Black folks love sports whether if they are playing or watching it. Football and basketball are the two favorites. Baseball is somewhat enjoyable, depending on who’s playing, what time of the season and if blacks are attending the game. Thanks to Tiger Woods, blacks are more drawn to golf than ever before as a ‘hobby’. At one point, blacks would learn to play golf just to help strike business deals. It’s 2009 and NASCAR still has along way to go to get a good black fan base. But hockey? Impossible! Including NASCAR – because of how blacks drive on the highway and up and down the street – blacks have something in common with all the major professional sport leagues. The NHL, (National Hockey League) the sport of hockey alone doesn’t have a connection or appeal to blacks or does it?
The NHL doesn’t have a rich history of black hockey players and that is one of the main reasons why black sports fans don’t follow as much. But black athletes had been participated in hockey since the mid-point of the century. Like the Negro League, a Colored Hockey League was started in Atlantic, Canada. The colored Hockey League was extremely competitive and often defeated all challengers. With the disbandment of the Colored Hockey League, black hockey players and hockey leagues circulated around Canada until the 1950’s – when the NHL began.
“We can excel at any sport we participate in,” said Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black hockey player. “They used to say that hockey was a white man’s game, but that was ridiculous. Owners were told that blacks had weak ankles and were afraid of the cold…anything to keep us out. All we needed was exposure.” O’Ree made history on Jan. 18, 1958 for the Boston Bruins. O’Ree played the wing and was legally blind in his right eye due to an errant puck two years prior his NHL debut, something he kept secret. O’Ree only played in two games for the Bruins before he was sent down to the minors, but returned to the league in 1961. Currently, O’Ree is the Director of Youth Development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force. The NHL’s greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, dominated offensively in the late 80’s for the Edmonton Oilers and his goaltender, Grant Fuhr, help made sure the opponents did not score on them. Fuhr is the only black hockey player in the hall of fame, inducted in 2003 and according to Gretzky, Fuhr is the greatest goaltender ever. Only 18 black players reached the NHL between 1958 to 1991 and currently there are 25 players. After O’Ree made his debut in the NHL, no other black player played in the league until 1974 when Mike Marson was drafted by your truly, the Washington Capitals. That was a good brief history lesson.
The hockey black fan base is increasing and it’s not because they see more black athletes, but the appreciation of the sport. It’s like football on ice – fast pace, hard-hitting, the skill set, the talent, not boring, and yes, the fights (although it’s least of that). According to NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman, sometime ago, the league is working hard to increase the exposure of the sport and enable its fan base to grow and to be more inclusive. Hockey is more of an affordable professional sport to go see with the family.
Locally, chocolate city is feeling the fever and it helps to have a superstar, left wing Alex Ovechkin, in their backyard. The Capitals are on the rise and may be the next professional team in Washington D.C. to win a world championship.
Hockey fans for years have been crying out for more hockey talk on sport talk shows. The attention of the NFL along with the NBA will never change because they are the most popular sports and the NHL season is completely in the middle of them. People probably won’t admit it, but the black culture affects everything. Entertainment, clothes, lifestyle, and sports. More black sports fans are becoming hockey fans and as the black fan base increases, the media must cater to the NHL because the demand for it will be tremendous. The NHL will never over take the NFL and NBA because there is still a demographic tie and cultural different (it’s an expensive sport to get children involved in, lack of ice staking rings in the urban cities and the bottom half of North America has a warm climate). The NHL could easily become the third best professional sport league, it a blue-collar, fast pace and the excitement of hockey does appeals to blacks.