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Being Black in the NHL: Race has been brought into the open, but that doesn’t change the past

Ray Neufeld played 15 of his 595 NHL games with the Bruins (1988-89).
Ray Neufeld played 15 of his 595 NHL games with the Bruins (1988-89).Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images/file

Ray Neufeld was finishing a solid pro career with the AHL’s Maine Mariners. Graeme Townshend was a rookie, eager to learn from one of his childhood heroes.

“I followed him around like a puppy dog,” Townshend said. “He taught me how to be a pro.”

When Neufeld was playing in the NHL for the Whalers and Jets in the 1980s, he represented something deeper to Townshend: He was a rebuttal to the schoolyard kids in Toronto who believed that Blacks couldn’t play hockey, who said their ankles were too weak.

Townshend had a flashback one night in the 1989-90 season, sitting next to Neufeld on the bench in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

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Every time there was a whistle, the organist at Palais des Sports “would play these jungle sounds,” recalled Townshend. “You’d hear monkeys and birds and bongo drums, to mock me and Ray.

“I remember looking at Ray and saying, ‘What the f- is this?’ Ray just kind of smiled and said, ‘Hey, welcome to pro hockey, kid.’ He just laughed. He shrugged it off.”

Townshend, whose decade in the pros included a short stint with the Bruins, later became a skating coach for the Sharks and Maple Leafs and now runs a hockey school in Maine. He was the first Jamaican-born player in the NHL, and later coached that country’s national team.

The incidents of racism Townshend faced in his career do not define him.

But he won’t forget them.

Two of Graeme Townshend's five NHL seasons were spent with the Islanders organization.
Two of Graeme Townshend's five NHL seasons were spent with the Islanders organization.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images/file
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In a league that is 97 percent white, the majority of NHL players do not often have to confront issues of racial injustice. Their locker rooms, while a blend of Europeans and North Americans, are largely homogenous.

But this week, several prominent players, reacting to the boiling unrest after George Floyd was killed May 25 when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, have been publicly grappling with issues of racism and white privilege in a way the league has never seen.

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Last Friday, a Black player, Sharks winger Evander Kane, appeared on ESPN, challenging white athletes of influence “like Tom Brady and Sidney Crosby” to be as angry as he is about systemic racism and police brutality.

Dozens of players responded in the following days, some making cursory statements and reposting images, some going deeper.

“We have to be as involved in this as black athletes. It can’t just be their fight,” said Minnesota-raised Jets captain Blake Wheeler on a Zoom call with reporters. “I wish that it didn’t take me this long to get behind it in a meaningful way.”

The Sharks' Evander Kane called on athletes with larger platforms to speak out about systemic racism.
The Sharks' Evander Kane called on athletes with larger platforms to speak out about systemic racism.Ezra Shaw/Getty

The next day, Bruins star Patrice Bergeron donated $50,000 to anti-racism causes, acknowledging his privilege and stating that he is committed to raising his children as anti-racist rather than merely tolerant.

"As hockey players, we have a tendency to do our business while staying quiet, without wanting to make too much noise," Bergeron said in a statement.

"But surrounding the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, it made me realize that by not speaking up on the matter, and not using my voice as a professional athlete, it's in fact allowing racism to fester and continue."

“They’re the right things to do and say,” said Bryant McBride, a former NHL vice president of business development and the league’s first Black executive. “What’s happened is so egregious that people want to be on the right side of history. Some of it is really heartfelt.

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“The question is, a month from now, two months from now, six months, a year from now, five years from now . . . are they going to stand up and say something, when a fan, a teammate, anyone, says something that’s not part of the game and culture, that’s not welcoming and inclusive?

“All those comments from NHL players? Great. Back it up now. Do the work.”

McBride, who lives in Lexington, hired Willie O’Ree as an NHL ambassador in 1993 and last year produced a feature-length documentary about his life. Understanding the story of O’Ree, who broke the league’s color barrier with the Bruins in 1958, is another small step for hockey fans, McBride said.

McBride also recommends four books — “The Color of Law,” “The Warmth of Other Suns,” “The New Jim Crow,” and “Just Mercy” — as a “360-degree view” of the Black experience in America.

If comments from players are indicative, the NHL, which has approximately 30 players of color, has a narrower depth of field.

“Get smarter on this subject,” McBride said. “Implore people to do the same. Get off social media for a minute. Read and learn. If you don’t, your words are hollow. A lot of people in this debate, white people, are fearful of messing up. They don’t want to say the wrong thing. They’re uncomfortable. That’s OK.”

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Ugly incidents

Racial history in hockey, like that in broader society, can be ugly.

O’Ree remembers being spat at by fans and targeted by opponents when he debuted with the Bruins in 1958. Mike Marson, the NHL’s second Black player, was greeted by death threats when he arrived with the Capitals 16 years later. Tony McKegney’s stellar NHL career began in 1978 but only after fans of the WHA’s Birmingham (Ala.) Bulls demanded his contract be terminated. The owner did just that, reasoning that he had no choice; fans wouldn’t support a Black player.

