The Way it Was: Black players locked out of the NHL from 1961-74


Written by Bob Dawson – Boxscore

August 4, 2013 (ISN) – Integration in the NHL was a long time in coming. Known as the “Jackie Robinson” of hockey, Willie O’Ree was the first Black to play in the NHL. He made his historic debut with the Boston Bruins on January18, 1958 in a game against the Montreal Canadiens.

O’Ree appeared in only 2 games that year before returning to the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League. He later rejoined the Bruins in the 1960-1961 season where he played in 43 games, scoring 4 goals and assisting on 10 others. O’Ree was later traded to the Bruins’ arch-rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. For whatever reason, he never played a single game with the Canadiens. Thus ended O’Ree’s hockey career at the NHL level.

There was some thought among Blacks playing semi and minor- professional hockey in the late 1950s and early 1960s that when O’Ree took to the ice in the NHL in 1958 that it would immediately open the door for other Black players. This simply did not happen. It would be 13 years later before another Black would play in the NHL in 1974.

Reflections and Deflections

Since the founding of the NHL in 1917, league officials claimed that the NHL never had any restrictions with respect to race and if there ever were Black players good enough to play in the league, they would get their chance. After Willie O’Ree’s brief stay in the NHL one has to ask, why the 13- year hiatus before another Black plays in the league? Was it a matter of “protectionism” on the part of the NHL establishment to keep the jobs for “white players” even though in many cases they were less talented than the Black players? Was it fear and the prospect of change? Or was it blatant racism?

Some apologists for the absence of Blacks in the NHL between 1961 and 1974 contend that Canada’s Black population at the time was too small to produce a sufficient number of players from which the NHL teams could recruit. Others claimed that there were only 6 teams (Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs) and about 100 hockey- playing jobs available in the league. On that point, Hockey Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau said “There was maybe 100 players in the league. They were there as long as they were doing the work.”

Contrary to the prevailing views, this writer is of the opinion that “racism” was the key factor in keeping the NHL an “all-white” league between 1961 and 1974. It’s important to note that there were, in fact, a number of highly talented Black players, during that period, showcasing their skills in semi and minor-professional hockey leagues in both Canada and the United States (U.S.). They were grinders, smooth skating-playmakers, and goal-scorers, who dispelled the racist myths or beliefs about Blacks having ankles too weak to skate effectively and that they lacked both the intelligence and skills to play the game. Yet, they were systematically denied the opportunity to play in the so-called “open and racist-free” NHL, while less gifted and talented white players moved on to play in hockey’s premier league.

Speaking of the Players

The better-known Black players for whom information and hockey statistics were readily available are identified below. As it happens, the individuals are from Nova Scotia, the home of the historic Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes which is credited with such innovations as the “slap-shot” and “goaltending technique” of going down on the ice to stop the puck that have revolutionized the modern game of hockey.

Frank “Danky” Dorrington:

Born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Dorrington had a stellar hockey career. It began in 1952-1953 with the Northside Junior Franklins of the Cape Breton Junior Hockey League where he won the league scoring title and the team went on to win the Maritime Junior Hockey Championship.

Between 1954 and 1958 Dorrington played in the Maritime Senior Hockey League (MSHL) first with the Moncton Hawks and then the Miramichi Beavers. In his rookie season (1953-1954) with the Hawks, the team won the Maritime Senior Hockey and Eastern Canadian Championships and made it to the Allen Cup finals. He spent the 1955-1956 season with the Fredericton Capitals where he posted 70 points (24 goals and 46 assists). As a Miramichi Beaver in 1956-1957, Dorrington earned the team’s MVP and was the runner-up for the league MVP, and led the league in scoring with 40 goals. The following year with the Beavers he was their MVP as well as the league’s MVP.

Dorrington went on to play minor-professional hockey in the U.S. with the Johnstown Jets of the Eastern Hockey League (EHL) from 1958-1960 where in 128 games he racked-up 92 points (31 goals and 61 assists) and helped the team win the league championship in 1959-1960. While there, he was voted the fans’ favorite player two years in a row. Although the Jets weren’t affiliated with any of the NHL teams at that time, Dorrington didn’t receive any offers to sign with NHL teams like other teammates.

