LOS ANGELES – The NHL has long been looked at as a predominantly white sport, but the league is celebrating the contributions of African-American and African-Canadian players during Black History Month.
The league put together the American Legacy Black Hockey History Tour as part of its “Hockey is For Everyone” initiative in partnership with the NHLPA.
The 525-square foot mobile museum showcases the history of black players, from pioneer Willie O’Ree, who was the first black player in the NHL when he suited up for the Boston Bruins in 1958, to current superstars P.K. Subban and Seth Jones.
“It’s come a long way. There are not only more black players, but players of color playing in the league now,” O’Ree said. “Everything is moving in the right direction.”
The museum was created to help shed light on the fact that hockey is for everyone and has toured NHL cities throughout the last two months.
Here in Los Angeles, the people coming in to look at it were predominantly people of color, a welcome sight for organizers.
“This museum is a way of introducing the game of hockey to people who haven’t had the chance to see the game,” museum co-curator Damon Kwame Mason said. “We want to get new fans and possibly people who want to get involved in the game of hockey.”
It hasn’t always been a smooth ride and there will continue to be bumps in the road.
O’Ree looked back at when he was trying to break the color barrier and recalled the difficulty in earning respect around the league just because of the color of his skin.
“I faced racism, ignorance and bigotry every game,” he said. “If people can’t accept you for who you are, then that’s their problem. Racism exists today in hockey, but now we are talking about the issue.”
When former NHL’er Akim Aliu broke his silence about how his coach at the time, Bill Peters, consistently used the N-word while he was in the AHL, it raised questions about just how inclusive a sport is where 97% of its players are white.
Mason chose to look at the positive side of the incident.
“When we hear about these situations, we have to talk about them, which opens up the dialogue,” he said. “Now we can look at how to rectify it and how we can get better in the future. If we can show there is a change coming, that is how we can make the game better.”
Even though the actions of Peters shined a light on the ugly side of racism in hockey, the league is taking steps in the right direction.
Professional hockey player Blake Bolden was hired by the L.A. Kings as the team’s AHL scout in the Pacific region. She is the NHL’s first black female pro scout and second woman to be hired in that role by a team in the league.
“I am really proud to be a part of this and honored to have the opportunity to breakdown barriers,” Bolden said. “Recognizing black history is super cool and relevant to what we are seeing in the museum.”
With more minorities playing the game at a young age, Mason thinks the future is bright. He sees a ton of potential for growth over the next 10 years.
“Minorities have been playing the game since the 1800’s, but the problem is the inclusivity of it,” Mason said. “I am hoping to see more people of color working inside the game and there are a lot of kids coming up, hopefully we get to see a No. 1 pick who is a minority sooner than later.”
O’Ree looked around the museum with a smile. He couldn’t help but notice the pictures of current black NHL players and be proud.
“These guys deserve to be able to get the same attention as the white players in the league,” he said. “They’re at this level because of their hard work and talent not just because of their color.”
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