Books | Sports

January 1, 2007

Hockey's Black Pioneers

Author Cecil Harris talks to Gelf about breaking the color barrier in the NHL, why the league hasn't yet found its Tiger Woods, and the NBA's perverse relationship with prison culture.

Carl Bialik

When Willie O'Ree made his NHL debut in 1958 as the league's first black player, the news garnered little mention in the mainstream and black press. Author Cecil Harris, in Breaking the Ice, gives long-overdue attention to O'Ree, Herb Carnegie, and others who took steps to break hockey's color barrier. Harris also profiles the NHL's black players today, and examines why the sport's popularity among African-Americans hasn't increased much since he was the only hockey fan among his friends in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Harris, a longtime sports journalist who lives in Westchester County, New York, has since turned his attention to tennis; Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and the Williams Sisters is set to be published in June.

Cecil Harris
Cecil Harris
Harris, 46, spoke to Gelf by phone about hockey's black pioneers, why several of the NHL's black players originate in tiny Barbados, and what it would take to make hockey more popular among young black Americans. Following are edited excerpts from the interview. (Also, you can hear Harris and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, January 3, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: What made you want to write Breaking the Ice?
Cecil Harris: In 1970, when I started watching hockey, I was 10. I was the only black hockey fan I knew of in the Bedford-Stuy section of Brooklyn. I found the NHL on TV in the pre-ESPN days when the Rangers used to come up on Channel 9 every Saturday night. I was struck by the speed of the game, the symmetry of the game. It did not occur to me at first that I was watching only white players until I would see extreme close-ups, and I would wait to hear commentators tell me about black players, but I never did. I started doing research and found that there were no black players in the league, and there had been only one.
I started listening to the Rangers on the radio. At the time, Marv Albert [Wikipedia] was doing the Knicks and Rangers on the radio. He helped me with ice geography: The red line, the blue line, the crease. I became a fan of the sport, and I had no one to share it with. My older brother Andrew, who is now deceased, didn't care about hockey. My friends didn't care about hockey. I remember listening to a triple-overtime game on the transistor radio while my parents thought I was asleep. It was one of the most exciting experiences of my young life.

GM: Where did you go to high school?
CH: FDR High School. My local school was Boys & Girls. My mother asked, What is the school with the highest graduation rate that he can go to? And she sent me to FDR. It was an hour and a half each way on the F train to Bensonhurst.
My first high-school girlfriend was Italian, but it didn't last, because she told me her father would kill both of us. And it was at FDR that for the first time I was in a classroom where another kid called me a nigger.
Hockey is something I always enjoyed watching. I went to the News & Observer in Raleigh, in the second year of the Carolina Hurricanes' existence. They wanted someone who knew hockey to teach people in the Carolinas about the sport. In the team's first year, they had someone covering the team who knew no more about hockey than everyone else. It was the blind leading the blind. I became the hockey beat writer in 1998. I would get emails and phone calls at the newspaper with questions like, Why do they have two halftimes? How come when Ron Francis is doing so well, the coach will take him out after 30 seconds? It was fun to cover a sport for a readership that didn't know anything about it. I asked my editor to let me do a Sunday column, answering questions like, Why do the standings look how they do, with wins, losses and ties? These were pieces you would not have to write in New York. I think I helped grow the fan base.
As a beat writer, I'd see Grant Fuhr when he'd come in from Calgary, and Anson Carter and Mike Grier with Edmonton. Eventually I found out they had to put up with a lot of things I had to put up with in hockey.

GM: You mention in the book that you were once mistaken for a messenger at an arena.
CH: Yes, it was at the Molson Centre, where the Canadiens played in downtown Montreal. I walked in, and they just assumed I was a messenger. They didn't want to let me in. I had to call in to the News & Observer so they could vouch for me.
In Phoenix, fans would say to me, You must have gotten the short end of straw—why else would you be covering hockey? They would turn around and say to me, That was a penalty, as if I didn't understand the game.
I would talk to various black hockey players, doing articles and notebooks for the newspaper. They'd tell me what they went through. One said that at youth tournaments, where the only people who show up are relatives and friends of the players, people would specifically bring bananas to wave at him. Kevin Weekes remembers someone yelling at him, Hockey is for good Canadian boys!

