Blacks and Hockey Maintain a Tenuous Relationship
The neighborhood known as Cote-des-Neiges (Coast of Snow) is near Mount Royal and only six subway stops from The Forum, the most hallowed arena in hockey. But the Montreal Canadiens, with 23 Stanley Cup banners dangling from the rafters of The Forum, are rarely visited by the people of this multiethnic, but predominantly black neighborhood.
“Very, very few blacks would go to the Forum to see a hockey game,” said Des Williams, principal of Coronation elementary school in Cote-des-Neiges. “The times that I’ve gone, I could count the number of blacks in a crowd of 15 or 18,000.”
The Coronation school is on Rue Vezina. Georges Vezina was a goaltender for the Canadiens and his name is on the trophy that goes to the best NHL goalie each season. There is an indoor arena right next to the school, with a rink, and skating is part of the physical-education program. But when one sits in the library with a dozen or so students and inquires as to who might be their sporting idols, the response is foreign.
“Jordan,” said one.
“Jordan,” said another.
“He starts from the foul line,” 12-year-old Marlon Brown said matter of factly. “He does things that are impossible for other people to do.”
Michael Jordan, of course, plays basketball. But hockey is the sport that pervades the thoughts of Canadians. Yet these youngsters do not recite the statistics of Stephane Richer or extol the virtues of Patrick Roy, who won the Vezina Trophy last season. Aren’t some of them, or some like them, the professional hockey players of the 21st century?
“My family doesn’t want me to play hockey,” said 13-year-old Michael Mills, “because it’s a white man’s sport.”
The numbers certainly show that blacks have had a scant presence in hockey. Just 16 black players have made it into at least one National Hockey League game. Currently, there are five in the NHL: Edmonton goalies Grant Fuhr and Eldon “Pokey” Reddick, Quebec’s Tony McKegney, Chicago’s Dirk Graham and New Jersey’s Claude Vilgrain.
The two highest minor leagues, the American Hockey League and the International Hockey League, have three or four black players each, as do the three top junior leagues. Attendance is up with nearly every NHL franchise, but black fans make up a small percentage of those buying tickets.
The issue of race raised its head last month when Graeme Townshend of the Boston Bruins started a fight with the New York Rangers’ Kris King because Townshend said King used a racial slur. The penalty Townshend drew helped the Rangers beat the Bruins.
The NHL office investigated the incident, but since King denied uttering a racial epithet, it was his word against Townshend’s and there was no penalty handed out. Townshend is now back with the Bruins’ farm club in Maine. Sadly, there have been copy-cat instigators in the AHL.
“I’ve gotten it a few more times since then,” Townshend said. “Now, guys have heard about it. I’m learning to shrug it off. It’s going to be part of the game.”
Townshend has not reacted as he did to King, in part because he is now wiser and because teammate Ray Neufeld, who also is black, has helped a bit.
“I’ve either tried to stare him down or skate away,” Townshend said. “I talked to Ray Neufeld and he told me all you can do is shrug it off. The way I reacted in Boston made more trouble for me and the Bruins than anyone else.”
Neufeld, who will be 31 in April, played his first NHL game in 1979-80, so he’s been around long enough to have heard such discouraging words.
“He doesn’t say anything,” Townshend said of Neufeld’s experiences. “The only thing I remember him doing was in one of my first games, a guy said something and Ray sort of came to my aid and told the guy to think of something else to say.”
Hockey is a very rough sport. Fighting is penalized but not banned, and there are players whose only real contribution is their ability to distract opponents in whatever way possible, physically or mentally.
“It’s important to understand where it came from,” Townshend said. “I don’t think Kris King is a racist. I never said that. If I was white, maybe I would say something like that to get somebody off their game. In the heat of battle, you never know.”
Townshend grew up in Toronto and went to school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., graduating last May with a degree in management. Townshend said he never heard any racial slurs in four years of college hockey and added that fans weren’t a problem, either.
“Maybe the fact that the ECAC had four or five black players made it less of an issue,” Townshend suggested.
Townshend said he was surprised to discover that Canadian players appear more likely to use his race as bait. “I get that more from Canadian guys,” he said. “I grew up hearing about racial problems in the United States. Socially, in Canada I never got that. But (on the ice) it was totally opposite from what I expected. It’s always one of the Canadian guys.”
