Hockey: Barriers to Crossing the Color Line: the Neglected Story of the Pioneering Players
By: C. Keith Harrison, Ed.D; Brad Brady, M.A., M.S.; Philip E. Hamilton, B.A.; Alicia Valdez, B.A.
Keywords: channelization, overrepresented, underrepresented, popular culture, history, image
African-Americans have had a long history in the field of sports. During the mid 20th Century, black athletes became pioneers in sports such as basketball, football, and baseball. During this time, seemingly unknown by the vast majority, black athletes, men and women, became the forerunners of sports that were seen as “non-traditional” for African-Americans. Many blacks attained success not only in basketball and football but also in hockey, golf, and bicycling. (i.e. Isaac Murphy, Major Taylor). Today, many young African American athletes not only participate in a wide variety of sports, but also fill “non-traditional” roles and positions within their field. During a time when black athletes are numerically and visually overrepresented in sports such as basketball (80% National Basketball League), football (67% National Football League), and track and field at the professional level, why aren’t other black athletes participating near or at this same level in professional hockey?1(Lapchick 1998) The specific question we will address in this paper is why there is a lack of black and minority participation in professional hockey and the National Hockey League (NHL).
The purpose of this paper focuses on four themes: 1) To historically trace black hockey players in the United States and Canada and explore more recent African-Americans in the National Hockey League; 2) To inquire the way in which race played (or continues to play) a role in their lives on and off the ice; 3) To identify the reasons for a lack of diversity amongst ethnic populations in the NHL, particularly African-Americans and; 4) To explore new projects, paradigms and programs that are making ice hockey more accessible to all people of color.
Methodology and Procedures
This research project initially began strictly as a historical and archival trace of black players in professional hockey and the National Hockey League. However, as the research project progressed much of the information suggested specific patterns and paradigms for the absence of blacks in the league. The project ran for approximately three years from September 1997 until June 1999. During this time, we collected and analyzed approximately 50 newspaper articles, 12 magazine articles and 13 Internet news wires (excluding individual statistical information).
The majority of these newspaper and magazine articles were found through a number of different databases and search catalogs. Mirlyn, the University of Michigan’s online catalog system, and Lexis Nexus, a resource database, provided the primary tools for retrieving information about many of the pioneering players and the history of blacks in professional hockey. However, acquiring statistics and player information on current and up-to-date information would require the use of a more advanced and faster method of retrieval.
The Internet or World Wide Web (WWW) served as an essential but secondary source of retrieving information on current players and enabled us to find more recent newspaper and magazine articles. We were also able to gather crucial data and personal files from the National Hockey League and the Hockey Hall of Fame (Toronto, ON) that we could not have retrieved elsewhere. After gathering the data, we examined it for common variables leading to the absence of blacks in professional hockey. We then attempted to link these common traits and paradigms with some of the current scholarly literature on race and sport in contemporary society. This comparison will hopefully serve as a bridge in grasping a better understanding for the absence of blacks both in hockey and other “non-traditional” sports (i.e., wrestling, swimming, tennis).
How well do we know our sports
history? An all black professional hockey team in the early 20th
How well do we know our sports history? An all black professional hockey team in the early 20th century.
Another great black hockey player, Herb Carnegie, who also came before Willie O’Ree, was born in Toronto, Canada in 1919 to a family of Jamaican-Canadian immigrants. Herb and his brother Ossie grew up playing hockey on frozen ponds in their backyard. Soon the two were playing for the Toronto Young Rangers a Junior A team and other junior teams in Canada. In the 1940s, the Carnegie brothers teamed up with Manny McIntrye (from Fredericton, New Brunswick) to form the first and only all black line in professional hockey. They were known across North America as the Brown Bombers for their powerful offensive ability. Herb Carnegie was the star of the group and moved on to play for the Quebec Aces in the minor leagues and won league Most Valuable Player for three consecutive years from 1946 to 1948 (“Herb Carnegie”). Although Carnegie’s skills and abilities were far better than many of the white players in the NHL, Carnegie would never live out his childhood dream to play in the NHL. Repeatedly Herb Carnegie has stated that Conn Smyth, the most influential hockey general manager at the time, said “I’ll give $10,000 to anyone who can turn [Herb] Carnegie white” (Holloran 14D). This is the epitome of cultural hegemony (the production and reproduction of the status quo) hindering the
integration of blacks in hockey.
