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Stratford Hockey Team circa 1900 featuring Charlie Lightfoot at the far left of the middle row
Unless one has been in hiding or imitating Rip Van Winkle, they are aware that February is “Black History Month”. It is long past time that this tribute has been given its proper place in society. Its embryo came to life as long ago as 1926, and it breadth and importance has been gaining momentum ever since.
Its purpose is create “a more inclusive and diverse society”. May that ideal continue to be recognized more and more as the years go by. It is hardly necessary to review the bias, and the resulting injustices thrust upon blacks for years gone by.
Whether in politics, education, or administration, the discrimination foisted upon blacks simply because of their colour has been unconscionable.
The battle is not won. One only need review videos of the tactic used by police officers—both in Edmonton Alberta, and in Minneapolis, Minnesota—where black men were subjected to being pinned by knees on their necks, to be arrested. (in the latter case the man died). But there is some progress toward society recognizing that “all men are created equal”, and “from one man He (God) made every nation of men”.
It is not the intent of this missive to analyze this overall scenario, but, as background, to focus on the hurdles men and women in sports have faced in order to gain recognition as being worthy competitors — as individuals or team members. Further, that they should be free from verbal or physical abuse when they attempt to free themselves from that biased barrier. Part of that process will include the profile of the first man in hockey to have a measure of success on the professional scene.
As near as can be determined there have been 94 skaters of colour who have pulled on NHL sweaters during the circuit’s 104 years it has been in existence. According to USA Today there are 26 black active in the world’s premier league at the present time.
It would be a judgement call to estimate the number who have been run-of-the-mill competitors rather than those falling under the category of “regulars”. But whatever their level of talent, there is one common denominator they share — racism. As blacks have endeavoured to penetrate the prejudice which has created this wall of bias against them, each one has managed to whittle a little layer of it away.
Looking back to the glory days of the “Original 6”, the bigoted mindset against coloured pro hockey prospects was a dominant. In the 1940’s the Quebec Aces of the QHL featured one of the slickest trios ever to don skates. Manny Macintyre, along with brothers Ozzie and Herb Carnegie, formed a line called the “Black Aces”, dazzled both friend and foe, spectators and opponents alike, with their clockwork precision approach to the game.
Herb was the pick of the litter. He was so talented that the legendry Red Story maintained “the only thing keeping Herb Carnegie out of the NHL is that he is black!”
The Maple Leafs’ Conn Smythe allegedly said it a different way: “I’ll pay anyone $10,000.00 who can turn Herb Carnegie white!”
With the passing years and ebb and flow of this discrimination weakening, as both management and players bore the abuse to break this traditional bias, it did become marginally easier to overcome this senseless hurdle. But it cost those who dared to overcome unbelievable abuse to make it to the big time. “Get that black b------!” was typical of the Clarion call from the stands as this hatred persisted over the years.
The most recent skater to ignore this stumbling block was Jalen Chatfield of the Vancouver Canucks, who played his first NHL game on January 20th. He scored zero points in his initial nine games before becoming a healthy scratch, and was no threat to favourites like Bo Horvat or Tanner Pearson.
Most of the current crop with this ethnic identity fall under the category of “journeymen”. They don’t have key roles to play in the their team’s success, despite their faithful persistence with stick and puck.
But there are a few who are, or have been, standouts in spite of the unfair handicap which automatically latches onto them like a burr.
Mike Marson never set scoring records, but he will always be remembered as the one who succeeded Willie O’Ree in gradually breaking down the colour barrier. 13 years had passed since the original breakthrough. Drafted by the Washington Caps in 1974, he tallied 16 times in his initial season, impressing all and sundry as the second black to make it to the Big Time. But his career had its ups and downs, totalling parts of five campaigns with the D.C. sextet.
Tony McKegney’s debut in the pay-for-play scene was impressive in that he was one of the earlier blacks to reach the top rung in shinny’s ladder. A better-than-average forward, he racked up a total of 320 goals in 912 contests. But his route to the Sabres was anything but memorable. Because of the WHA’s policy to draft under-age skaters, the Birmingham kiddie core added him to their list in 1978. The problem was, his prospective team’s location was dead centre in the anti-black part of the United States. Fans threatened to boycott the club if a player of colour became part of the line-up, so he was unceremonially shuffled off to Buffalo, almost as a reject in the game he loved.
