Popsicle Brothers (Part Two)

By Gary Norris Gray
Updated: November 24, 2008

NHL CALIFORNIA – Back in 1968, a friend from Freehold, New Jersey took me to a New York Ranger game in the old Madison Square Garden on 33rd Street. At the time, I was the only African American face in MSG.

Ever since then, hockey has captured my sports fascination. Currently, there is a flood of players of color in the National Hockey League. Yesterday, we focused on players of Oriental descent.

Today, we look at Native Americans and Latino players.

Native Indian (First Nations) Players in the NHL

Defenseman James Anthony Nielson number 15 played with the New York Rangers of the NHL. He ended his career in the World Hockey Association with the Edmonton Oilers. Nieson is from the Canadian Cree Nation and is part Danish. He was paired with Rookie and future Hall of Famer Brad Park. Neilson was part of the New York Ranger G-A-G Line, The Goal a Game Line, Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert, and Vick Hadfield Line. In 1979 season Nielson played with the Great One, Wayne Gretzky in the great Canadian northwest. Nielson was a hard working player from the beginning of his career to the end. He played many times with server back pain which forced him to retire.

Right winger George Edward “Chief” Armstrong, number 10, played for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many stated that he was too big for his skates but somehow he overachieved year after year. The Chief was the captain for the Leafs for 11 years, the longest tenure of any Toronto Maple Leaf. Armstrong scored the last goal for the Stanley Cup Champion Leafs in 1967. The Leafs have not been back to the finals since. He is the first Canadian Indian (First Nation) coach in the National Hockey League. His job only lasted 44 games and was fired mid season. This is a BASN exclusive!!! Everybody claims Ted Nolan as the first Native Indian head coach.

Right Winger Jordan Tootoo, number 22 is Inuit. Jordan was the first one of his tribe to play in the National Hockey League. His descendants were in Canada before Canada was Canada. He is currently playing for the upstart expansion Nashville Predators. Tootoo was drafted in 2001 and started playing in Nashville in 2003. Jordan was on Team Canada twice and they won world medals each time.

Right winger Jonathan Earl Cheechoo, number 14, plays for the San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League. Cheechoo was the first member of the Moose Cree First Nation to play in the NHL. His pro career started in 2002-2003. He went back to the American Hockey League Cleveland Barons the same year. He was placed on the Mike Ricci and Scott Thornton line, the two oldest Sharks. Cheechoo worked very hard each game becoming one of the San Jose Fans favorite players.

Ted Nolan is the second Native Indian (First Nation) head coach in the National Hockey League. He is also a member of the Garden River Ojibwa First Nation from Canada. Nolan was fired as head coach of the New York Islanders hockey team at the end of the 2006-2007 season. Nolan, now serves as a consultant on the First Nations’ youth hockey initiative in Canada. This group helps Canadian young men understand the game of hockey.

Nolan was hired as head coach by the New York Islanders in 2006. In his first year of coaching, he led the team to the playoffs in the 2007 season. He taught the Islanders a different way of playing the game of hockey with passive-aggressive Native Indian tactics. The Islanders improved with each passing year so this firing really surprised everyone.

A handful of other North American Native Indians currently play in the NHL, among them are left winger Chris Simon who was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1990. He became famous for the Eric Lindros trade and putting his skate over Jarkko Ruutu’s leg with the intent to injure. Chris was given the 2nd longest suspension in NHL history — 30 games. Simon now plays for the Minnesota Wild.

Left winger Craig “The Chief” Berube, the enforcer for the Philadelphia Flyers, now noted for being player – coach of the American Hockey League Philadelphia Phantoms. If Berube checked a player on the boards that player would not forget it. His head would be on a swivel looking for Berube the rest of the game. He fit very well with the historic Broad Street Bully image.

Left winger Denny Lambert of the Atlanta Thrashers, was most noted for playing for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks twice. He returned to coach the Ontario Hockey League Greyhounds of Sault Ste Marie; he also had a two year stint with the Ottawa Senators in their playoff years. In the 1996-97 Lambert only missed one game playing with the Ottawa Senators and outstanding feat for a line player

Right winger Blair Atcheynum was drafted by the Hartford Whalers (Carolina Hurricans) 1989 then claimed by the Ottawa Senators. He never played a game in Connecticut. He retired from the game as a Chicago Black Hawk in 2001.