Even with all black teams and a wealth of talent from the “Brown Bombers” it wasn’t until 1950 that Arthur Dorrington became the first black to play organized hockey within the boundaries of the United States signed with the Atlantic City Seagulls on November 15. (Smith 1994). Arthur Dorrington was born and raised in Truro, Nova Scotia, and like other boys in Canada dreamed of playing professional hockey. Arthur Dorrington never got the chance to play in the big leagues but was scouted by the New York Rangers and other NHL teams. Dorrington only played with the Seagulls one season but spent time on teams in Washington, Baltimore, and Charlotte, North Carolina. Ironically, during the off-season, Dorrington was a full time dentist (Smith 1994).
Eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball that barrier would also be broken in hockey. Willie O’Ree was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and grew up like every other little boy in Canada--on the ice. His professional career began as a Canadian Junior before he signed with the Quebec Aces in 1956. O’Ree made his National Hockey League debut on January 18, 1958, with the Boston Bruins becoming the first black to ever play in the NHL (Ashe 1993). But unlike baseball’s Jackie Robinson, O’Ree's entrance into the league did not signify a flood of blacks into the sport. It would be another 14 years until another black player, Mike Marson of the Washington Capitols, played in the NHL. Although O'Ree’s career only lasted 3 years and 45 games with the Boston Bruins his impact in the NHL was still significant. After being struck by a puck in 1954, O’Ree lost the use of his right eye and switched positions from left wing to right wing. Despite his injury, O’Ree played almost 26 years (more than twice the average hockey player) and won the scoring title in the Western Hockey League (WHL) in 1966 (“Echoes”). These accommodations to his injury were sensitive, strategic and productive. Unfortunately, the staff of the Boston Bruins could never see past skin hue, let alone an eye deficiency, to enable O’Ree to perform and excel.
Continuing a new tradition
After Willie O’Ree was moved back into the minor leagues in 1961 (White C1). Mike Marson would play for only five years between 1974 and 1979 with the Washington Capitols. Bill Riley also briefly joined Marson with the Capitols in 1979 as only the third black in the NHL. In 1982, Val James became the first African-American to play in the National Hockey League and spent four seasons with the Buffalo Sabres (“Soul on Ice” 86). There were also other blacks to play in the NHL. Eldon Reddick (Goalie) and Ray Neufeld had short but prosperous NHL careers. Tony Mckegney played 11 years with the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Black Hawks and is the highest scoring black player to date with 320 goals (Jones 1C).
One of the leagues best goalies and most highly decorated players is Grant Fuhr whose professional career lasted almost two decades. Drafted in 1981, Fuhr became the first black to be drafted into the NHL by the Edmonton Oilers (Jones 1C). Fuhr led the Edmonton Oilers to five Stanley Cup Championships, is a six-time all-star, and holds numerous goalie records and awards. The Canadian born native is destined for the Hockey Hall of Fame and may become the first black to receive this honor.
Two new, young and exciting black players also entered the ranks of professional hockey in 1996. Michigan State’s Anson Carter, an Olympic gold medallist, and Boston College’s Mike Grier entered the National Hockey League. Grier, originally from Detroit, MI became the first native-born African-American to play in the NHL. Carter, a former premed major at Michigan State, has also become one of the leagues most dominating young players. Players such as Donald Brashear, Sandy McCarthy, Jerome Iginla, Georges Laraque, Peter Worrell and Kevin Weekes are also rising stars in the NHL. March 7, 1994 marked another milestone for blacks in professional hockey when John Paris of Windsor, Ontario became the first black coach in professional hockey (Wilson 8). Paris also led his team, the Atlanta Knights, to the International Hockey League Championship that same year.
Reasons for lack of participation: Economics or Imagery?
