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Back in Black

In 1989 – the Rolling Stones  were considered dinosaurs as they prepared to embark on their ‘Steel Wheels’ tour. Madonna divorced actor Sean Penn and Grant Fuhr, Eldon (Pokey) Reddick , Tony McKegney and Ray Neufeld were the sole African Americans playing in the NHL.

In 2012, the Rolling Stones are considered dinosaurs as they purportedly arrange for a tour, Madonna is single once more after another failed relationship and there are twenty-four African Americans playing in the NHL. The more things change…la plus ca change…

P.K Subban is the next generation of Willie O’Ree not just entering the league… but showing true signs of dominating at his position. What has changed in twenty-one years? Have more black players enrolled in the sport because of players such as Fuhr and O’Ree before them?

Perhaps the reason African Americans are playing a sport dominated by white people for so many years has nothing to do with Fuhr or Reddick. Does the fact that Tiger Woods not only joined an elite, Caucasian boys club but totally dominated have anything to do with the success of Jerome Iginla, Anson Carter and Mike Grier…?

Woods and Subban are children of their environment. As society goes… so do the people, regardless of race and color.

Tony McKegney

Tony McKegney was the fourth black in NHL history and the first black Canadian player to make an impact in the league when he signed with the Buffalo Sabres in 1978.

McKegney had to suffer the indignities of racial abuse from fans and opposing players as well as suspicious treatment from team management. That was 1978 – a time when you could hurl racist comments and not be out of place in many cities in Canada and the States. Currently, if you harbor such feelings toward any race, black or white – you would be better off to save those judgments to yourself or face becoming an outcast among peers and society in general.

Not considered one of the greats of the game – McKegney ‘s career was a long and productive one and he is probably responsible for an entire generation of young black skaters. He scored over 320 goals over his 13 year career in the NHL and he became the first African-American to net 40 goals in a season. His total of 78 points in the same year was the highest ever recorded by a black player until Jarome Iginla surpassed that number in 2001-2002 with 96 points. Over a space of 900 games in the NHL , Tony produced eight 20-goal seasons and in 1991 –  became the first minority to play on the Canadian National Team.

It was in the course of those 900 games that the world around Tony McKegney changed allowing young blacks more opportunities to play hockey. McKegney exposed his talents to young African Americans  and now they had the resources to practice their craft.

Willie O’Ree

Willie O’ Ree made his NHL debut with the Bruins on January 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens . He became the first black player in league history as he appeared in two games that season.

In 1961 he was called up once more and scored four goals and added 10 assists in 43 games. O’ Ree never played another NHL game but toiled in the minors for another 19 seasons. Mr. O ‘Ree cites several factors in the increase of African Americans in the NHL today.

“You have to be around ice to be an ice hockey player. There are more rinks being constructed, there are more opportunities and there are more programs available for African-Americans to get involved in the sport. There are 30 teams in the National Hockey League; when I played there were only six. When I travel around and go to the inner cities, I’m amazed that a lot of these boys and girls have a lot of natural talent. They need to get on the ice and develop from there.”

Like dominoes, everything has a trickle down effect. At one time because of segregation and racism, black people were not given the opportunities to excel and produce high incomes. Hockey – compared to sports such as soccer, baseball and football was pricier to play and many inner city kids simply did not have the money to purchase skates, sticks and all the equipment necessary to play the game. It was a double edge sword at times – you had ice if you lived in Detroit but not enough money, you had money if you lived in L.A but not enough ice.

In Canada, the African American population has doubled in the past twenty years from one percent when Tony McKegney was a rookie to two percent when Jerome Iginla made a historic pass to Sidney Crosby at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. Although seemingly small, that one percent increase can double the amount of black minor leaguers and in turn – increase the percentage in the NHL.

Now that times have been altered and blacks and whites share the same opportunities, more kids are being introduced to the game in every generation. This means more arenas being built, more equipment is handed down from an older brother or sister, more NHL stars are role models and so it goes.

Tony McKegney was the Tiger Woods of hockey in his day. Unfortunately for Tony and thousands of kids everywhere – the 1970s did not have the television coverage or the endorsement deals that Mr. Woods has benefited from. I am not speaking monetarily – I am speaking in terms of pure exposure. Fortunately, the NHL did expand in that decade and that enabled enough exposure to encourage the Jerome Iginlas and P.K. Subbans of the world and begin a process that will add the best talent of all races into the greatest game on ice.

In 2022 – there will be over a hundred black players in the league and the Rolling Stones will still be considered dinosaurs as the get set for a world tour.

The more things change – the more they do not stay the same …


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