After a successful stint in the EHL, Dorrington returned to the MSHL to play for the Amherst Ramblers in 1960-1961. There, he recorded 64 points (36 goals and 28 assists) and guided the Ramblers to the Eastern Canada Allan Cup Finals where they were defeated 4 games to none by the Galt Terriers from Ontario.

Later, Dorrington returned to semi-professional hockey and joined the Corner Brook Royals in 1961 of the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League (NSHL). He spent the next 12 seasons with the team. In 340 games, Dorrington scored 349 goals and added 529 assists for an impressive 878 points. He won the league scoring title 3 times and was the runner-up in 4 of his seasons. As a player-coach, he led the Royals to 4 provincial senior hockey championships and 4 Herder Cup victories during the 1960s. Despite his illustrious career in the NSHL, Dorrington, unlike many other players in the league, did not get offers to sign with NHL teams.

In 1969, Dorrington was voted Athlete of the Year in Corner Brook and in1973, “Frank Dorrington Day” was declared by the Mayor and Town Council of Corner Brook, making him the only athlete so honored. He was voted in 1985 as the best import player to ever play in Newfoundland. Dorrington’s jersey number (17) was retired in 1973 and hung in the old Humber Memorial Gardens. He was inducted into the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall of Fame (1988), the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame (2005) and the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame (2007).

Stan “Chook” Maxwell:

A native of Truro, Nova Scotia, Chook was one of the first Blacks to play professional hockey. In 1955-1956, he made a name for himself, as a slick playmaker and goal scorer, in the Quebec Junior League with the Quebec Citadels, Montreal Royals, and Three Rivers Flames. Next, he played in the Quebec Senior League for Chicoutimi in 1955-56 where he tallied 24 points (12 goals and 12 assists).

At the age of 20, Chook signed a contract in 1956 with Punch Imlach to turn professional with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League, which was the farm team for the Boston Bruins. He played with Quebec as did Willie O’Ree until 1959 and held his own on the ice against such hockey legends as Gordie Howe, Jean
Beliveau and Henri Richard. Chook along with O’Ree was invited to the Bruins’ training camp in 1957 and 1958. While less skilled players were promoted to the parent NHL team, he was not. O’Ree got called up to the Bruins on January 18, 1958 for the first time. In his time with Quebec, Chook recorded 135 points (60 goals and 75 assists).

Before continuing his hockey career south of the border, Chook played in the Eastern Professional Hockey League (EPHL) with the Kingston Frontenacs (1959-1961) and Hull-Ottawa Canadiens (1961-1962). In his stint with the Frontenacs, he was one of the team’s top scorers with 56 goals and 75 assists for 131 points. Chook and O’Ree, as it would happen, both played together with Kingston, a farm team for the Boston Bruins, and Hull-Ottawa, a farm team for the Montreal Canadiens.

In following his dream to one-day play in the NHL, Chook went on to play for the Los Angeles Blades (1961-65) of the Western Hockey League (WHL) where he again played with O’Ree. The 1962-1963 season was his most productive, scoring 17 goals and collecting 35 assists for 52 points. In his 4 seasons with the team, Chook recorded 45 goals and 67 assists for 112 points.

From Los Angeles, Chook moved on to the Toledo Blades (1966-1971) of the International Hockey League (IHL), which was the farm team for the Los Angeles Kings. His first 3 seasons would prove to be Chook’s most productive and really set him apart from many of the players in the league. He led the league in scoring 3 years in a row in 1966-1967 (97 points – 44 goals, 53 assists,), 1967-1968 (78 points – 34 goals, 44 assists,), and 1968-1969 (83 points – 34 goals, 49 assists,). In his 5 years with Toledo, Chook scored 140 goals and collected 194 assists for 334 points and helped the team win the IHL Championship in 1966-1967.

Due to a back injury in 1971, Chook retired from hockey. In the period leading up to and during the NHL’s expansion in 1967-1968, he had 247 goals and assisted on 348 others for 595 points. Despite Chook’s scoring prowess, none of the original and NHL expansion teams showed an interest in him particularly, when he played with teams in the EPHL, WHL and IHL.

Chook was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame (1980), Colchester County Sport Hall of Fame (1987), and Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame (2006).

John Mentis:

Born in Truro, Nova Scotia, John not only excelled in baseball, but hockey as well. Described by many as a smooth and gifted player with great speed, he played with the Truro Juvenile Bearcats and the 1955-1956 Brookfield Elks in the Truro District Hockey League. After helping the Elks capture both the Truro District and Nova Scotia Rural Hockey League Championships, John’s hockey skills and talent caught the attention of the NHL’s Boston Bruins.