Wayne Gretzky said that Grant Fuhr was the greatest goalie in goaltending history. No one could have more first hand ammunition to make such a claim. He starred for the Edmonton Oilers during their seasons as top dogs in the National Hockey League. Another teammate during this heyday was Mark Messier. He added: “He was born to be a goaltender. I’m sure he feels more comfortable in his equipment than in his panamas.” His skills were enhanced by his fun-loving temperament. Twice he was voted to All-Star teams. He won the Vezina Trophy and the Jennings Trophy — the first by vote — the second by skill. The culmination of his career was to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Jarome Iginla is the only other black at this stage of the game’s history to be granted the game’s top honour. He earned this hallowed spot and the glory that goes with it. Four times he was chosen as an All Star. He won the league scoring championship and the Art Ross Trophy that goes with it. He further added the Richard Trophy to his collection, as well as the Lester B. Pearson Award (now known as the Ted Lindsay Award), a token of the high regard held by his league fellow players.
The most recent player of colour to gain the attention of the hockey community is P.K. Subban, the talented and brash rear-guard now patrolling the blueline of the New Jersey Devils. The Toronto native began his career with the Canadiens, was traded to the Nashville Predators, before pulling on the sweater of his third NHL club. He won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defensemen while with the Habs, and has been chosen twice as an All Star at season’s end.
These are but a few of that racial background who deserve special recognition. But even the most casual shinny spectator has to admit that one Willie O’Ree has earned the numero uno spot when it comes to the advancement of the status of black players in the world’s fastest sport. It was he who suffered the first heartless abuse at the hands of spectators and opposition players, and he became the first black to dared to tangle with the multiplied negatives that met him on and off the ice.
His story has been repeated countless times — and is now in book form — a volume by Nicole Mortillaro. On January 18, 1958, the Boston Bruins called him up from the Quebec Aces to fill in for an injured player. They had overheard the comment of coaches Phil Watson and Punch Imlach that he was “good enough for the NHL!” He recalls that he was not even aware he was making history that night.
That stay was short — only two games — but long enough to bear racial slurs, fights, cheap shots, and spitting. He was recalled again for 43 matches in 1960-61, and that gave ample time for discrimination to be ramped up to the full. One night in Chicago, Eric Nesterenko introduced his contribution of abuse with the “N” word, then butt ended him in the mouth, knocking out two teeth. Their next meeting earned Willie a vicious slash across the ankles. Symbolic gestures, like a black cat and a ball of white cotton being tossed on the ice together was common fare for the Fredericton native.
With the passing of time, O’Ree’s contribution toward minimizing segregation in Canada’s National Sport has gained appreciation. It climaxed with his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame in the “Builder” category, and the introduction by the NHL of the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.
Whatever accolades have come his way he richly deserves. He was the first black NHL’er. But he was not the first player of colour to cross the line into professionalism. That honour belongs to Charlie Lightfoot from Stratford, Ontario.
He played three seasons of OHA Junior, one with Fort William in 1899 and two with his native Stratford squad. He led his hometown crew to the league championship in 1900, starring in wins over the Toronto Simcoes and the Peterborough Petes. He graduated to the Intermediates in 1901 where he skated for five seasons. In 1904, the Intermediate Indians won the crown with Charlie at the helm.
The local Beacon-Herald published copious accolades concerning his stellar play. For example it maintained “It was to Lightfoot’s splendid work that they may attribute their victory. He is even stronger in the game than ever……..He is lightning fast!”
He spent the first six weeks of the following campaign nursing an injury. But upon his return he was back in the headlines again. Even though the Indians were eliminated in the semi-final in the spring, he was chosen an All-Star.
While skating for Barrie in 1906-07, he took time out to trade his amateur status for a single game with Portage La Prairie of the Manitoba Pro loop.
After his abbreviated stint with Portage, in 1908 he moved to the semi-professional New Ontario League, where he patrolled the ice lanes for the Fort William Wanderers. After watching his performances, the Daily Times Journal opined: “Lightfoot and Scott will be the mainstays, and Lightfoot looks like the man to be watched.”
Hat tricks and two-goal games were common for the Right Winger, and the word “star” was often connected with his play in game reports.
He continued the Lakehead for three seasons, but was then sucked into the hype created by “Buck” Irving, who organized the ill-fated Eastern Ontario Pro League, in 1911, an offshoot of the OPHL. He joined the Trenton contingent and scored five times in four games, only to see his team fold after only two weeks.
He switched to the Red and White of the Belleville Six, and added five more markers in six games. The Intelligencer commented: “He played his usual beautiful and effective style”.
But the league died in early February.
Half way through the following campaign, he was added to the Halifax Socials of the Maritime Pro loop. But his best years were behind him, and he returned home to Stratford to stay after that season concluded.
Except for a few who follow the game’s history closely, his name is likely to fall into the “Charlie who?” category. But, for black shinny mercenaries, it was he who got the puck spinning.
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