The color of hockey: The current state of diversity in a traditionally ‘White’ sport

Matt Dumba (l) and J.T. Brown Charles Hallman/MSR News Online

First of a three-part column

Willie O’Ree, the first Black player in the NHL, is finally in the Hockey Hall of Fame. During his induction speech, the 83-year-old O’Ree said last week he will continue to work for more inclusion and diversity than when he broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958.

Before O’Ree, however, Herb Carnegie (1919-2012) once tried out for the New York Rangers in 1948. Offered a minor league contract, he reportedly turned it down because he made more money playing in a Canadian semi-pro league.

He later started a hockey school in Canada, and he and O’Ree once teamed up to teach players of color.
Alton White, in the mid-1970s, became the second Black pro player and played in the World Hockey Association. Mike Marson (1974) was the first Black NHL draftee. Val James is the first U.S.-born Black player (1981-82).

Grant Fuhr was the first Black goalie in the NHL, the first Black player to win the Stanley Cup (1984), and the first Black player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (2003). Chicago’s Dirk Graham is the first Black named team captain (1989-95) and the team’s first Black head coach (1998-99).

Yet hockey is still seen as a White sport. Some believe it should stay that way forever.  Not all hockey fans are racist, but as Yussuf Khan wrote this spring in The Shadow League, “Racism is plaguing [hockey] at every level.” His examples include a fan on social media posting racial comments about a Black minor league player titled “Hockey Ni**er.”

Last season, four Chicago fans were escorted from a game after they shouted racial chants at a visiting Black player while he sat in the penalty box. A Black player in 2011 once had a banana thrown at him on the ice during play.
“Black athletes suffer alone as there aren’t many who look like them on their team,” Khan writes. “While it’s disgusting to watch and experience, it’s almost expected that it will occur at some point for these players. Not accept, but expect. We’ve seen it happen in the NHL.”

Minnesota Wild’s Joshua Thomas (JT) Brown told the MSR, “I don’t want to say anything” about being the target of racial indignities as a player to avoid giving it more attention than it deserves. Brown attended the University of Minnesota — Duluth and played on the school’s 2011 national championship, making his NHL debut in 2012 with Tampa Bay.

A Burnsville native, Brown was one of five free agents the team signed this offseason. “You are going to hear something more often than not,” he said. “It’s not from people on your team. If you hear something, more likely it will be from a fan who’s been drinking. There are always going to be ignorant people.”

Wild defenseman Matt Dumba added that he heard more racist comments as a youngster growing up in Regina, Saskatchewan. He was the team’s first pick in the 2012 NHL Draft and joined the club for good in 2015-16.

Both Brown and Dumba, the team’s only Black players, say hockey became their favorite sport early on. “This is the sport I love and I wanted to do,” said Brown, whose father Ted Brown played eight seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.

Dumba added, “All my friends were playing hockey. My dad built a rink in my backyard.”
This three-part series will examine hockey’s diversity from several perspectives, with more from Brown and Dumba later in the trilogy.

Related stories:

Part 2The color of hockey: Two Black hockey coaches meet in a historic first

Part 3The color of hockey: Diversity on the rise in women’s pro hockey