CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 10 . . . .January 20, 2006
Cecil Harris, a veteran sports journalist who has covered the NHL, has produced a most readable history of black hockey players in North America’s professional hockey leagues, but especially their participation in its preeminent league, the NHL. Between the NHL’s founding in 1917 and the conclusion of the 2003-04 season, only 38 blacks had played in the NHL, with that pre-lockout season seeing just 17 black players among the league’s more than 600 players. Though that number is small, according to Harris, it “represented a high watermark for blacks in any season in hockey’s premier league.”
Working from interviews and secondary sources, Harris does not use a chronological approach to organizing the book’s contents but elects instead a thematic treatment. Breaking the Ice begins with a chapter on the black player who is currently likely the best known, Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames, but readers do meet the pioneers who led in blacks’ involvement in professional hockey. While Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958, is considered “the Jackie Robinson of hockey,” Harris also writes about Herb Carnegie who played professional hockey for three decades, commencing in the 1930's. Harris characterizes Carnegie as "the best player never to appear in the NHL." Despite Carnegie’s numerous achievements, because of his not having played in the NHL, he has not been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
For the majority of those black players who have reached the NHL, Harris does not just conclude their stories with the end of their professional careers. Instead, he follows them into their post-hockey lives, and often these are not happy tales. Unlike white players who often find hockey-related employment, the same is not true of black players, and the NHL has yet to see a black coach or general manager. Common threads emerge from the life stories of the black players who have made it to the NHL. Often, as youngsters, they were discouraged from playing “a white man’s game,” and they were frequently on the receiving end of racial taunting by opposing players and even the parents of these players. When they turned pro and were playing in minor-league towns, in addition to having the fans hurling verbal abuse at them, the black players were taunted by spectators who would throw pieces of chicken or wave bananas.
Harris devotes an entire chapter, “The N-Bomb,” just to the use of one racial epithet. Another chapter, “Hired Hands,” deals with the situation of black players who have been engaged as team “enforcers” or the tough guys, a situation which does not allow them to showcase their hockey skills. As Harris puts it, “For an inordinate number of black players, the role of hired hand is what got them into the NHL.”
One of hockey’s most critical positions is that of goalie, and in the chapter, “Masked Men,” Harris writes principally about Kevin Weekes and Grant Fuhr, the only two blacks in the NHL’s almost 90 years of existence to be their respective team’s “clear-cut number-one goalie.” However, the chapter does not completely overlook black backup goalies, such as Freddie Brathwaite and Pokey Reddick. Grant Fuhr also has the distinction of being the only black player to be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in children’s and adolescent literature in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.