GM: It's interesting that you mention that anecdote, because it struck me that some players you spoke to said Canada was a friendlier environment for black players than the U.S. Yet others seemed to contradict that. What do you think?
CH: It's easier for a black player in Canada, because he is playing the sport that is a national pastime. So there is a connection he would have with white players: Willie O'Ree plays hockey, so he is OK. Which is not to say that all the players want to be on the ice with him, but it would have been harder if he had been in the U.S. Herb Carnegie, if he had grown up in the U.S., probably wouldn't have gone into hockey in the first place. Every boy in Canada is going to play hockey. Getting into hockey is easier for blacks in Canada, but they weren't automatically accepted.
Red Storey, a Hall of Fame referee I interviewed, is white. He told me, Don't let it fool you. We've got rednecks too.
Willie O'Ree caught hell. Herb Carnegie caught hell. Anson Carter caught hell. But if they had been born in the States, once they caught hell, they might have said, I'm going to play basketball instead. Or I'm going to run track instead.
Grant Fuhr said he never experienced racism until he was playing for the Buffalo Sabres and he tried to join a country club in Buffalo. Growing up in Canada and playing hockey, he heard a racial comment here and there, and met resistance here and there, but no one stopped him from getting on the ice. To this day, there's only one African-American who's made it to the NHL: Mike Grier.

GM: Several of the players you profile came from Barbados to Canada. How did so many players from such a small country end up in the NHL?
CH: It's a weird coincidence. Bajans [as Barbadians are known] tend to go three places: New York, London, and Toronto. My parents came to Brooklyn from Barbados. I went to London a couple of years ago and wanted to see Wimbledon. I met a lot of Bajans who settled in London. I've teased Anson Carter and Kevin Weekes about this, and they pretty much agree, if they had grown up in Brooklyn, they might not have become hockey players.

GM: Do you play hockey?
CH: If I was coming up today, I could take a train up to Harlem and I could just show up to play at Ice Hockey In Harlem. Several students from the program have earned college scholarships to play hockey. If there had been ice hockey in Bed-Stuy, and a rink in my neighborhood, I would have been right there in line to play hockey. I'm of Theo Fleury dimensions—I'm 5'6". But there was nowhere for me to play hockey. There was no such thing as ice hockey in Bed-Stuy. I learned it by listening to the radio and subscribing to Hockey News.

GM: What about since then? Can you skate?
CH: I can't skate. There's nothing stopping me from playing. There's a rink at New Roc City, ten minutes away from me in New Rochelle, New York. I keep saying I'm going to do it, but I keep coming up with excuses not to. I'm not afraid to fall, I just haven’t gotten up to it. Bill Douglas, who writes for Knight Ridder, is black, and he plays hockey in the D.C. area. When we talk, he gets on me: You don't know how to skate yet?

GM: Did you play tennis growing up?
CH: Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson's widow, came to our neighborhood to dedicate the Jackie Robinson tennis courts. (That was the period where we in the black community were naming just about everything after Martin Luther King, or Jackie Robinson, or Paul Robeson.) Within a week, someone had stolen the nets. I don't know if she was ever told—I don't know if anyone had the heart to tell her. Years later, I interviewed her and reminded her of the tennis courts, but I didn't have the heart to tell her that someone stole the nets and defaced the courts. Tennis didn't last long in my part of Bed-Stuy.

GM: Speaking of Jackie Robinson: You mention several players who could have been the Jackie Robinson of hockey. Herb Carnegie was offered a contract but never made the NHL. Willie O'Ree was the first in the league, but he didn't last long. Was there a Jackie Robinson of hockey?