Like Townshend, Reggie Savage is part of the future for blacks in hockey. Savage was the Washington Capitals’ first-round pick (15th overall) in the 1988 entry draft and he is playing his last season of junior hockey with Victoriaville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Savage said the Townshend-King incident surprised him because he thought that by the time players reached the NHL they would be above that. He said he has not been subjected to that in recent years.
“I’ve played against these guys two or three years and many are my friends,” Savage said recently after practice in Victoriaville. “It happened a few times, especially in the first year, but not in the sense of hurting me personally, but in taking me off my game.
“It was the usual stuff, but it’s not a big thing for me,” Savage said. “My dad told me: ‘Hockey is a rough sport. You’re a black in a white game and you’ll hear those things. Forget about them.’ I said I wanted to play hockey no matter what. I love the sport.”
Like Townshend, Savage realizes that there is little that can be done about on-ice, in-the-heat-of-battle comments except to ignore them.
“You have no choice,” Savage said. “It’s part of life. If you want to play in the NHL, you have to pay a price. You’re the only one that’s going to be sorry.”
In the United States, blacks account for a bit more than 12% of the population, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. The last Canadian census was taken in 1986 and, although the questionnaire did not ask that race be designated, the government estimates that just 3% of its 25,354,064 people are black.
Although Americans and other nationalities are represented in the NHL in greater percentages than ever, Canadians still dominate the league. At the start of this season, 72 percent of the players were Canadian, 16% were American and 12% were from “other” countries, nearly all in Europe.
So even with the demographic changes, most of the players are coming from the country with the smallest percentage of blacks and minorities. And many blacks in Canada are relatively recent immigrants from Caribbean nations, so their history with hockey is short.
The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association has about 600,000 youngsters ages 8 and up registered with hockey teams. “I would say you’re talking about a very small percentage of blacks,” said Larry Skinner, director of marketing and communications for the CAHA.
“Most black people don’t grow up in the environment of hockey,” Savage said. “I was fortunate to be born in Montreal and grow up in a family where hockey is a big thing. Most black kids pick up basketball and football. Here, in Montreal, it’s a hockey town, so there is no choice but to play hockey.”
But Savage didn’t grow up in Montreal proper. Adopted by a white couple, as was the case with Fuhr, Savage and his family lived in the suburb of St. Hubert, and although not wealthy, they were not poor.
Des Williams’ students are often from “single-parent, working-class families” who are “at the bottom economic level.”
Hockey is not often thought of as a country club sport, as golf and tennis are, but it can be expensive. To outfit a player from head to toe, the tab can run $300.
If a youngster wants to be a goalie, the cost can double or triple. Most youth football programs in the United States provide equipment for players. That occurs much less frequently in hockey, where kids are expected to bring their own gear.
“My father was going to let me play, but he couldn’t get any equipment,” said Marlon Joseph, a 12-year-old at Coronation.
Ice, even in cold climes, can be in short supply. While there are a million ponds that freeze over and provide a place for children to play in suburban and rural areas of Canada, there are many fewer ponds in the inner city, where more blacks live. Land within cities tends to be more expensive, making the construction of indoor skating rinks less economically feasible than it would be in the suburbs.
“Hockey is an expensive sport,” Savage said. “It costs a lot of money, and a lot of black families don’t have the money to pay for things like that. Some think it’s better to buy the kid a pair of shoes and let him play basketball.”
Williams said that of his 360 students, who range in age from 4 to 13, not more than three or four are on an organized hockey team. He thinks the reason is mostly one of access.
“They love it,” Williams said of the response to ice skating in gym class. “For many kids, it is the first opportunity to get into skates. After four or five lessons, they do quite well and some are very, very persistent. But again, it’s a question of economics when he leaves elementary school. Whether he continues is something else. They love floor hockey. That’s one of the reasons I believe it is more of an economic thing, particularly with inner-city kids.”
Townshend, along with his brother and sister were raised by their mother, who is a bank clerk in Toronto. It was hardly a silver-spoon existence, but he has made it so far.