At first glance, economics and financial strain are seemingly the foremost reason for the absence of blacks and other underrepresented groups from the game of hockey. While economics does play a major role in who plays the game, the research we gathered reveals it is not the primary reason. In sports such as basketball, football, and baseball blacks have had a strong historical foundation which promoted its growing tradition. However, this is not the case in hockey. Blacks in hockey lack a historical foundation. This absence of history follows the first part of Harrison’s Popular Culture Credo (1998): Ahistorical or no historical foundation. Similarly to baseball in the United States, hockey did have a whole segregated league of blacks, The Colored League of Maritime, waiting the chance to play in the NHL. However, a major difference is that there is relatively no historical knowledge of blacks in professional and organized hockey unlike the wealth of information on the All Negro Leagues in baseball, basketball, and football. Hence, it is not the lack of black history within hockey but the lack of availability to that historical story which is at the core or root of the problem.
In Canada, hockey was and is now the dominant male national pastime. Professional hockey within the United States did not gain popularity even with whites until the late 1940s and mid 1950s. Because of the lack of African Americans within the country, Canadian sporting institutions did not require the formal exclusion of blacks from their leagues—numbers alone would suffice (internal exclusion). In Canada blacks constitute less than 2% of the population. This is not to say that Canada did not or does not have its own racial problems. Herb Carnegie, for instance, was denied acceptance to the Canadian military because he “failed” his physical (Holloran 14). In fact it was the Canadian government which didn’t want blacks in the military.
On the other hand, the U.S. has had a history of strong racial discrimination and unequal segregation directed primarily at blacks. Sporting institutions, as well as almost every other institution within the United States, have used a much more direct and systematic approach of excluding blacks from sports through policies and laws. American society, black and white, felt a strong connection with sports; the heart and soul of America. Whites resisted racial integration in hockey because they felt it would decrease the “purity” in the game. This connection between race and sports coupled with the history of racial segregation and discrimination made the situation in hockey that much more complex. The black pioneers from Canada experienced their most adverse struggles only when they attempted to enter the U.S. owned NHL.
In gathering data, we found that much of the information on pioneering players was very small and limited (and sometimes inaccurate). While most of the articles did give credit to Willie O’Ree, they failed to recognize or even mention Galloway, Fred Kelly, Carnegie, the Brown Bombers (Herb and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre) or Dorrington who set the foundation for blacks in professional hockey. Furthermore, informative details on current and more previous player were also often times incorrect and inconclusive. For example, many writers quoted Mike Grier as the first African-American to play professional hockey in the NHL, but it was actually Val James in 1982 who played four years with the Buffalo Sabres who was the first black American (all black players before him were African-Canadian). Mike Grier is a significant and important part of hockey history though. In 1996, Grier did become the first African-American to be drafted into the NHL.
If an ahistorical or lack of historical foundation is the primary cause of the absence of blacks from ice hockey, then economics trails close behind. To put it candidly—hockey costs money. Rink rentals, equipment, training and coaching all contribute to the financial strains of playing ice hockey. The sport of hockey also differs greatly from other sports such as basketball where blacks are more predominant. Playing hockey requires a lot of coaching and training early on in life. Children become kids and kids become teenagers very quickly and each age group needs specialized equipment and instruction. These costs soon add up. Understandably many parents may be reluctant to support the initial costs of hockey when it might be a fad or simply a passing interest to a child. Comparatively, equipment for basketball is relatively cheap. As a part of popular culture, basketball shoes are part of everyday clothing, and shorts and t-shirts are the only other apparel needed. Basketballs can be purchased almost anywhere. Basketball courts are more accessible than hockey rinks. They are found in local neighborhoods and parks. As the National Basketball Association (NBA) and other professional sports can attest, not many special coaches or trainers are needed. Competition on the playgrounds has trained many of the best and most exciting athletes ever to play the game.
