Not even Gary Bettman knew the name of the first black hockey player in the National Hockey League when he became league commissioner in 1993.
Bettman has since hired Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s color barrier when he skated for the Boston Bruins in 1958, as a league ambassador, part of what the league is doing to make its game more diverse.
The NHL was the last major U.S. sports league to integrate and still the whitest. Just 92 other black hockey players have followed O’Ree onto NHL teams. This season, just over 2% of the league’s 775 or so players are black. That compares to 70% of pro football players and a 41% diversity mark in Major League Baseball.
The NHL is taking steps to highlight the history of black athletes in the game, trying to create more interest in hockey among minorities while continuing to respond to racial incidents.
Bettman told the story of learning about O’Ree and later bringing him back into the league during the All-Star Game weekend in St. Louis.
“Bringing more people with different backgrounds into the game just makes us, as a game and, frankly, as a business to the game, stronger,” Bettman said during a diversity-in-hockey panel discussion at a Boys and Girls Club in the mostly black suburbs north of St. Louis.
Parked outside was the league’s newish black hockey history mobile museum. The shiny tractor-trailer is painted with images of several black players. On the inside, visitors can view the jersey O’Ree wore in his first game, and try to answer some trivia.
Black players in hockey say racial taunts by fans are still a part of the game. In 2017-2018 season Washington’s Devante Smith-Pelly was heckled by fans while sitting in the penalty box in Chicago. Former player Jamal Mayers says it’s gotten easier to speak out about racism.
“I think that I tolerated a lot of things to be quite honest that I think that I just assumed that’s the way it is. But I don’t believe that’s the way it has to be,” said Mayers, who spoke to NPR following the panel.
Last fall, former NHL forward Akim Aliu, who was born in Nigeria, shared stories of hearing racial epithets and enduring blackface while in the minor leagues. In response, Bettman announced mandatory diversity training for the league and set up a whistleblower hotline.
“If there are inappropriate acts and incidents, they’re going to be addressed and punished,” Bettman said. “But more important than punishment is education, and training and counseling so that people understand what’s right and what’s wrong.”
The NHL is driving its mobile history museum to NHL cities for the second winter in an effort to put a spotlight on its black players. On the day of the All-Star Game, it was parked next to a small outdoor rink a few blocks from the Enterprise Center in downtown St. Louis.
Inside the narrow trailer lined with photos and memorabilia, Anthony Duclair, one of two black players on this year’s All-Star team, got a private tour along with some other players.
The museum tells the history of the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes that formed in 1895 in Nova Scotia and highlights the contributions by those black players, such as the slapshot and butterfly goalie stance.
The players a chance to autograph their pictures on a wall representing every black player in the league.
“Even for myself, you know, I didn’t really know a bunch of these guys until today, so we’re all learning together,” Duclair said.
Once the museum opened to the public, Trey Hobson was among those who wandered in. Hobson, 22, said he grew up jealous of the hockey programs at private and suburban high schools.
“I’d be going out and see them playing hockey, like ‘I really wanna play hockey,’” he said.
Hobson, a self-described huge Blues hockey fan, said he only knew of one black player before going through the museum.
Later, Karon Jones came with his grandparents. Jones, who’s 8, said he prefers football over hockey. He’s tried skating once but said it’s hard.
He read aloud much of the museum for his family, getting help with pronouncing “Bruins.”
“I learned that famous black hockey players helped others and worked as a team,” he said.
After inching their way to the end of the museum and down the steps at the back of the trailer, his grandparents rented him a pair of skates at the outdoor rink so he could give skating another try.