According to an article in USA Today, 97% of the current players in the NHL are white, while the remaining 3% consists of different ethnicities. Of this small 3% group – 26 are black; 20 of which are from Canada with the other 6 being African-American.
Where It All Began | Willie O’Ree (NHL career 1958-1979)
In 1958, Canadian-born Willie O’Ree became the first player of African descent to join the NHL. Having played a short career, 45 games, O’Ree was challenged with an abundance of racism after having been recalled from the Canadian minor leagues. In his stint in the minors, Willie recalled the racism he faced as ‘predominantly muted’. But, once he entered the NHL level, the racial slurs and remarks by hostile fans and other players became prominent. While playing in the US, he recounted an incident where Chicago Blackhawks forward, Eric Nesterenko, yelled racial slurs at him and even hit O’Ree with the butt-end of his stick. This drew fights between both benches and resulted in Willie requiring police escort to leave the arena safely. O’Ree indicated his brother was his main inspiration to become the first black hockey player.
[the racial slurs] …would go in one ear, and out the other.”Willie O’Ree on the racial slurs hurled at him
Willie O’Ree would go on to be named the “Jack Robinson” of hockey within the NHL community.
Val James (NHL career 1977-1988)
In 1977, the first American-born player of African decent, Val James, was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the 16th round, 184th overall after playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) for two seasons. He would go on to play several seasons in the Eastern Hockey League (EHL) and would never dress for the Red Wings. On July 22, 1981, Val signed with the Buffalo Sabres and would make his NHL debut during the 1981-82 season, playing in just seven games. In 1983, James would make history again, this time scoring the winning goal for the AHL’s Rochester Americans in the Calder Cup. In 1986-87, Val James returned to the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs where he played four games. James would end up accumulating only 11 regular season NHL games, before being forced to retire following a shoulder injury in 1988. He went on to teach hockey for 10 years, before deciding to leave the sports world altogether and retiring to Niagara Falls, Ontario with his wife while working part-time at a water park as part of a maintenance crew.
Grant Fuhr (NHL career 1981-2000)
Grant Fuhr entered the NHL as the first black goalie in the league in 1981, after being drafted 8th overall by the Edmonton Oilers. He went on to play ten seasons in Edmonton and reached another milestone becoming the first black player to ever win a Stanley Cup in 1984. He went on to win three additional Stanley Cups with the Oilers between the 1983-84 and 1987-88 seasons. Fuhr would then play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, LA Kings, St. Louis Blues, and the Calgary Flames before retiring in 2000. In 2003, he became the first black player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Angela James (playing career 1980-2000)
Angela James has been referred to as “the first superstar of modern women’s hockey” and was considered a pioneer who brought the women’s game to its forefront. She played at the highest levels of senior hockey between 1980 and 2000 having played for several teams in the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League (COWHL) from 1980 to 1998 and ending her career in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). On an international level, James played in the first Women’s World Championship in 1987 and represented Team Canada as the first black captain for a Canadian National Team in the first IIHF World Women’s Championship in 1990; setting a scoring record of 11 goals while leading Team Canada to a gold medal. She played in three more world championships with Canada – winning gold medals in 1992, 1994, and 1997. In 2008, she was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame alongside Cammi Granato (USA) and Geraldine Heaney (Canada) and in 2010, Angela was on of the first two women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
She is a women’s hockey hero who continues to inspire young players across the country. For me, she will always be the Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey.”Bob Nicholson, President & CEO of Hockey Canada
Jay Sharrers (NHL officiating career 1990-2016)
Jay Sharrers made his NHL debut as a linesman in 1990 at the age of 22 in a game between the Boston Bruins and the Quebec Nordiques. On April 1 2001, he made NHL history becoming the first black referee to officiate a game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Florida Panthers. He also worked the Stanley Cup Finals seven times between 1999 and 2013 as well as the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Where It Is Today
Jarome Iginla, Johnny Oduya, P.K. Subban, Malcolm Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Darnell Nurse, Anthony Duclair, Seth Jones, Akim Aliu, Ryan Reaves, Evander Kane, Quinton Byfield, Mikyla Grant-Mentis – these are just some of the names most of us have grown to watch in modern-day hockey.
Jarome Iginla (NHL career 1996-2017)
Jarome Iginla is the Calgary Flames all-time leader in goals, points, and games played. He became the first black NHL player to win the Art Ross Trophy (leading points scorer) and the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer) in 2002. In 2002, as a member of the Canadian men’s hockey team at the Winter Olympics, he became the first black male to win any gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
P.K. Subban (New Jersey Devils, NHL)
In 2013, P.K. Subban became the first black player to win the James Norris Memorial – awarded to the league’s best defenseman in the NHL.
Wayne Simmonds (Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL)
In 2017, Wayne Simmonds became the first black player to be awarded the NHL All-Star Game MVP award. He scored three goals on eight shots, including the game-winner for the Metropolitan Division. In 2019, he was also awarded the Mark Messier Leadership Award which recognizes an individual as a superior leader in their sport and as a contributing member of society.
Quinton Byfield (LA Kings, NHL)
In the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, Quinton Byfield became the highest-ever selected black player in a NHL entry draft after being selected 2nd overall in the first round by the Los Angeles Kings.
Mikyla Grant-Mentis (Toronto Six, NWHL)
In May 2020, Mikyla Grant-Mentis signed with the Toronto Six expansion team in the NWHL. The team started their first season in the league with back-to-back losses against the Metropolitan Riveters and the Minnesota Whitecaps having been out-scored 9-5 in the two games. However, since then, the team is on a hot streak having gone 4-0 and sit atop the standings. Part of the team’s success can been credited to forward Mikyla Grant-Mentis who leads the team with 5G and 9 points over 6GP including 2 game-winning goals.