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'Soul On Ice' explores journey of black hockey players

Tony McKegney felt lucky to be drafted by the Buffalo Sabres. Western New York was bound to be a good place for him to make his National Hockey League debut. They had the Buffalo Bills. They had the Buffalo Braves. They were accepting of professional athletes of color even if hockey was still played predominately by white Canadian men.

“In my journey I was very lucky to go to Buffalo. If I went to some other place, like Atlanta, my experience would have been very different,” said McKegney, who was drafted by the Sabres in 1978 and played his first four NHL seasons in Buffalo. “I was very well accepted in Buffalo by comparison. I thought the people of Buffalo had the experience of having black football players coming from other areas to play in Buffalo and the same with basketball players. I just felt like I was very fortunate to go to a place like Buffalo. It was really welcoming to me.”

That welcoming experience has not been universal for black hockey players which is why McKegney was on his way to Buffalo Wednesday morning. The veteran of 912 NHL games is part of a new documentary “Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future” and was part of a screening and discussion Wednesday at the Amherst Dipson Theatre. Proceeds benefitted Hasek's Heroes).

The heart of the film is the story of 21-year-old Jaden Lindo as he chases his dream to play in the NHL. Lindo, a native of Brampton, Ont., was drafted in the sixth round by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2014. This season he is playing for the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League.

The film features in-depth interviews with current and former NHL players including Wayne Simmonds, McKegney, Grant Fuhr and Val James.

The legacy of hockey players of color in the NHL begins with Willie O’Ree. He became the first black NHL player when he suited up for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 18, 1958.

When McKegney came around 20 years later, he understood his experience was profoundly different.

“His story is pretty special,” McKegney said of O’Ree. “To do that in a time when he basically was in a different hotel and had trouble just riding on a bus, it’s amazing to think about what he went through. Compared to my situation, I was treated royally by the people of Buffalo. I did run into some racial things in certain arenas, but it was certainly very minute in comparison to what Willie O’Ree went through.”

By the time McKegney played in the NHL, he was able to open even more doors for younger players and create some level of acceptance for young black players who could point to McKegney and his contemporaries as success stories.

“One of the nicest things I hear from young people is they felt because I was there playing they felt they could be accepted in hockey,” McKegney said. “Again, it was an oddity for a young kid when I first started playing in the late ’70s. I got a lot of feedback from people in Canada that they were accepted in the school yard or outdoor rink because they could point to me as being a person of color playing in the National Hockey League. That’s the biggest compliment for me.”

Charles Williams remembers playing in a Willie O’Ree camp in Detroit. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

That legacy continues a generation later.

Canisius senior goaltender Charles Williams remembers growing up in Detroit, Mich., and attending a Willie O’Ree hockey program called “Hockey in the Hood.” There may not be many black NHL players, Williams noted, but most give back to their communities to help create opportunities for others to play.

“I think it’s great that the African-American players in the NHL do a lot,” Williams said. “I think that means a lot to the African-American community. The little things they do mean a lot in the long run.

“I was just enjoying the moment, skating with the guys,” Williams said of participating in O’Ree’s weeklong camp. “A lot of guys, they don’t have a whole lot. They looked at me and I was playing Triple-A at the time and they were saying ‘Oh look at this kid. He’s doing this and that.’ That meant a lot to me. It kind of brings me back. I know I have to work hard every day because I know there are some guys who may not have that opportunity to continue to play because of money and all that kind of stuff.”

Money may be the biggest road block for athletes of color choosing hockey. It can cost upwards of $5,000 per year for a youth player.

“The one thing you have to remember is that hockey is not a cheap sport to play,” McKegney said. “Equipment is very expensive. Ice time is very expensive for the average person. For a young black person it’s so much easier to pick up a basketball and a pair of running shoes and go to a public court. Hockey is not cheap to play.”

While families are finding ways to make it work financially, individual players are working to overcome the racial slurs which continue to follow them through rinks across North America.

“I know a lot of younger players playing today or have since retired that were thinking about quitting the game because of the verbal abuse they received,” McKegney said. “They didn’t turn back. They stayed with it and continued on although there some rough times for a lot of younger people in hockey rinks because of verbal abuse thrown upon them stands.”

Nevertheless, they persisted. Today there are more than 30 players of color in the NHL and the sport that was once 98 percent Canadian has diversified in large part thanks to an increasing European influence. And, McKegney notes, all it will take is one breakout superstar of color to potentially change the face of hockey in sweeping ways.

“I think hockey can be a brutal sport from a lot of angles but I think the Europeans came in and the Americans came in … and the numbers changed into more of a global sport,” McKegney said. “That changed of a lot for the good. I just think one day that one player that’s a Michael Jordan-type athlete that gets introduced to hockey, that’s going to be a superstar player in the NHL will change things. More people will be exposed to the game.”

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