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Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey

by Cecil Harris

Things have never been better for black players in professional hockey. In 2002, Jarome Iginla became the first black scoring champion in the National Hockey League. In May 2003, Anson Carter scored the game-winning goal for Canada in the gold-medal game of the World Hockey Championship. And in November former Edmonton Oilers goaltending great Grant Fuhr became the first black player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

But it’s been a gruelling 45-year battle since Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player, debuted with the Boston Bruins in 1958, 11 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s colour barrier. These many ice-bound skirmishes, triumphs, humiliations, and epiphanies between the overt racism of “back then” and the ostensibly progressive present are the subject of Breaking the Ice, an excellent new book by New York-based sports reporter Cecil Harris.

In addition to all the gruelling requirements of becoming a pro hockey player, black hockey players have been – and continue to be, Harris argues, though to a lesser extent – the targets of vicious racist taunts. Being pelted with cotton balls, chicken bones, pop bottles, and bananas were just some of the dangers that could face a black player in a hockey arena.

Many of Harris’s subjects, such as Mike Marson, the NHL’s second black player, say they tried to channel their anger and hurt into becoming better players and silencing the critics. Though the book is largely a compelling celebration of overcoming prejudice, Harris wonders if all the fighting black players often have to do has led to a new form of ghettoization – the black player as enforcer. With such current black players as Donald Brashear, Georges Laraque, and Sandy McCarthy in the line-up as much for their pugilistic ability as their hockey skills, it’s a valid question.

Despite the sometimes heartbreaking injustice faced by many black players, Harris concludes on a bright note, with a discussion of programs such as Ice Hockey in Harlem and more than two dozen others that are part of the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force. The programs are designed to give inner-city youth access to equipment and ice time, with the goal of producing the “Tiger Woods of hockey.”