“When I say, ‘We lived in the projects,’ it’s not what you see in say, Brooklyn,” Townshend said. “My two apartment buildings were surrounded by middle-class white families. And I never had to go without clothes or food. Certainly, there were things I had to learn to do without. For example, I got my first bike when I was 12 and I bought it myself, whereas other kids got them from their parents earlier. Little things like that I learned to deal with because my mom couldn’t afford those things.
“From the time I was 14, I worked and I paid for my own equipment. I worked in the summer, and cut grass, shoveled snow, delivered papers and I saved the money I made. Once in a while, if I needed $10, my mom would give it to me if she could.”
Just inside Williams’ school, there are posters on the cinder-block walls celebrating black-history month. Most of those depicted are civil-rights activists, business leaders or doctors, with only a couple of entertainers and no sports figures.
While it certainly makes more sense to encourage the black youth of the world to pursue academic interests, the scarcity of black role models in hockey seems to be another reason fewer blacks go into the sport.
Many think that Fuhr, who helped the Oilers win four Stanley Cup titles, was the best goalie in the 1980s. But Edmonton is not even the media center of the province of Alberta, much less Canada or North America. If Jordan were playing in Portland instead of Chicago--the Trail Blazers passed on Jordan in favor of Sam Bowie in the draft--Jordan might not be the mega-idol he has become.
As with many goalies, Fuhr often goes on and off the ice without ever removing his helmet and mask, so many of those watching may not even know he is black. Philosophically, that might be better, in the sense that more people will judge him on his talents and not his skin color. But in terms of Fuhr serving as an idol for the youth, it is an impediment.
“The lack of a figure-hero is a contributing factor in why black kids don’t go into hockey in great numbers,” said Williams, who wasn’t sure if many of his students would know who Fuhr is. “He sees Tim Raines (of the Montreal Expos) and Andre Dawson (now with the Chicago Cubs). He doesn’t see the same thing in hockey, therefore it is not a sport which motivates him because he doesn’t think he has a chance to become as good.”
Said Savage: “When there is a black star in the United States in the NHL, more kids in the U.S. will play hockey. You ask a black kid for their idols and they will say Michael Jordan or Bo Jackson. Those guys are stars. Hockey has no black stars. Grant Fuhr is a star, but he’s not recognized like those people. Economics is one thing, but you need that idol out there.”
The Capitals are on their way to their best season in terms of attendance. But according to a market-research study done for the team by business students at American University, only 3% of those attending Capitals games are black. That is up from about 1% four years ago, according to Lew Strudler, vice president for marketing and promotions.
Strudler said he has tried to meet with black groups, as well as with Hispanics and Asians, to dip into that essentially untapped market.
“The black community is a significant part of the Washington community and it would be phenomenal to get them involved,” Strudler said. “We’ve got some empty seats and we want to sell them.”
The Capitals have said they picked Savage in the draft because he was the best player available to them. But in an industry that relies so heavily on attendance, marketing is an important factor.
“Would that percentage be higher if Reggie makes it?” Strudler said. “I believe so.”
Still, Townshend likes to think he didn’t need his idols to be of a particular color.
“Growing up, my idols were Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, and it didn’t affect me,” Townshend said. “I always knew I was black. There was no identity crisis. For some reason, I always believed it didn’t matter what color I was. To see Tony McKegney, Grant Fuhr make it was only proof.
“I don’t think I needed the (black) superstar to look up to. It shouldn’t matter. Maybe for American blacks it will matter. Kids in the ghetto will identify with Michael Jordan more than Wayne Gretzky.
“But it’s different for Canadians. Hockey was my life. I started skating when I was 5 and was playing street hockey all the time.”
Many in the black communities in both the United States and Canada are still behind the national averages for income. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the median income for a family (all races) in 1988 was $32,191. For black families, the median income was $19,329. Still, there is an emerging black middle class, and it is from there that some of the black hockey players in the next century likely will come. But few expect a huge influx anytime soon.
“It starts with one and the next year it’s two,” Savage said. “That’s the idea -- to get them there to see it. It will be slow progress, maybe 10 or 15 years until you see more blacks playing hockey. I’m sure it will take time.”