At the age of 18, John was invited to the Bruins’ training camp in 1956 in Quebec City with the Quebec Aces, a Bruins’ farm team. The Bruins shipped John off to the Chicoutimi Saguenees making him one of the first Blacks to play in the Quebec Junior Hockey League. In 1957, he was invited back to the Bruins’ training camp in Quebec City, which was also attended by Stan “Chook” Maxwell and Willie O’Ree, who played with the Quebec Aces. From there, John was traded to Jonquiere of the Saguenay-Lac St. Jean Junior Hockey League and led the team to a second place finish. In 1958, the Bruins invited him back to training camp. Since John did not make the roster of the Quebec Aces, he ended up playing with Magog of the Eastern Townships Senior Hockey League. After that, he, unfortunately, never heard from the Bruins again.

From 1959 to 1965, John played for the Granby Victorias of the Quebec Eastern Provincial Hockey League (QEPHL) where he would make a name for himself in senior hockey circles. In1960-1961, he was instrumental in leading Granby to the Quebec Senior Hockey Championship. The team went on to represent the league in the Eastern Canada Allan Cup Playoffs where they lost in the semi-finals 3 games to 1 to the Amherst Ramblers from Nova Scotia.

Often times, when Granby failed to make the league playoffs, other QEPHL teams vying for the Canadian Allan Cup recruited John to play for them. He played with the Montreal Olympics in 1961-1962, which advanced to the Cup final where they lost 4 games to 1 to the Trail Smoke Eaters from British Columbia. In 1962-1963, John skated with the Sherbrooke Beavers who made it to the semi-finals of the Eastern Canada Allan Cup Playoffs and lost to the Moncton Hawks from New Brunswick 3 games to none.

On finishing the regular season as one of Granby’s top scorers with 36 points (11 goals and 25 assists), John led the team in scoring during the 1963-1964 playoffs against the Sherbrooke Beavers to capture the league title. The team advanced to the Quebec senior hockey playoffs where they played the Montreal Boisclair of the Metro Montreal Senior League. Due to financial difficulties, Granby withdrew from the playoff series and Boisclair was declared the winner and went on to the Eastern Canada Allan Cup Playoffs.

From Granby, John went on to play with the Victoriaville Tigers of the Quebec Provincial Senior Hockey League (QPSHL) from 1965 to 1971. In 1965-1966, John was invited along with players from other Quebec senior hockey teams to play with Scotty Bowman’s Montreal Junior Canadians in an exhibition game against the Russian National Team, which they lost.

About the time the NHL first expanded in 1967, John, who was 29, was the second leading scorer in the QPSHL. Rudy Pilous, who was the General Manager of the expansion California Seals, contacted John and asked him if he would be interested in attending a tryout camp for the team. Naturally, he said “yes”, but never heard from Pilous again. Although the other expansion teams struggled to fill their rosters, he never received a call from NHL teams. Twelve players from the QPSHL did sign contracts that year with NHL teams, including some over 30, but John wasn’t one of them.

In 1967-1968, John finished the regular season with 41 points on 13 goals and 28 assists. He then led Victoriaville past the Drummondville Wings to win the Quebec senior hockey crown and eventually advance to the Canada Allan Cup Finals beating the St. Boniface Mohawks from Manitoba 4 games to 1 to win the Cup.

The 1968-1969 season was a busy one for John. He led Victoriaville to the Quebec senior hockey title over the Chicoutimi Sagueneens to advance to the Eastern Canada Allan Cup Playoffs where they were defeated 4 games to 2 against the Galt Hornets from Ontario. To strengthen their hockey team, the Montreal Olympics recruited John to play in an exhibition game against the touring Russian National Team. The Russians won 4 to 2. In addition, Victoriaville was selected to represent Canada at the Ahearne Cup in Sweden. Despite loosing 4 games to 2, he was selected “Player of the Game” for his outstanding play in one of the matches.

After the QPSHL folded, Victoriaville was the only senior team left in Quebec in 1969-1970 and by default advanced to the Eastern Canada Allan Cup Playoffs. John and his teammates lost 4 games to 2 to the Orillia Terriers from Ontario.

