I was getting a haircut at Madison Street Barbers recently when I mentioned that I play hockey just down the street at Johnny’s IceHouse, one of the city’s few indoor rinks and the only sheet of ice in a 16-square-mile area encompassing the city’s west side and many other neighborhoods.
The man who cut my hair told me he watches hockey on TV but described being an African-American fan of hockey as “awkward.”
“There’s not too many of us out there,” he told me.
Over the years, many people of color have told me that they want to like hockey and let their kids play or even just ice skate, but they’re afraid of being singled out based on their appearance. What’s more, black and brown families who want to embrace the sport really haven’t had many places to turn because ice rinks are few and far between in many neighborhoods.
The lack of access and long history of racial tension surrounding the sport have hampered efforts to diversify its ranks.
In 1961, Willie O’Ree, a Canadian who was the first black man to play in the NHL, suited up for the Boston Bruins in a game against the Blackhawks. In his first game at the old Chicago Stadium, he was called the N-word by Hawks winger Eric Nesterenko, O’Ree recounted in the book Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey. Nesterenko then jammed the butt end of his stick into O’Ree’s mouth, leaving him with a broken nose and two missing front teeth.
“It was a shock,” O’Ree recounted. “I had never faced the guy before in my life!”
The incident led to a bench-clearing brawl. O’Ree was taken to the locker room, then got a police escort out of the building.
Nesterenko later said he had no recollection of the incident or of using the racial slur.
The problems persist.
Earlier this season, four Blackhawks fans shouted “basketball, basketball, basketball” at Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly as he sat in the penalty box in a game at the United Center. To me, chanting “basketball” at a black player is the equivalent of calling him the N-word. Those fans told Smith-Pelly that he, and the NHL’s players of color, do not belong.
“It’s obviously a white sport,” Anthony Duclair, the Hawks’ lone black player, said after the incident.
I’m sure there was a nonwhite kid interested in hockey who changed his mind after seeing that footage, saying, “Nah, I’m good.”
That’s a shame, considering there are fewer than three dozen black or biracial players in the NHL. And Team USA’s Olympic hockey team this year had just one black player, Jordan Greenway, the first to be on a U.S. Olympic roster.
The NHL has at times not done much to alter its perception of being an all-white club. The league’s “Hockey for Everyone” campaign featured few players of color, and this year it chose to feature Kid Rock, a Trump-supporting culture vulture, as its All-Star game performer.
Brad Erickson is the founder and executive director of Inner City Education (ICE), a Chicago-based program that provides training and scholarships for city kids to play hockey. Erickson called the jeering of Smith-Pelly an “awful situation, but a teachable moment” for the kids in his program.
The players “talked about how it would make them confused as to why anyone could make bad comments about them without even knowing them. They talked about how silly it is to think all people of any race are the same. They talked about how it could make them feel bad about themselves,” Erickson said.
“We explained that sometimes people fear others out of ignorance, and that it’s a reflection on the person making negative comments, not the person who’s the target of the comments. We explained to our kids that, as much as anything, they should feel sorry for anyone who’s so ignorant or fearful that they would make racist statements toward them,” Erickson said.
Hockey mom Nakia Young of South Shore said she believes the incident involving Smith-Pelly stemmed from fans who felt uncomfortable with the sport’s emerging diversity.
“There’s a line drawn in the sand by people who believe that hockey belongs to them only. This man reached a level of excellence to play professional hockey, and some believe that’s not good enough,” Young said of Smith-Pelly. “Devante handled the incident well. That shows the mental toughness he has to participate in a sport where some folks have taken it upon themselves to decide who and who should not play hockey.”
Young has tried to shield her six-year-old daughter, JordinParker Wilson, and five-year-old son, Hunter Wilson, from that kind of nastiness while they take part in the ICE program.
“I shouldn’t have to prepare them for that because it shouldn’t exist. When it comes to my children, I don’t want them to learn about race in that way, but I know the day is coming where I’m going to have to [prepare them],” Young said.
NHL agent and Evanston native Eustace King represents Smith-Pelly, along with Ducks forward J.T. Brown, the only NHL player to protest police brutality during the national anthem this season.
The 45-year-old King, who said he was the victim of racial taunts when he grew up playing in Chicago’s suburbs, told the Reader that he hopes the incident at the United Center doesn’t deter minority families from exposing their children to hockey.
“As we all know, sometimes the unfortunate things that happen in life happen in sports. Sports is not immune to societal issues, but I don’t think hockey should be tied to that,” he said. “[But] this came out at a hockey game, so people may think that hockey is to blame.”
The truth is, the best way to combat the sport’s diversity issues is to get more players of color on the ice.
I first got excited about hockey watching the Soviet team win the gold during the 1988 Olympics in Calgary when I was ten years old. But even more powerful for me was seeing a picture of the Blackhawks’ Tony McKegney in Jet magazine’s Blacks in Sports section in 1991. Even though McKegney’s stay with the Blackhawks was short, it was all I needed to become a fan.
Representation matters to my community.
But there were cultural barriers too. As a kid from 71st Street, I hid my hockey fandom out of fear of being called a white boy or an Uncle Tom. And as I made my fandom public, I started to hear those familiar tropes about “acting white.”
In South Shore, my friends and I played every sport imaginable except hockey, including baseball, basketball, and football. We were fans of almost every major sport mainly because we saw people like us playing. None of us had ice skates (let alone full hockey gear), and there were no rinks nearby, so hockey was just something we saw occasionally on TV and in video games such as Blades of Steel and NHL ’94. We had zero access to live hockey.
