley of the then – expansion Washington Capitals graced center ice.
Logistics and economics may have had a lot to do with the sport back in those days, but the cold, hard facts of racism coupled with the hot, boisterous nature of many hockey fans made for less than a warm atmosphere for Black players. While during my stay in Canada, Marson was very vocal in speaking about the racism he endured in the States on sports programs.
Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color line in baseball in 1947 must’ve seemed like a walk in the park to Lloyd Robinson, who came back from World War II with the all-Black 92nd Division to play at Boston University in 1948.
Robinson started at left wing on the Terriers’ NCAA playoff team that same year, the first American-born Black player to do so. The establishment of a hockey pedigree at this New England school would carry to the present day.
After O’Ree, things in the NHL remained status quo. But in 1972, the World Hockey Association (WHA) was born and spirited Alton White out of the minor leagues.
White, a slightly built but slick center from Amherst, Nova Scotia, skated for the AHL Providence Reds and latched onto the new league, playing with the Los Angeles Sharks. The WHA was also responsible for tapping the European market and adding overtime play.
In the NHL, Mike Marson, a 5-foot-9, 200-pound winger from Scarborough, Ontario, Canada was signed by the Washington Capitals in 1974. Marson made his NHL debut on the left wing on October 9, 1974 and spent five years with the Capitals and the Los Angeles Kings before retiring in 1980.
Bill Riley, playing on the West Coast in Vancouver, was also picked up by Washington, although his career in the NHL would last less than a full season. Marson would later devote his career to the martial arts and become a teacher of Shotokan karate.
At the end of the 1984-85 Season, there were only four regular Black players in the NHL. One, Ray Neufeld, had finally established himself as a role player with the Hartford Whalers, who would eventually become the Carolina Hurricanes. This strapping Manitoba native (6-feet-3, 215 pounds) was a grinder with solid defensive skills.
Dirk Graham, a right winger born in Regina, Saskatchewan, would jump-start his career with a breakout season as a Minnesota North Star. Graham would eventually be traded to Chicago, where, as a Black Hawk, he distinguished himself as the first Black player to wear the captain’s insignia until his retirement.
For a brief time, Graham became the first Black head coach when he headed the Black Hawks in the 1998-99 season. He still holds the team records for most shorthanded goals (10, in 1988) and most playoff goals in one period with three against Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992. Graham would score four that night, but Pittsburgh won the game and the series.
Left winger Tony McKegney was hitting his best stride back East as a Buffalo Sabre. Born in Montreal, McKegney would move on to the St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers and Quebec Nordiques during his 11 years, leaving with 639 points scored (320 goals, 319 assists) over 912 games, including four goals in one game as a New York Ranger.
But few players, before or since, have played at the level of Edmonton Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr. Probably the best known Black player in all of hockey at that time, Fuhr is arguably one of the best ever.
Through a 10-year period in Edmonton, Fuhr gave Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and company license to implement their freewheeling style as the last line of defense at the net, sitting in goal during Edmonton’s Stanley Cup run, winning five cups between 1984-1990.
Fuhr’s stick handling and passing ability allowed him to become as much a part of the dynamic Oiler offense as well, as he scored 14 points during the 1983-84 season — setting a record for most points by a goaltender that still stands today.
In 2003, Fuhr, after 19 seasons, took his rightful place in history when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He survived a career-threatening knee injury to bounce back while in net for the St. Louis Blues, where he kick-saved the last of his 403 victories.
Valmore James, Buffalo Sabres: Born in Ocala, Florida, James was a hard-knocking defenseman who was signed by Buffalo in 1981. He played parts of those five seasons mostly as an enforcer, and was a night club bouncer before lacing up the skates for the Sabres.
As expansion in America took the NHL from the Original Six to twenty-six teams (and counting), opportunities increased for Black players. While it may not be said out loud, the same work ethic and understanding about being better was impressed upon Black Canadian kids on the ice the way inner-city American kids would wear out basketball courts.