Only one of them left winger Gino “Algonquin Enforcer” Odjick of the New York Islanders grew up on the Algonquin reserve named Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, meaning “The River Desert Band”. He was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in 1990 and played on the line with prolific scorer Pavel Bure. His career ended with a puck hit him in the back of his head causing a severe concussion.

Another group of Native Indian players like defenseman Wade Redden, number 6, who was drafted by the New York Islanders then traded to the Ottawa Senators in 1997 and now currently plays for the New York Rangers. Redden likes the international game playing for Team Canada seven times, winning two goad medals.

Left winger Rene Bourque, number 17, was drafted by the Chicago Black Hawks and now plays for the Calgary Flames. Bourque is now known for his famous fights and beautiful girlfriend in Chicago

Right winger, Arron Asham, number 45, was drafted by the Montréal Canadians he now plays for the Philadelphia Flyers. Asham has traveled the east coast corridor playing for the New Jersey Devils, and New York Islanders.

Defensemen, Sheldon Souray, number 44, who was drafted by the Montreal Canadians and now plays for the Edmonton Oilers. He is noted for marring one of the Baywatch Babes. Souray also holds the record for most power play goals by a defenseman.

Center Cody McCormick, number 11, was drafted in the fifth round by the Colorado Avalanche in 2001. Cody is now rotating on the fourth line with Center Bill Guite, which limits his playing time.

Left winger D.J. King, number 19, was drafted by the Saint Louis Blues. He is most noted for his fighting skills more than his skating skills. He has become the Blues enforcer. Currently he has no goals and only one assist. He is off to a slow start this season but should pick up as this season progresses.

There are many more great young Native Indian players in the various minor league systems waiting for their chance to enter the complete National Hockey League. America and Canada will be seeing them in future years.

Latino Players On Ice

The most famous Latino player on the ice today is Center Scott Gomez, number 19; he was drafted in 1997 by the New Jersey Devils and currently playing for the New York Rangers. Gomez won the Calder Cup for the outstanding rookie player of the year in 2000.

He played many years across the Hudson River with the 1998 and 2000 Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils. Gomez is of Mexican and Colombian descent. He is famous because the New Jersey Devils won the Cup twice and he is the second Latino player to have his name on the Stanley Cup. Also he plays in the media capitol of the east coast, the New York-New Jersey Metropolitan area.

Many Devil fans still can’t get use to seeing Gomez wearing the blue sweater of the cross river enemy, New York Rangers. Gomez scored his 500th career point against his former club. For those old Jersey Devil Fans, Gomez number was 23. He had to give the number to Chris Drury moving to the New York Rangers.

Right winger Bill Guerin, number 13, was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1992 and now plays for and is the captain of the New York Islanders. He has won the Stanley Cup, World Cup, and a Silver Medal in the Winter Olympics. Guerin is of Nicaraguan and Irish descent. Guerin is the first Latino to have his name on the Stanley Cup.

Left Winger Raphael “Raffi” Torres, number 14, was drafted by the New York Islanders 2001 and now plays for the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets. Torres is of Mexican and Peruvian descent. Torres got traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Blue Jackets after a very devastating (ACL) anterior cruciate ligament injury in 2006-07 season.

There is one Latino player that everyone is watching and waiting for him to enter the National Hockey League, The prospect Goaltender Al Montoya of the Phoenix Coyotes. Many say he has the skills of Martin Brodeur (New Jersey Devils) and the talent of Grant Fuhr (Edmonton Oilers). That is an awesome combination.

The National Hockey League has come a long way. African Canadians and African Americans have change the game of hockey and made it so much faster. This was 80 years ago but many Americans and Canadians never saw it because Blacks were barred from the league.

This changed with winger Willie O’Ree, an African Canadian who many times was mistaken for an African American. O’Ree was legally blind in one eye and legally should not have been playing. Willie played one game on January 18, 1958 breaking the NHL color barrier for a second time with the Boston Bruins.

This time it would not take another ten years for another player of color to play in the National Hockey League as Chinese- Canadian Larry Kwong in 1948. O’Ree retained the moniker “The Jackie Robinson on Ice”.

Two years later O’Ree would play over 40 games for the Bruins in 1961 that would be his only year in the National Hockey League. O’Ree started a movement that many more children of color on skates would follow.

NEXT: My fellow writer, Michael-Louis Ingram will continue this journey of African Americans and African Canadians in the NHL in Part Three.