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The Book of the Week is “Breaking the Ice, The Black Experience in Professional Hockey” by Cecil Harris, published in 2003. This wordy, redundant volume described the experiences of African Americans who have played ice hockey in North America beginning in the twentieth century. As is well known, Canada’s national sport is ice hockey.
The first African American player in the National Hockey League (NHL) was Willie O’Ree. Originally from New Brunswick, Canada, at twenty-two years old, he played one game in January 1958, was demoted to the “minors” but then returned to play in the 1960-61 season. Professional hockey saw no African American players again until the 1974-75 season, when Mike Marson made the big leagues.
In 1978, the World Hockey Association was competing with the NHL for talent. Tony McKegney, an African-American Canadian, signed a contract with the former, to play with a team in Birmingham, Alabama. When racist white fans found out, they said they would cancel their season tickets if McKegney played. The team owner felt pressured into breaching the contract with him. The player’s agent was a crook, too. That’s another story.
Some newspaper writer in Toronto reported that McKegney was okay with his canceled contract. But the lying writer had never even spoken with him. Anyway, fortunately, McKegney was later drafted by the NHL to play with the Buffalo Sabres.
One major measure of talent is total goals scored in a season. In the winter 1973 season, McKegney scored thirty-six goals and was still a young twenty-five. Yet he was traded a bunch of times, anyway– playing on six different teams (one of them twice) by the time he turned thirty-three. It is certainly debatable whether race was a factor in those circumstances. For the 1991-1992 season, he played hockey in Italy.
Grant Fuhr helped the Edmonton Oilers win the Stanley Cup four times in the second half of the 1980’s and in 1990. He wore a plastic face covering for protective equipment– not because he was afraid of harm from opposing teams and racist fans, although that’s a justified fear. He was a goalie, so no one could see his skin color.
In March 2003, a racial slur led the coach and general manager of the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds (Ontario League) to resign in disgrace. One black player said in essence, that hatred is taught in families where insecurity abounds, and is a sign of weakness all around.
In the 2003-04 NHL season, there were roughly six hundred players, only seventeen of whom were African American. Canadian hockey players (of any ethnicity) who are professional-hopefuls, can be chosen to live with a host family near a hockey venue to do an internship of sorts, that pays their expenses.
In the early 1990’s, one of the first black NHL players who trained in this manner, at sixteen years old, was Jarome Iginla. He also got to go to New York City to play with NHL greats in a special program, and played in a major international competition in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Read the book to learn much more about racial issues in ice hockey, the crackdown on hate speech uttered by hockey insiders, the childishness of fans (such as the throwing of chicken bones and bananas at black players), and the bygone era of hockey-fighting as sideshow entertainment.