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*The Registry affirms Black contributions in professional hockey on this date.
The National Hockey League (NHL) did not integrate until 1958, but it claims it never had any restrictions. The NHL points to the involvement of Black athletes in many levels of organized amateur and professional hockey since the past century. Until the 1970s, Hockey players were taken largely from Canada, a country whose Black population was very small. The NHL, strongly rooted in Canada, claims that it shares the Canadian tradition of open-mindedness on race, and if there ever were black hockey players good enough to play in the NHL, they would get their chance.
Canada's entire Black population in the 1950s was just over one-tenth of one percent of the national total. There were only 120 NHL jobs, and if all players were Canadian, the entire black population of Canada would have been a single candidate, along with four other contenders for one statistical position. In the mid-1960s, the six-team NHL had only one non-Canadian (Boston Bruin Tommy Williams from Duluth, Minnesota.) The background of NHL players has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, not necessarily helping the chances of Black athletes due to the influx of players from American colleges, Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and other European countries. The United States has had a historically larger Black community, and these have not been hockey breeding grounds.
Other sports, such as basketball, football, and baseball, offered better infrastructure and more apparent opportunities. Without race as a factor, hockey's initial time of overall appeal began in the 1890s when an unsophisticated game rapidly got organized and promotional support. At the same time, however, the number of Blacks in Canada was plunging due to the return of many former slaves to the United States. before the American Civil War, a population numbered over 60,000 (nearly two percent of the national total) had tumbled to just over 16,000 by 1911, amounting to one-fifth of one percent of the country's total. Despite this, Blacks that remained played the game, an early indicator that they felt themselves to be a part of this emerging identity of their country and sport.
The Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, formed in 1895, included teams from Afrieville (the Seasides), Dartmouth (the Jubilees), Halifax (the Eurekas), Truro (the Victorias), and Amherst (the Royals). It was a Nova Scotia-based league and Prince Edward Island where Black talent flourished. It had an all-Black team featuring five members of the Mills family and two others that played all-white teams on the island and black teams in Nova Scotia. Exhibitions by Black hockey teams in Nova Scotia ran well into the 1920s, and their playing innovations included a rule allowing the goalie to fall to the ice to block a shot before such a rule entered the NHL rule book.
In 1899, Hipple "Hippo" Galloway, of Alder Street in Dunnville, Ontario, played for the Woodstock team in the Central Ontario Hockey Association. Galloway was not alone. Charley Lightfoot of the Stratford team was the second Black player in the league and one of the better players in the Central Ontario Hockey Association. Still, this was during the darkest era of Jim Crow legislation, the imposed segregation in America. Despite Canada's more liberal heritage, the appalling repeat of the American model led to Galloway’s banishment that summer from an Ontario baseball league because an American import objected to his presence.
Galloway left Canada to barnstorm with a Black baseball team. At the same time, a Colored Hockey League was formed in Atlantic Canada, similar to the Negro Baseball Leagues in the United States. It is unclear whether players were forced to develop a separate organization because of racial exclusion or if they felt the need for their association to retain a community identity.
Nova Scotia had the size and closeness of a Black population to support an effective hockey league, and so powerful was the symbol of hockey to the Canadian experience that Black children were unwavering in their desire to play the game. In the first two decades of the 20th century, Fred "Bud" Kelly was one of the best Black hockey players. Kelly claimed that his first pair of skates were two whiskey flasks he found on his father's farm and tied to a pair of shoes. Gliding across the snow gave him his first taste of skating. In 1916 Kelly was a member of Selke's seven-man 118th Battalion hockey team from London, Ontario, which played at the intermediate level of the Ontario Hockey Association. While a member of Peterborough's OHA senior team, the manager of the NHL's Toronto St. Pats (later the Maple Leafs) scouted him.
In a game against Toronto Varsity, Kelly flubbed a breakaway opportunity deliberately set up to see if Kelly could put the puck in the net. "I was so flabbergasted by the fact that neither defense-man even laid a glove on me that I just stopped and let the puck roll off my stick," Kelly recalled. The St. Pats never contacted him. Kelly believed that race did not play a part in his lost opportunity and in fact, suggested that so-called amateur hockey held better rewards than the NHL. Small-town entrepreneurs would make payments under the table and find players jobs in the off-season. Kelly worked as a chauffeur for the McClary family in London, a position he held for a half-century.
It has been disputed that the absence in the 1930s and 1940s of a Black hockey player on the superstar level of baseball players such as Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson counters any notion that the NHL practiced discriminatory hiring. The experience of at least one player challenges that theory. In the North York portion of what is now known as the megacity of Toronto, the best Black player of his era, Herb Carnegie, played pond hockey with his brother Ossie. In the early 1930s, he entered his first organized hockey competition at Lansing Public School. Carnegie advanced through the tough high school circuit and played junior hockey, regularly practicing at Maple Leaf Gardens.
Carnegie was something special; a great skater and goal scorer who won most valuable player awards in the superior Quebec Senior League, from which an eventual teammate, Jean Beliveau, graduated, as did NHL legends Doug Harvey and Jacques Plante. Also, in 1947 the New York Rangers invited him to their camp, but Carnegie had to negotiate his way through the Ranger farm system before being offered a contract to play just below the NHL. The Rangers may have been imitating baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers, who had Jackie Robinson play a year of the minor-league ball before his Brooklyn debut. They were not prepared to offer Carnegie a big-league start, and he opted to return to Quebec, where the pay was better.
