A few years ago, when Anson Carter still played in the NHL, he approached a New York Times reporter with a polite but serious request. “Please ask your editors to stop referring to me as ‘African-American,’” Carter said.
Sure, but why? “Because I’m not African,” Carter said with a smile, “and I’m not American.” Carter is black and played for Michigan State, but grew up Canadian in the Toronto area.
“If they insist on giving you a racial, ethnic or national category,” Carter was asked, “what should it be?” Carter paused, nodded and smiled. “Coloured-Carribean-Canadian!” he declared.
Carter chuckled at that recollection this week while discussing Seth Jones, the biracial junior defenceman expected to be chosen early in the first round of the NHL entry draft Sunday in Newark, N.J.
Jones, the son of an African-American basketball player and a white mother, is likely to be the highest draft choice of African-American descent – perhaps first overall, if selected by the Colorado Avalanche (he grew up in Denver).
Fifty years ago, or even 25, it would have seemed far-fetched to imagine an African-American going that high in the hockey draft – as improbable, perhaps, as an African-American getting twice elected president of the United States.
But cultures evolve. Contemporary North American professional hockey – with English Canadians, French Canadians, Americans, Russians, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, Slovaks and many more – is the most ethnically diverse of the four major team sports. So is hockey ready for an African-American superstar? Carter is optimistic.
“Seth will take it to another level,” said Carter, an NBC Sports cable hockey host. “He’ll help open the eyes and help bring credibility and awareness to African-American athletes. When they see a player of their own that’s born and raised and trained Stateside, I think it’ll be a great thing.”
Jones said this week he will understand if the Avalanche do not select him first overall, even though Colorado’s executive vice-president, Joe Sakic, helped steer Jones to hockey.
When Sakic starred for the Avs, and Jones’s father, Popeye, played for the Denver Nuggets of the NBA, Popeye asked Sakic what to do because his sons liked hockey, which captivated Denver in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Sakic told Popeye to get them on skates as soon as possible. This, Popeye did. So it would seem to be kismet for Sakic’s Avs to draft Jones, a still growing 6-foot-4, 210-pound right-handed shooter who played last season for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League and for the United States’ championship team at the world junior tournament in Russia.
But Sakic said recently the Avs need young forwards more than defencemen. Jones said he has not talked with Sakic about it and appreciates his calculations.
“If they don’t pick me, I’m not going to take it personally,” Jones said. “I completely understand it. They have to do what’s best for their team.”
Jones was more expansive Friday at a press reception along the Hudson River, expressing surprise that Avs coach Patrick Roy spoke so openly about drafting centre Nathan MacKinnon of Halifax with the top pick.
“First time in a long time that probably anyone’s come out like that,” Jones said, adding that “it would have been a cool story for everyone” to have been drafted by his hometown team.
He said he saw the Avs clinch the 2001 Stanley Cup from a front-row seat his dad got for him. “That’s the moment that I wanted to be a hockey player,” Jones said, “and raise the Cup myself.”
At first Jones said he had no conversations with Colorado, then corrected himself by saying a member of the team’s management visited him and his parents in Texas last week for dinner. But neither Sakic nor Roy was there.
In that the Florida Panthers have the second pick, Jones will meet with them before the draft on Saturday, he said. “Obviously, I have a pretty good chance of playing there,” Jones said.
Another black defenceman rated in the top five is Darnell Nurse of Hamilton, who played for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. He is related by marriage to football player Donovan McNabb, but Nurse is Canadian.
Jones, asked about being a trailblazer for African-Americans, said he embraces the role.
“Yes, I do, not just on the ice but also off the ice,” he said. “Helping the community and being a role model for kids to look up to. And if they play hockey as well, that’s awesome.”
Until now, the highest-drafted black player is Evander Kane of the Winnipeg Jets, a Canadian chosen fourth overall in the first round by Atlanta in 2009. The highest-drafted African-American player from the United States was Kyle Okposo of the New York Islanders, chosen seventh overall by them in 2006.
Last season, according to the NHL, the league had four African-American players, down from a high of seven in 2009-10. There were 22 black players (of all nationalities), down from a high of 26 in 2009-10.
But the trend is positive in other ways. A black Canadian – P.K. Subban – won the Norris trophy as best defenceman, a first for the NHL. His brother, Jordan, is ranked 55th among North American defencemen in the Sunday draft. Their brother, Malcolm, is a junior goalie for the Belleville Bulls, selected by the Boston Bruins 24th overall last summer.
Another milestone this year was the naming of Bryce Salvador of the New Jersey Devils as the third black captain in league history. And the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks have three black players, the most ever on a Cup champion. The most black players ever on one team was five, the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010-11 and the Edmonton Oilers of 2000-01.
Discussions of hockey’s black history often begin with Willie O’Ree and Herb Carnegie. O’Ree, the league’s first black, was a Canadian who broke in with the Boston Bruins in 1958.