The racism experienced in Canada was more covert than overt, so oft times the in-your-face hatred didn’t come across; but like their American cousins, they strapped on and performed well knowing that smiling faces can pretend to be a friend. Here is a sampling of some of the crew that broke through with defined roles for their teams:
Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames: A member of Canada’s world champion junior squad in 1996, Iginla has become the marquee player for the Flames, and arguably the best power forward in hockey since Cam Neely.
Iginla, whose Yoruba surname means “big tree,” ain’t the biggest tree in the NHL forest at 6-feet-1 and 205 pounds, but he knows how to work those limbs — be it for scoring or scrapping.
Making the League All-Rookie Team in 1997, Iginla is a two time Maurice “Rocket” Richard winner (given to the high goal scorer each year). Prior to the NHL strike of 2004-05, Iginla was a man among boys in the ill-fated seven game final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With 56 points in as many playoff games, Iginla is not only a proven money player, but a true sniper, possessing a feathery touch on his wrist shot as well as a wicked slap shot.
Last season, Iginla eclipsed the 600 point career mark, and passed Tony McKegney in the scoring parade as Goal Brother No.1. Currently, Jarome is scorching the League with 32 goals and 60 points in less than half a season; burn, baby burn, indeed.
Sandy McCarthy, Calgary Flames: A third-round pick in the ’91 Entry Draft, McCarthy was a major league thumper at 6-feet-3, 225 pounds. Cut his eye-teeth in the Quebec juniors at Laval and will not hesitate to drop the gloves when needed. McCarthy has a multi-ethnic background (Black and Mic Mac Indian) and was born in Toronto.
Mike Grier, Edmonton Oilers: This two-time All-American and Boston University Terrier loves to go in the corners and relishes doing the dirty work. Drafted in 1993 by the St.Louis Blues, intangibles have always been Grier’s stock in trade, and his father Bobby Grier is an executive with the NFL Houston Texans. The 6-foot-1, 215 pound Grier currently skates on the wing for the San Jose Sharks.
Craig Martin, Florida Panthers: Broke in with Winnipeg after his junior stint in the QMJHL ( Hull and St. Hyacinthe). Good size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) and strength. Born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, Martin spent most of his career in the American Hockey League (AHL) and the International Hockey League (IHL), where he was among the leaders in penalty minutes.
Reggie Savage, Washington Capitals/Montreal Canadiens: Was the scourge of the Quebec juniors during his reign of terror, averaging over a point a game (177 goals, 152 assists in 185 games!) at Victoriaville and averaged almost point a game while with the AHL Baltimore Skipjacks in 1992.
A first-round selection of the Washington Capitals in 1988, the 5-foot-10, 185 pound Savage made his debut with the Washington Capitals in 1991, and scored his first goal on a penalty shot; making him one of only five in the history of hockey to score in that manner. He finished his playing career with the Toledo Storm of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) in 2005.
Rumun Ndur, Buffalo Sabres/N.Y. Rangers/Atlanta Thrashers: Came in with Buffalo in 1994 as a third-round draft pick. Played for the big club in 1997 and was traded to the Rangers in 1998. This African import (via Nigeria) is a sturdy defenseman at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds that has a cult following as a player in England for Coventry of the England Ice Hockey League.
Donald Brashear, Vancouver Canucks/Philadelphia Flyers/Washington Capitals: Another Quebec leaguer that fell into disfavor with management while wearing the fabled blue blanc et rouge of the Montreal Canadians. Quebec’s loss has been the League’s gain, as Brashear has brought toughness, tenacity, and offensive skills thought non-existent while back East.
Always among the fastest skaters on his team, Donald has shown such an overall game that had he been given the ice time of a Bob Probert, he would have proven to many his skill sets were such that he didn’t have to fight to earn a living in the league.
Claude Vilgrain, Vancouver Canucks/N.J.Devils/Philadelphia Flyers: A big winger who broke in with Vancouver in 1987. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Vilgrain finished his pro career in Europe, playing in the Swiss league in 2002.