In this big-league contract business and racial failure, the NHL lost a historic opportunity to place itself as the one major league that had never discriminated. In some ways, it was only a matter of time before a Black player made the NHL. The NHL's black pioneer debuted in the city whose American League baseball team was the last to hire a Black player. Both occurred around the same time. Willie O'Ree, nicknamed "King of the Near Miss," played his first game for the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958. The near-miss label described his inability to score goals despite his great speed, which presented him with more opportunities than most hockey players.
While playing, O’Ree said: "They've called me the Jackie Robinson of hockey, and I'm aware of being the first and of the responsibilities, but I'm also aware that there have not been, and are not many colored players able to play hockey, that there has never been the discrimination in this game there was in baseball, and that I didn't face any of the very real problems Robinson had to face." O'Ree did talk about a damaged right eye which restricted his playing ability, and, more seriously, ugly incidents such as a racial taunting and butt-ending in the mouth from a Chicago Black Hawks player. It resulted in a fight and a vicious reaction from Chicago fans, that were shocked that a Black man would retaliate.
Other Black players of O'Ree's era included Arthur Dorrington, a Canadian who signed with the Atlantic City Seagulls of the Eastern Amateur League in 1950, and O'Ree's Los Angeles teammate Stan Maxwell, the only other Black player in organized hockey in the early 1960s. Below the surface of NHL recognition were players like John Utendale. He played flanking Mark Messier's father, Doug, on the junior Edmonton Oil Kings, who went to the Western Canada finals in 1957. He later attended and played for the University of British Columbia. Another pioneer hockey player, Windsor resident George "Kirk" Scott, was later memorialized in the International Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame.
Scott, who attended Patterson Collegiate in Windsor in the late 1950s, was an acknowledged "rink rat" at the city arena who often came to school in need of rest. He played Junior B hockey in the Windsor area. The contemporary scene Mike Marson, who played 196 NHL games beginning in 1974, was the first of the contemporary black hockey players to enter the League following a long hiatus after O'Ree's career.
He recalled playing in Chicago, where he was probably the only black person in the entire arena of 20,000 people: "A lot of people have never been faced with that type of difficulty or awareness. They miss the whole concept of what it's like to be the minority in a situation like that, the psychological setup you have to put yourself through going out on the ice night after night, and the opposing teams are calling you whatever. The guys are spitting in your face, and then you’re dealing with whatever goes on in the dressing room with your teammates."
Tony McKegney, with nearly 350 NHL regular season and playoff goals, including a 40-goal season in 1987-88 with the St. Louis Blues, was the first bona fide star of African-Canadian background. Born in Montreal, he was adopted by a family in Sarnia at the age of one and learned to play in the local system. "Sometimes I would wonder why I was trying to be a pro player when there were none to look up to. I'm proud that I was the first Black to establish myself in the NHL (first appearing in 1978). Now there are a few. I hope that helps youngsters who need someone to emulate."
Val James made his NHL debut for the Buffalo Sabres in 1981. He became the first native-born African American to play in the NHL when he debuted with the Sabres.
A very successful Black hockey player was Grant Fuhr from Spruce Grove, Alberta, the No. 1 goalie for much of the Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup dynasty years of the 1980s when their superstar lineup included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and Jari Kurri. It was a dazzling young team with great unity. Gretzky could recall no explicit racism on or off the ice and that Black-white issues were raised only in the context of dressing room solidarity. Fuhr was the first Black to have his name on the Stanley Cup. Though a suspension broke up Fuhr's career in the fall of 1990 after he admitted to substance abuse, it resumed productively with Toronto, St. Louis, and Calgary before his retirement following the 1999-2000 season.
Late in 1988–89, Dirk Graham was named team captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, the first Black team captain in the National Hockey League.
Other significant Black personalities have included John Paris from Windsor, Nova Scotia, the first Black head coach in professional hockey who led the Atlanta Knights to the International Hockey League championship in 1994, and Anson Carter, a member of Canada's World Championship team of NHL players in 1997, and now a member of the Oilers. Carter's parents were both natives of Barbados and part of the great immigration boom of the modern era. They at first attempted to put a damper on his hockey playing because the sport was too rough, but even though being behind his Scarborough mates in skating ability, he soon surpassed them. Carter went on to a university career with the Michigan State University Spartans and was a member of Canada's 1994 World Junior champs.
The NHL has a Diversity Task Force, a not-for-profit program designed to introduce children of diverse ethnic backgrounds to the game of hockey. The program's mission is to help and enable local youth hockey programs to teach hockey and other life skills to economically disadvantaged children, creating a fun experience for boys and girls of all age levels. Approximately 31 programs in various stages of development receive support from the National Hockey League.
Some current non-white players in the NHL, including Forwards:
George Laraque, Jarome Iginla, Mike Grier, Donald Brashear, Dustin Byfuglien, Nigel Dawes, Robbie Earl, Jamal Mayers, Greg Mauldin, Kenndal McArdle, Kyle Okposo, Wayne Simmonds, Anthony Stewart, Chris Stewart, Joel Ward. Current players as of 2021 include:
K'Andre Miller with the New York Rangers.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare with the Vegas Golden Knights.
P. K. Subban while with the Nashville Predators.
Justin Bailey with the Buffalo Sabres.
Madison Bowey with the Washington Capitals.
Malcolm Subban with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Lucas Raymond with the Detroit Red Wings.