Another important reason blacks and minorities are absent from hockey is the internal and external push and pull factors of racism and channelization (Edwards 2000). The early racism and exclusion of black athletes in every sport was obviously apparent during “separate but equal” and Jim Crow days. During these times hockey was not any different and denied blacks to play (i.e.Dorrington, McIntyre, and the Carnegies). However, unlike other sports that yielded to social integration, hockey has been able to withhold its long-standing practices of exclusion. Being harassed and taunted on the ice is something that not many people (regardless of race) want or should be unnecessarily exposed to. Peter Worrell said in a pee-wee game a man in Montreal shouted “Nigger!” every time he touched the puck; and in a junior league game people threw bananas at him and acted like chimps to mock him when he entered the penalty box (Farber 66). Even if situations like these are extreme, they still serve to turn away youth of color from hockey and other sports; especially those sports they may not be familiar with. Everyday racism in name-calling and fights paired with institutionalized racism can be a very strong deterrent from certain “untraditional” sports. Racism may serve as a push factor pushing blacks away from certain sports but another factor, channelization, may pull blacks into those sports more common to them.
Channelization serves as a strong factor in pulling and channeling black youth into sports that are more familiar to them (Edwards 2000).19 Today, black males are highly overrepresented as basketball, football, baseball, and track and field stars, yet underrepresented as professional hockey stars both numerically and visually. The overrepresentation of black male images almost solely as sports icons creates limited mentalities in black youth of what one can be or achieve. Channeling can be perpetuated by coaches, parents, and fans who may be purposely and/or inadvertently encouraging, promoting, and supporting black youth to participate in basketball and football solely. Mike Grier explains “Parents would say ‘hey kid, you’re in the wrong sport, you should be playing basketball’” (Callahan 146). Peter Worrell had a similar experience, “[People would say] why do you want to play that? You’re a big man. Play basketball. Play football. You have a better chance of playing these sports professionally. Hockey is for the white man” (Farber 66). In turn this channeling may discourage them to participate in other sports like hockey or to pursue an academic career. A young black kid with broad shoulders and good agility might be told he has a good “football frame” and might be looked at as the next Jim Brown instead of the next Mike Grier. He might also be ignored as the next Paul Robeson (scholar, athlete, artist, and Civil rights activist), Dr. Harry Edwards (sport sociologist and former athlete) or Dr. Benjamin Carson (brain surgeon).
There are a number of cultural aspects involved in the lack of underrepresented ethnic groups in hockey. For example, those blacks currently in the NHL (Carter, Grier, Worrell and others) do not receive the media exposure that blacks in football, basketball or baseball receive. Fuhr, for example, was hidden behind his goalie mask for most of the game and his career. However, this does not explain the fact that a six-time champion, MVP, and multiple all-star received almost no mainstream media attention (i.e. commercials). Most of the stories and narratives from our research were the result of a racial incident involving racial slurs aimed at two black players (Bondy 90). If these incidents had never happened, little information would have surfaced about these African-American individuals in hockey.
Furthermore, hockey is not a sport that is marketed towards the black community. There are relatively no posters, billboards, and one rarely sees commercial advertisements featuring a black hockey players compared to those advertisements including other sports (i.e. basketball and football).
Even within black communities there is an overall less acceptance of blacks that may want to pursue hockey. Kids and even adults in the black community may discourage those youth who may have even a sparking interest in hockey. For example, white basketball star Jason Williams of the Sacramento Kings is nicknamed “White Chocolate” by commentators because of his playground or "black" style of play. While this is usually thought of in a somewhat comical demeanor this may indeed have a much more serious effect on blacks pursuing hockey. Within the black community displaying “athletic strength, ability, and prowess through sports [i.e. basketball, football, and track and field, etc] is too often perceived as a right-of-passage rather than academic abilities" (Brady 1998). Sports such as hockey, soccer, golf, and swimming may be shunned in black communities while those who pursue these sports may also be shunned. Anson Carter reported that he was frequently taunted [by black peers] for playing a sport predominantly white played and coached. “They got on me and said I shouldn’t be playing a white man’s game. It was like they’d become too black to play hockey” (Kennedy 71).
Comparatively, white youth have a number of role models at a variety levels within sport (i.e. athletes, coaches, owners, team doctors, etc.) Yet, there are virtually only a few regularly seen black players for black youth. These two aspects together, role models and exposure, also support the fourth element of Harrison’s Popular Culture Credo (1998): The absence of role models. In hockey, “there is a lack of exposure to role models who are respected in the black community while at the same time not portrayed nor perceived as sellouts or Uncle Toms” (1998).