Herb Carnegie

Courtesy Hockey Hall of Fame

Herb Carnegie starred with the Quebec Aces and other Canadian teams, but he never played in the NHL.
CH: Not really, and that's part of the reason blacks have not embraced hockey in greater numbers. When Willie O'Ree made his NHL debut, it was not a big story here in the U.S. I went to the Schaumburg Library in Harlem and there was no mention of it. In the next week's Hockey News, there was no mention of it. It was not a big deal in the black press at the time. Just about every newspaper I found ran the same three paragraph blurb from UPI. He was basically called up the day before. No one specifically did a sidebar article on his first game. Not even the Sporting News, not even Hockey News. It kind of sent the message to black people that it's just hockey, it's not a big deal. Black papers at the time weren't in to hockey.
That's why I devoted the next-to-last chapter to hockey's search for the next Tiger Woods.
I quoted Bryant McBride, the NHL's first black executive, who made the point that eventually there's going to be a player who's 6'4", 230 pounds, and he's not going to Notre dame to play football—he's going to Notre Dame to play hockey. I wrote that almost five years ago. I'd love to see it, but I don't know if it's going to happen. The best black athletes are still going into the NBA. They see LeBron James go from high school one year to $90 million from Nike the next year. They see Stephon Marbury go from the housing projects in Coney Island to a one-year apprenticeship at Georgia Tech, and then he's a multimillionaire in the NBA. It's not as clear to young African-Americans what they can get out of hockey.

GM: If Calgary had won the Stanley Cup in 2004, with Jarome Iginla as their star, could that have changed things?
CH: I'm glad you brought that up. I was rooting hard for Calgary. Jarome, the first black captain, was on ABC. As the captain he would have been the first to take the Cup. Maybe Pardon the Interruption would have done five minutes on a black hockey player. Maybe 60 Minutes would have done a profile of Jarome. The opportunities for black Americans to see this great player really are diminished.

GM: You mention in your book the search for the Tiger Woods of hockey. Many sports commentators suggest Tiger he inspired lots of blacks to play golf, and that Venus and Serena Williams did the same for tennis. Is that true? Is there tangible evidence that they had that effect on the sport?
CH: I spoke with the USTA, and they said so. I also got anecdotal evidence that there are a lot more black juniors players than before the Williams sisters. But it's still a difficult sport to break into. They're both expensive sports. Once you break into the professional level, and get a ranking, you have to win some tournaments or you just fade away. They're such difficult sports financially. You can love it, but if you're not making money and you don't have a sponsor, you're not going to last very long. That's one theme I develop in the tennis book—how many players come and go for economic reasons. James Blake is now No. 4 in the world and a multimillionaire. His older brother Thomas never made it out of the Challenger circuit and retired earlier this year. There are a lot more blacks in the Challenger circuit in tennis, and the Nike Tour in golf, but we don't hear about them, because they're not on national TV. When one breaks through and is on national TV and gets sponsorship, that's how it's going to happen. But I don't know how it will happen.
Ahsha rolle, who is 21 years old, and her sister Tiya, who is 20, are professional tennis players. But no one has ever heard of them. They both know the Williams sisters and they both like the Williams sisters, but there's light years' difference right now between the Rolle sisters and Venus and Serena.

GM: Do you play tennis?
CH: I used to, but I haven't since 2000. I'm running out of excuses. I was in Raleigh from 1998 to 2000 and I played because there's not much else to do in Raleigh. I've got to get the cobwebs off the racket and get back out there.

GM: How much was out there already about Willie O'Ree and the other black pioneers before your book?
CH: I found a Willie O'Ree autobiography of sorts, but it was for children: When I played, some people called me some very bad names, but it was OK—that sort of book. Herb Carnegie wrote A Fly in a Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story. It was 150 pages; he didn't go into a lot of detail in the book. I had to track him down. He was 87 and legally blind. I did four separate, lengthy interviews with Herb Carnegie. I also had interviews with Willie O'Ree. I wanted people to read the book and know about these two men in particular.
Nothing had been written specifically about blacks in hockey on the NHL level. I was able to really bring out some things that hadn't been written about before. Kevin Weekes, now a goalie for the New York Rangers, knew he could become an NHL goalie some day because Grant Fuhr had done it. But in doing research and interviews for the book, I found out Kevin and Grant had never met. I was able to get them together.
I was really motivated by a desire to tell their stories. I made sure people at Ice Hockey In Harlem got enough copies of the book to share it, so that the young black boys and girls in that program would know they're not doing anything strange. I was made to feel strange in Bed-Stuy growing up because I watched hockey. It's nice to have people see the cover of the book and see an actual black hockey player. I still have people ask me if that's me, Photoshopped into the picture. At least now young black boys and girls, and their parents, know it's not strange for them to play hockey and like hockey.
The three big obstacles to blacks playing hockey are still economics, geography, and culture. The vast majority of black neighborhoods in America still don't have an ice rink. It costs $500 for a pair of skates.