One of the best speed skaters in history had similar problems. Shani Davis became the first black athlete to win a gold medal in an individual event during the 2006 Winter Olympics. Davis was born on the south side and only started skating because his mom worked for an attorney whose son was involved in the sport. He got involved with an Evanston skating club and eventually moved to Rogers Park so he could train in the suburbs because there were so few opportunities for a black skater in the city.
“As there were—and still are—no speed skating clubs in inner-city Chicago, at age 10 Shani and his mother moved to the far north side of the city to be closer to the Evanston rink,” his online bio says.
My experience growing up was very different from that of Chris Bury, 64, a journalist in residence at DePaul University, where I’m also an adjunct instructor. Bury, who’s white, grew up in South Shore and played rat hockey—the equivalent of pickup basketball—during the 1960s and ’70s. He recalled that during the winters, the Chicago Park District made an ice rink by flooding a part of a playground in the 7500 block of South Euclid Avenue—which is about a three-minute walk from where I grew up more than a decade later.
“We played hockey every winter, setting up makeshift goals with sticks, boots, hats, and whatever we could find. It was strictly pickup hockey on the playground—no nets or boards, but it was by far my favorite sport. All of the kids who played hockey then were heavily influenced by the Blackhawks teams of that era, starring Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Phil Esposito, Glenn Hall, and so on,” Bury said.
He also played at an indoor rink at 79th and Loomis started by Michael J.R. Kirby, a Canadian national champion figure skater. That rink closed in the mid-70s, however, before I was born.
There used to be even more places for kids in the city to skate. In the 1920s, the heyday of speed skating in the city, there were 600 rinks, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. The city was a national force in the sport, with Olympians from Chicago including Diane Holum, Ann Henning, Leah Poulos, and Andy Gabel.
But when whites left the city for the suburbs, the rinks left too.
Today, in addition to the city-run Millennium Park ice rink, the Park District maintains just eight outdoor and two indoor rinks in the city—for nearly 2.7 million people. The outdoor rinks are typically open for less than three months a year, with limited hours. Although Johnny’s IceHouse runs two private rinks on Madison Street—one east of the United Center in the West Loop and the other west of Western Avenue on the near west side, there is no ice in huge swaths of the city.
My life trajectory changed after I wrote a column in 2013 for Chicagoside, a now defunct sports website, about being among the few black men who grew up as a hockey fan. A reader reached out and gave me some used hockey gear. I started skating and playing rat hockey at rinks around the city and suburbs, and joined a team at Johnny’s that formed via word of mouth and Reddit. I now play at least twice a week for two teams.
For the most part, I enjoy playing hockey. I realize that black excellence can be anything under the sun. And playing helps me stay active when other black men my age are suffering from hypertension and high blood pressure.
But not everyone has been welcoming to players like me. One of my teammates was called the N-word during a game earlier this year at the Morgan Park Sports Center (which was opened by the Park District in 2015). I’m glad I wasn’t there to witness the ugliness—not because I would have done something to the player, but because racists don’t deserve a second of my time.
I’ve gotten plenty of puzzled looks from other players and spectators that turned into long stares. Even off the ice, people are surprised that I skate: I was wearing a T-shirt from Gunzo’s hockey shop while at my favorite watering hole, the Flat Iron in Wicker Park, when a man asked me where I got the shirt and looked at me in disbelief when I told him I play hockey.
The ICE program is seeking to change that.
When the program started in 2003 it offered scholarships to low-income players already playing hockey. It added its own hockey training program in 2015 with 80 kids, and there are now 150. The kids play at Bobby Hull Community Ice Rink in Cicero, Riis Park in Belmont Cragin, and this year at the new Blackhawks practice facility, the MB Ice Arena, at Jackson and Wood on the near west side. The players come from underperforming schools near the rinks, Erickson said. The program continues to provide academic scholarships as well as tutoring, on-ice training, and equipment.
Young acknowledged there are still barriers that keep many African-Americans from encouraging their kids to take up the sport.
“Parents have to be comfortable in knowing that it’s OK for our kids to play hockey,” she said.
In addition to incidents like the one at the Blackhawks game, other barriers for low-income families include expensive hockey equipment and getting kids to frequent practices at rinks that are often located far away from home.
A project manager at a construction company, Young said she is considering getting a second job.
But overall, the hockey community has welcomed her kids with open arms, Young said. Her kids have been able to enjoy learning the sport, like any other kids, without worrying about deeper societal issues.
“They look forward to finishing up school activities and getting on the ice weekly,” she said. “I never have to remind them to grab anything for hockey; both are always ready to go. I honestly know they are enjoying themselves as they mimic moves they see on television and pick the teams they like based on the ‘fancy’ ice skating and jersey colors,” she said.
Their favorite team, of course, is the Blackhawks. They play at the MB Ice Arena, which is down the street from Suder Montessori Magnet School, the CPS school at Damen and Washington Young’s daughter attends.
“The last three years have been filled with laughter, learning the sport, and bonding,” she said.
The Blackhawks have donated money to the ICE program and sponsored fund-raisers with pro players, and have pledged that the MB Ice Arena will be open for community use more than 90 percent of the time. The team has also opened outdoor roller-hockey rinks at two parks in the city.
King, whose own kids play hockey in California, said the game is going through a metamorphosis.
“You [have] a predominantly white sport where inner-city kids are playing and excelling,” he says. “The game is changing.”
In the African-American community, I no longer hide my enthusiasm for the sport. My interest in hockey used to garner reactions like “What are you doing? That’s a white boy’s sport.” Now, when people see me with my gear, they say, “You play hockey? Go on ‘head, brother.” v
Evan F. Moore is a digital content producer at the Chicago Sun-Times.