Race and their lives
Undoubtedly, race had a strong effect on the lives of those few African-Americans, and Canadians that have pursued their dreams on the ice. In the case of Art Dorrington and Herb Carnegie, racial discrimination and prejudice prohibited them from playing in the NHL altogether while Willie O’Ree was lucky. But instead of proving his skills and talent O’Ree spent a large amount of his time on the ice fighting with other opponents because he was both black and new to the league. O’Ree admits that “[I had to fight] sometimes every game…it wasn’t that I wanted to fight but I was determined to play and if I had to fight to prove it, I would" (Contemporary Black Biography 1993). O’Ree also claims that in each of his 45 games with the Boston Bruins there was a racial slur aimed at him. Dorrington says “[Racism and discrimination] was something you had to accept… you knew it was there. It didn’t feel good, but there was nothing you could do about it" (LeConey D1). Off the ice, O’Ree was allowed to stay and eat with the team but Dorrington’s experience was more similar to that of Jackie Robinson’s. Like Robinson, Dorrington too was not allowed to eat at the same restaurants or sleep in the same hotels as his white teammates when they traveled around the country. Nevertheless, the pioneers of hockey never let race hold them back. I think being black helped me more than hindered me,” says Dorrington “they always wanted somebody to make history and I didn’t let it hold me back" (Kent 26).
Although it is over 40 years since O’Ree broke the color barrier in hockey and many changes have been made toward the progress of racial relations and integration, racial tensions are still ever present in professional hockey. In 1997 Washington Capitols Craig Berube called Peter Worrell of the Florida Panthers a “monkey” during a game (Alexander B8). Officials for the NHL called the term an “offensive comment” and suspended Berube for one game. Berube, who is Native American himself, had white teammates attempt to defend the comment by arguing many other players are called monkeys in the league. Conversely, two weeks earlier another Washington Capitols player Chris Simon, also a Native America, had been suspended for three games after using racial slurs against Mike Grier (“Capitals’ Simon” 1997). Within days both players did publicly and personally apologize for their actions.
Although hockey is an intense sport and moments get heated, sport and society scholar and activist Richard Lapchick argues “[Racial slurs] still doesn’t wash. There are a lot of tough guys in sports that get caught in emotional moments—and they don’t use slurs” (quoted in Litke 1998). Lapchick elaborates on his point and says that one of the reasons players go over the line [in hockey] is because in basketball and football you grow up playing against kids from a wide variety of backgrounds contrasted with those [whites] currently in the NHL. “Those guys played against kids exactly like themselves…the difference plus a highly charged confrontation puts players over the line.” (quoted in Litke 1998) In another incident Bryan Marchment was suspended for a game in 1999 for calling Donald Brashear a “big monkey” (Farber 65). Positively, the NHL has taken a strong stance on these issues and unlike the NHL of the past is attempting to confront many of these situations and protect black players from unnecessary verbal and/or physical assaults.
While racial slurs do occur on the ice, the majority of black players who have been in the NHL would agree that most of the opposition against blacks occurs from the stands and before they enter the league. Sadly, black players say “verbal abuse in the NHL is less severe than it was in youth hockey, juniors, in college or the minors” (Farber 66). But like the other blacks in professional hockey they had to let them in one ear and out the other and continue their dreams. It was the black pioneers such as Galloway, Carnegie, Dorrington, O’Ree, and Marson who paved the way so that the black players of today could go out and prove their hockey skills rather than their fighting skills. Anson Carter says it best, “[Today] Black players are scorers. Black players are checkers. Black players are enforcers. Black players are tough stay-at-home defensemen…which means black players are the same as everyone else” (Farber 64).
Where is hockey going?
The same drive and determination that inspired Willie O’Ree, Art Dorrington, and Herb Carnegie to transcend racial discrimination lives today in hockey’s newest rising superstars like Mike Grier and Anson Carter. In a society where black athletes are overrepresented as football stars and basketball heroes, hockey is a sport where blacks and other minorities are still rising and making history. Whereas many other facets of society are aimed at promoting blacks to become football or basketball players focusing solely on athletic talent and their bodies. Little time is channeled toward academic ability, which leaves blacks, especially black men, without athletic or academic futures due to the limited odds of turning professional. Hockey has a unique opportunity not to do the same and simply exploit black athletes.
Programs such as New York’s “Ice Hockey in Harlem” provides athletic activities and academic assistance as well as other services for approximately 275 inner city youth. The program requires that the kids pass all their classes, do community service, and are involved in tutoring to continue in the program. In collaboration with the NHL’s Diversity Task Force created in 1994 and USA Hockey, there are over 40 programs across the nation with specific aims in diversifying hockey. Detroit’s Hockey Association and the Disney Goal’s program are just a couple of many that are increasing the participation of minority youth in hockey (White C8).
Hockey’s black pioneers are even taking a front seat in the challenge of diversifying hockey. Willie O’ree currently sits as the director of youth development for the NHL/USA Diversity Task Force helping to provide assistance including free equipment and ice time to kids in the inner cities. 1996 began the first ever Willie O’Ree All-Star Weekend which was created to honor “O’Ree and celebrate the sport and its growing diverse fans”. Arthur Dorrington returned to Atlantic City and now heads the Art Dorrington Ice Hockey Foundation, a non-profit organization, to “enhance the educational, social and recreational experiences [of youth]” (White C8). As well as a Canadian senior champion golfer, Herb Carnegie began his own organization “The Future Aces” in 1955 and developed a creed which inspires young kids to do their best in “everything” they do, athletically and academically. Recently his creed has been adopted by the New York school district. He also established the Herbert H. Carnegie Foundation providing financial assistance to young men and women in their academic and athletic efforts through scholarships.
Hockey’s newest black professional athletes are also taking part in minority communities. In the off-season, Anson Carter frequently visits schools and community centers in the United States and Canada talking to young peoples about life and hockey. Grier, Worrell, Iginla and others also publicly encourage minority youth to pursue the sport through their communities and around the country in a variety of ways. Even the NHL is getting more involved by providing cultural sensitivity training and awareness in a sport that feeds off of hyper-machismo and dominant physical aggression; a complex situation.
Society's Role in Helping to Diversify Hockey
As we move into the new millennium, society needs to become more open in terms of accepting, promoting and encouraging broad participation patterns (sport and society). Media attention, positive exposure, and new programs for kids can go a long way in diversifying hockey. Often, simplistic discourse has surrounded the issue of black representation in various sports. Economics are a variable, but popular depictions that challenge traditional demography are key as a window to analyzing social space and place (and bodies comprised in them). Representation, and image is important in constructing identities and cultural ideologies.
Scholars investigating the meaning of sport desperately need to cross boundaries broader than the critical analysis of the major three—football, basketball, and baseball. In terms of race and ethnicity, African-Americans participating in wrestling, rowing, fencing, hockey, and etc. warrant inquiry. In the broader scope of race and ethnicity in sport, Asians, Samoans, Latinos, Jews, and every other ethnic immigrant participating in sport should receive both quantitative and qualitative analysis of their experiences and perceptions.
The history of the African-American and African-Canadian in hockey illustrates many of the barriers that exist today for blacks not only seeking opportunities in sports but in professional and academic fields also (medicine, law, education, business executives). Hockey is just one of many areas in and outside of sports that needs analysis in terms of existing barriers such as economics, cultural hegemony, racism, and channelization. The maintenance of the status quo negatively affects not only blacks but also all other individuals who seek opportunities to achieve outside of the mainstream. Herb Carnegie, Manny McIntrye, and Arthur Dorrington did not receive the opportunity to live out their dreams. Let’s ensure that future generations will have the opportunity to fully express their hopes and aspirations, while simultaneously creating their own popular ideologies and erasing barriers.
All rights reserved. Please do not cite without permission. Research for this paper was supported at the University of Michigan by the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), the Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP), the Division of Kinesiology, and the Paul Robeson Research Center for Academic and Athletic Prowess at the University of Michigan.
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