GM: How has hockey changed for black players since the lockout? You mentioned that several black players in the NHL were enforcers, whether because they were good at it or because they were typecast. Have rule changes made it more difficult for blacks in the league?
CH: There is about the same number of black players in the NHL as there was before the lockout. Fighting has been virtually legislated out of hockey. To be a black player in the NHL now, you have to be able to do more than fight. Georges Laraque is still in the league. There's really not as much of a need for Georges to go over the boards and beat the hell out of somebody. There's more of a need for him to score goals, and he's not the most skilled at that. It's a different, more wide-open, athletic form of hockey today, and he has trouble having a major impact on games now. So it's a different kind of black player in the league now.

GM: In a way your book is a collection of tales of near-misses: Black players who almost played in the NHL, or almost became stars, or almost inspired a legion of young blacks to the sport.

Jarome Iginla

Courtesy Wikipedia

The Calgary Flames' Jarome Iginla could be a 'transcendent star,' Harris says.
CH: Tony McKegney was the first black player in the NHL to score 40 goals, but he didn't stay long enough in one place for the populace to embrace him. When he goes to Sabres alumni functions, fans tell him the deal sending him to Quebec was one of the worst trades Buffalo ever made. He didn't stay long enough to become Mr. Hockey in Buffalo. He scored 300 goals in his NHL career. But if he had done that for one team, with a couple of Stanley Cup finals appearances, his numbers would have looked a lot better to the Hall of Fame committee. He could have been someone who could have attracted a lot more young black players to hockey. He's the one contemporary players point to; Jarome Iginla had his picture on the wall.
We haven't had that transcendent black player. Once you get away from Ice Hockey In Harlem kids, and talk to other kids in Harlem, they can't name any black hockey players. In Jarome Iginla's case, he's still young enough to make that impact. It could have happened in that 2004 series. If Jarome Iginla played for the Los Angeles Kings, and he was playing great hockey and winning games, and if he was an African-American, not an African-Canadian… that's what the NHL needs. And I don't know who that player is. He hasn't emerged yet

GM: Is there a golf book in your future?
CH: I doubt it. I'd like to do something next on the relationship between the NBA and hip hop, and prison. The whole deal with the tattoos, up and down the body: That's what prisoners do. I'm watching Rasheed Wallace give a press conference on TV, and I'm embarrassed for him. What is he making, $15 million a year? [Editor's note: $10.3 million.] And he's looking like a homeless man. Allen Iverson looks like a bum. A guy like Jermaine O'Neal can buy anything. Why would he come to the arena with his sneakers untied, like you just went into prison and they took your shoelaces away? Why do professional athletes want to look like prisoners?
In the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills two years ago [between the Pistons and Pacers], they were fighting over respect. No one is man enough to walk away. The Pacers were winning by a lot. If Ron Artest had pointed to the scoreboard and laughed, and walked away, nothing would have happened. But athletes have the idea that I'm a punk if I do that. The same thing happened with the Knicks and Nuggets, when Mardy Collins committed the foul. I remember a time when an athlete would have pointed to the scoreboard and laughed, and Mardy would have gotten two technicals and been thrown out for being a thug. Professional athletes used to be man enough to walk away, but they've been so influenced by gang culture that they think they're punks if they walk away.
I haven't seen anyone yet be able to make that connection. Even if someone writes a book about that in the next few months, it won't read like mine, so it won't stop me. Harvey Araton wrote a book a year ago (Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost Its Soul at Home) and he came close, but he didn't go all the way.
In the NFL, fans know the head coach and the quarterback, and they tend to be white. In the NBA, we see all these black players with tattoos and swagger and attitude, and a lot of people are turned off by it, even though the NBA players don't act all that different from a lot of the football players.

Related on the web

•Official site for Breaking the Ice.

Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation

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- Books
- posted on Feb 20, 07

Fights were even more common in the NBA in the good old days when everyone was man enough to walk away. Doctor J, Kareem, Larry Bird, Robert Parish all got into memorable fights in the good old days. Typical spouting off at the mouth without facts to back it up.

- Books
- posted on Apr 29, 07

As someone who knew has a bit of insight as to how Grant Fuhr carried himself in Buffalo: Grant was not denied membership to private country clubs because he was black. That barrier had been broken before he ever arrived. The only resistance he met was the resistance to him being an arrogant prick.

Article by Carl Bialik

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