Willie O'Ree broke the NHL's color barrier when he joined the Bruins in 1958.
Willie O'Ree broke the NHL's color barrier when he joined the Bruins in 1958....../Handout

In 1997, Washington’s Craig Berube was suspended one game for calling Florida’s Peter Worrell a “monkey.” In 2002, a fan in Montreal threw a banana at Carolina goaltender Kevin Weekes during a playoff game. Nine years later, during an exhibition game in London, Ontario, a fan targeted Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds the same way and was fined $200.

Fans on Twitter barraged Washington’s Joel Ward with hate speech after his overtime goal knocked the Bruins out of the 2012 playoffs. P.K. Subban got the same in 2014, when he scored an overtime goal against the Bruins. In 2018, Capitals winger Devante Smith-Pelly confronted a fan in Chicago who chanted “basketball” toward him as he sat in the penalty box.

This NHL season began with the ouster of Canadian icon Don Cherry after the sportscaster and former Bruins coach made xenophobic comments towards immigrants in November. Later that month, Akim Aliu went public with allegations against Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters, accusing him of using racial slurs toward Aliu in the late 2000s. Peters resigned days later.

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In April, the Rangers hosted an introductory Zoom call with draft pick K’Andre Miller and some 150 fans. The chat window was hacked by an unknown party who repeatedly posted the N-word under different user names.

Miller tweeted a statement last week, expressing a range of emotions after Floyd’s murder and acknowledging the harassment: “It’s something I won’t ever forget.”

Slurs and retorts

Townshend, who tutors young players out of Saco, Maine, has seen a rise in on-ice racial slurs made out of earshot of officials.

“The young kids, it’s happening more and more,” he said, pointing to immaturity on the part of players who know they can get a reaction. “The [NHL] guys are too professional to use racial slurs. They’ve got too much to lose. In youth hockey, it’s rampant. My kids are being abused every other game.”

USA Hockey and Hockey Canada don't keep participation statistics by race. Townshend said most of his pupils are white.

In February, the NHL’s diversity task force leader, Kim Davis, told ESPN the league had fewer than 30 Black players among 954 that appeared in a game. That is about 3 percent.

Townshend has let go of the pain from his playing days, including a much-publicized fight with then-Ranger Kris King in 1990. He recalled a string of brawls with a fellow freshman at RPI who kept repeating the same N-word joke, knowing it would set him off. He considers that man a close friend today, adding that he still regularly apologizes.

He said teammates almost always had his back when opponents crossed the line.

“Mistreated, I can’t say that I was," Townshend said. "There were only a handful of incidents, and I don’t believe those incidents came from a racist heart. It was the heat of competition.

"People don’t like this excuse, but I think it’s true: They were angry, and frustrated, and the word slipped out. I’d have a beer with any of them.”

Like most players, he reasons, he has toed the line in trash talk.

“I would run over a goalie to win a game, not thinking twice about it,” he said. “I wouldn’t cross the racial line, but I would definitely call you names. The N-word, I learned how to handle it.”

Darren Banks, a Bruins short-timer in the ‘90s, almost relished the taunts from fans as a minor-league enforcer.

“Where do you work?” he would retort to a racial epithet. “Let me know, so I can pay to watch you tomorrow.”

'Hockey is for everybody’

Jarome Iginla, one of the NHL’s first Black stars, learned how to reply to taunts during his youth in Edmonton.

“People would always say to me, ‘There’s no Black players in the NHL, you have no chance,’ ” said Iginla, the former Flames captain and a likely future Hall of Famer who now lives in Brookline. “I had to have a comeback, so I looked up every Black player I could find. Claude Vilgrain. Tony McKegney. Dale Craigwell, who played for the Sharks. Grant Fuhr.”

Iginla, voted by his peers as the league’s most outstanding player in 2002, is proud of the example he has set for aspiring Black players. He believes “the game of hockey is for everybody."

He also speaks with his teenage children about how being Black in public means they must be cautious.

Traffic stops are not uncommon for someone who drives a lot, and Townshend regularly makes the long trip to Boston for Bruins games.

He has a routine with police. He narrates every movement, calmly and clearly, and moves slowly.

Last year, his white brother-in-law was pulled over for speeding in New Hampshire while Townshend was in the passenger seat. The officer came to his side of the car, asked for his ID, and questioned him, then asked if his 17-year-old white niece, who was in the back seat, was OK. Townshend helped the situation by mentioning his Bruins connection.

“I always throw that in there, because if they like hockey, they might not feel like roughing me up,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m a Bruin, and we were in the alumni suite.’

"He said to me, ‘Do you have the ticket stubs to prove it?’ I always keep the ticket stubs for this reason only. I pulled them out. No one saves ticket stubs, but I keep them, just in case I get pulled over.”

For too many, it is too familiar.


Matt Porter can be reached at matthew.porter@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyports