By Desmon Brown
Gordie Howe, Frank Mahovlich and Bobby Hull are hockey superstars of the past and were idols to a young black boy growing up in Toronto. Like many young Canadian kids, hockey was my game. I was obsessed. From playing ball hockey in the streets and shinny on outdoor rinks, to nervously watching the infamous Russia/Canada series of 1972, I couldn’t get enough of our national game.
I spent Wednesday and Saturday evenings watching the Leafs on the television, and on Sunday afternoons I moves from the couch to a seat at Maple Leaf Gardens to watch the Marlies play. Trading hockey cards and searching for books at the library about my heroes was how I spent the rest of time time.
My Jamaican aunt couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I didn’t want clothes for books for Christmas. I wanted hockey equipment. I was just another Canadian kid who was crazy about Canada’s game.
There was one other black family in the neighbourhood, the Trotman’s. They were into hockey too and they were the best players in the area. Race was never an issue amongst the children in my neighbourhood.
I joined my first organized hockey league when I was 12. A neighbour enrolled my brother and I in a house league, with his two boys. My brother and I had skates, sticks and helmets, but we had to borrow other equipment from friends. It was an exciting time for us. We were finally in organized hockey.
Then came the reality. Memories of my first time in the dressing room will stay with me forever. The players were so cruel: “Look we have Aunt Jemima on our team.” “That’s no Aunt Jemima, it’s Uncle Ben.” “Where did you come from Jungle Benny?” they taunted.
I sat in tears. From that day on I noticed the colour of hockey. I noticed there weren’t any blacks in the NHL. I noticed that my hockey idols were actually white. Where were all the black hockey players?
But I didn’t let that first verbal racial assault on me stop me from playing hockey. I continued to play house league until I was 18. The racial taunts continued from opponents and spectators. I learned to ignore them and play hard. My teammates were usually the ones who looked out for me. If not for their support I probably would have quit.
Over the years I learned that most black athletes went through similar struggles in other sports such as baseball, football and basketball. Somehow, hockey manages to stay lily-white. Was it socio-economic? Was it racism? Was it “un-cool” for blacks to play hockey?
As I grew older I discovered black hockey pioneers Willie O’Ree and Herb Carnegie. I watched proudly as the Washington Capitals drafted the talented Mike Marson. I beamed when Edmonton selected gifted goalie Grant Fuhr.
I look forward to the day when Mike Grier, Jarome Iginla, Anson Carter and other black players will be idols to the average Canadian kid, just like Michael Jordan, Damon Stoudamire and Joe Carter. I look forward to the day when professional hockey will be truly integrated and the makeup of an average team will reflect the multicultural society that makes Canada such a great nation.