Carnegie, also a black Canadian, was in his prime a decade before O’Ree and became a star of the Quebec Aces in the Quebec Senior Hockey League. Carnegie was offered only a minor-league contract by the New York Rangers in 1948.
Carnegie died at 91 on March 9, 2012. Three years before, at 88, he told CBC in a television interview that when he was 18, the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Conn Smythe, wanted him to play for the team “if someone could turn him white.”
“How would you feel?” Carnegie said, recalling his memory of hearing about this. “I can’t forget it because he cut my knees off, he broke my legs.” Carnegie, blind by the time of the CBC interview, began to weep through sightless eyes.
But Canada’s black hockey history precedes Carnegie and O’Ree. Historians George and Darril Fosty, in their book Black Ice, researched the “Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes,” started in 1895 and based in the community of Africville in Halifax.
The peak of the league, they said, was 1903 through 1906, when four to six teams competed. A 1903 newspaper ad touts the “COLORED HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP” of Feb. 26 between the Eurekas and the Seasides.
Perhaps the best black hockey player has been goalie Grant Fuhr, a Canadian and the first black member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. He played for Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers when they dominated the league in the late 1980s.
In a 1982 book by journalist Stan Fischler, Fuhr said he felt worried before the 1981 draft about his race and destination. “If I had been drafted by a team with a large black population, they could have used it as a promotional thing,” Fuhr said. “I think that would have been hard on me.”
Thirty-two years later, Jones and his agent, Pat Brisson, have no such fears. Jones recently signed on for equipment endorsements, Brisson said. “He’s a great communicator,” Brisson added. “He’s got great self-confidence.”
But Brisson reacted emphatically to a recent report that Roc Nation Sports, headed by rap artist Jay-Z, would meet with Jones’s family and Brisson of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) at the draft and try to woo Jones for marketing.
Jay-Z has already signed baseball star Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees and basketball star Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Brisson said that while Jay-Z has a partnership agreement with CAA and will be given a hearing “at the appropriate time,” nothing is promised regarding Jay-Z representing Jones.
“Absolutely, I just want to clarify that,” Brisson said in a telephone interview.
When Brisson’s office set up a telephone interview with Jones last week, it was specifically requested that Jones not be asked about Jay-Z, an aggressive and multidimensional force in African-American entertainment.
Both Jones and Brisson said Jones has sensed no racism in hockey, although he learned something of the past by watching the film 42 about Jackie Robinson and by talking with O’Ree. They met in Boston at the Stanley Cup final; Nurse was there, too.
“I thought it was a great movie,” Jones said. “Obviously, I didn’t grow up in that time and the kind of thing that he went through. Similar to Willie [O’Ree].”
Hockey is not without tribal attitudes and ethnic stereotypes. O’Ree remembers when black skaters were thought to have weak ankles. In a more serious vein, he remembers fans in American cities treating him worse than in Canada, telling him to go South and pick cotton.
There were no more black players in the NHL until 1974, when Mike Marson and Billy Riley joined the Washington Capitals. Since then, there have been occasional racist incidents as black participation has grown.
A serious episode came in 1997-98 when Chris Simon of Washington used a racial slur against Mike Grier of Edmonton. Simon is an Ojibway native. “That’s what was strange to me,” Grier said at the time. “This was someone who has his background and his race.”
Simon flew to Toronto to apologize to Grier and was suspended for three games. In an exhibition game in September of 2011, a fan in London, Ont., threw a banana at Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers. At the time, Simmonds said: “It’s something I obviously have to deal with, being a black player playing in a predominantly white sport.”
Of course, no one culture or country dominates any sport, as Canada learned in 1972 when it barely beat the Soviet Union 4-3-1 in the Summit Series. That historical triumph came a quarter-century after Robinson integrated the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 after playing the season before with the Montreal Royals.
In the next couple of decades, baseball was dominated by black superstars like Willie Mays, Bob Gibson and Hank Aaron. But the sport faces a minor crisis now as black American kids drift into other sports.
Years ago, if there were two Latin-American players on a baseball team, they were discouraged from conversing in their own language in the clubhouse. Now, the room’s banter and song lyrics are likely to be in Spanish, overheard but not always understood by white players, black players and an increasing number of Asian teammates.
And sometimes the shift of undercurrents in a sports culture can show up in unexpected places, like television commercials. A current TV ad for Powerade sports drink shows various (and anonymous) young athletes who achieve beyond the expectations of others.
The commercial shows football, basketball, wrestling and hockey. No surprise there, except the hockey player is black. “In the wrong sport?” he says to the camera in a challenging tone of voice.
The young man has no further speaking lines, but camera cuts show him throwing a hard body check and scoring a goal, the last scene in the commercial. Perhaps through market research and focus groups, the ad people have seen the future and it looks like Jones, who came of age in the era of Barack Obama and Tiger Woods.
“Maybe the world’s changing,” Jones said.