Dale Craigwell: Speedy two-way center that was claimed off the Canada World Junior Championship team in 1991 by the San Jose Sharks. Craigwell, a prolific scorer with Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), played two seasons in San Jose before spending the rest of the decade playing for teams in the IHL.
Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, Buffalo Sabres/Columbus Blue Jackets/Atlanta Thrashers/N.J. Devils: Came into the league with the Sabres in 1998, and became an original Columbus Blue Jacket in the 2000 expansion draft. Born in Montreal, the 6-foot-3, 230 pound Grand-Pierre is a classic stay-at-home defenseman, and currently plays in the Devils system at Lowell (AHL).
Fred Braithwaite, Edmonton Oilers/Calgary Flames/St. Louis Blues: Broke in with the Oilers in 1994, and did spot duty until 2000 when he became the Flames number one goalie with a 2.75 goals per game average over 61 games, close to his current lifetime average of 2.72 over 254 games.
Jamal Mayers, St. Louis Blues: Born in Toronto, Mayers has been a core player for the Blues ever since being drafted by the organization in 1993. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound forward is a strong defensive forward and a fierce checker.
Peter Worrell, Florida Panthers/Colorado Avalanche: At 6-feet-6 and 250-plus, Worrell’s forte was dukes, not skates. A no-doubt-about-it enforcer, Worrell thumped with the best of them from 1997-2003 before being traded to Colorado. Apparently Worrell was paying attention during all that time in the penalty box as he currently coaches a youth team in Florida.
Sean Brown, Edmonton Oilers/N.J. Devils: Brown was a 6-foot-3 defenseman with a snarky streak that would mix it up from time to time. Used mostly as the fifth or sixth man in defensive rotations, Brown played in Edmonton while with teammates, Anson Carter, Georges Laraque, Joaquin Gage and Fred Braithwaite, comprising an unheard 20 percent of the team talent.
Although Brown played well in his short stint in New Jersey, Brown opted for Europe; his value on defense may warrant a call during the playoff drive.
Eldon “Pokey” Reddick, Winnipeg Jets/Edmonton Oilers: Came up to the majors with the Jets as a goalie. The 5-foot-8 goalie with the quick left glove was a backup on the Oilers’ 1990 Stanley Cup team, and played full time in Germany with the Frankfurt Lions.
Georges Laraque, Edmonton Oilers/Pittsburgh Penguins: A stocky, 6-foot-3, 250-pound winger, Laraque can rumble — and does. Given the job of protecting new League wunderkind Sidney Crosby, if you can’t smell what Laraque is cookin,’ it’s probably because your nose is broken.
Kevin Weekes, Florida Panthers/N.Y.Islanders/Vancouver Canucks/Carolina Hurricanes/N.J. Devils: Originally from Barbados, this sturdy goalie would break in with Florida in 1997, and flashed such talent in goal that he was part of a blockbuster trade that sent the lightning fast Pavel Bure to Florida and Weekes to Vancouver.
But Weekes was not given his just due in Vancouver. While head coach Marc Crawford was very critical of his play, de island bwoy get de last laff as he would lead the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002, quieting the doubters who said he was not a quality net minder.
Having played for every metro-area team now with his signing to back up Martin Brodeur, Weekes has a 2.90 GPG average over 323 games –and counting.
Anson Carter, Washington Capitals/Boston Bruins/Vancouver Canucks/Edmonton Oilers/N.Y. Rangers: Although Carter was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in 1992, he didn’t really get his skates going until the mid-1990s, where he was an important player on the Boston Bruins.
The versatile Carter would also have integral roles with the Oilers and Canucks, and enjoyed league-wide appreciation for his work in Vancouver on a line with the previously underachieving Canucks’ first round bonus twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, scoring a career best 33 goals.
Although the 6-foot-1 “Chocolate Rocket” is currently playing in the Swiss League, we may see the dashing dread lion come the 2008 playoff push.
Next Time: The 21st Century.
NOTE: Background information source: A Hard Road to Glory: A history of African-American Athletes Since 1946.