When the senior leagues in Quebec folded, John subsequently retired from hockey. Sadly, despite his outstanding hockey talents and exploits, he, like many other Black players, was denied the opportunity to play in the NHL. In light of his sporting feats in hockey as well as baseball, John was inducted into the Colchester County Sport Hall of Fame in Truro, Nova Scotia in 2009.

Alton White:

Born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, White moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba as a child with his parents. It was there that he would begin a career in hockey. White played with the Winnipeg Rangers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League from 1962 to 1965. In light of his successful season in junior in 1964-1965, where he posted 51 points (22 goals and 29 assists), this led to a brief stint with the St. Paul Rangers in Minnesota of the Central Professional Hockey League.

From Minnesota, White cracked the roster of the Fort Wayne Komets of the International Hockey League (IHL). In his first and only season (1963-1964) with the team he recorded 17 goals and assisted on 25 others. The IHL’s Columbus Checkers picked up White for the 1966-1967 season. He scored 66 points on 24 goals and 42 assists. Pleased with his play, Columbus resigned him for the 1967-1968 season and White didn’t disappoint by scoring 37 goals and collecting 38 assists for 75 points. As a result, the team brought him back for the 1968-1969 season. It proved to be his best season yet as White put up 35 goals along with 50 assists for 85 points.

Impressed with his scoring in the IHL, the Providence Reds of the American Hockey League (AHL) initially signed White for the playoff run at the end of the 1968-1969 regular season. The team reached the playoffs and ended up signing him for the next 3 seasons (1969 to 1972). White demonstrated his scoring ability with 48, 61, and 64 points respectively over the 3 seasons, totaling 173 points (83 goals and 90 assists). With his 64 points in the 1971-1972 season, he finished second in scoring on the Reds.

According to hockey sources, the parent NHL teams for the Columbus Checkers were the Chicago Blackhawks (1967-1970) and St. Louis Blues (1968-1970). As for the Providence Reds, the parent NHL teams were the California Seals (1969-1971) and New York Rangers (1971-1976). It’s interesting to note that given his scoring and playmaking prowess with Columbus and Providence, White never as much received the coveted “call-up” to the NHL teams like so many of his teammates did.

When the upstart World Hockey Association (WHA) came into existence in 1972, there were hundreds of professional hockey jobs opening up for players with talent. The New York Raiders were one of the teams in the new league’s first year, and they signed White after he starred with the Providence Reds. However, he saw little ice time with the Raiders after they had signed several talented minor-leaguers, and he demanded a trade after playing only 13 games to the Los Angeles Sharks. In December of 1972, White got his wish and finished the season with a combined total of 21 goals and 21 assists for 42 points in 70 games played.

White’s WHA career only lasted 2 more seasons. He suited up with the Sharks again in 1973-1974 where he recorded 21 points on just 8 goals and 13 assists. White moved on to play for the Michigan Stags/ Baltimore Blades team for the 1974-1975 season, collecting 9 goals and 12 assists for 21 points. At the end of the season, he eventually retired from professional hockey.

White is best known for being the second Black player, after Willie O’Ree, to have played on a major professional hockey team and for being the first Black hockey player to score 20 goals in a single season for a major league team (Los Angeles Sharks). During the same 1972-1973 season, he became the first Black player in history to score a “hat-trick”, three goals in a game, in a major league professional game on March 1, 1973 in Minnesota against the Fighting Saints.

White was inducted into the Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame in 2007 in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Looking Back

The NHL doubled in size in the 1967, adding the Los Angles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburg Penguins, California Seals, and St. Louis Blues. Canadians were outraged that all 6 teams were placed in the United States. The league responded by adding the Vancouver Canucks in 1970 along with the Buffalo Sabres. Emergence of the newly founded World Hockey Association led the NHL in 1972 to add the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames in order to keep the rival league out of those markets. Despite the expansion, none of the NHL teams at the time drafted and/or signed any of the available and highly talented Black players who were playing semi or minor- professional hockey. It was as if there was an “unofficial policy of exclusion”.

It wasn’t until 1974 when the Washington Capitals were added to the NHL and signed Mike Marson, making him only the second Black to play in the league and the first during the “period of reintegration”. From that point on, other NHL teams slowly drafted and signed Black players like Tony McKegney (1978, Buffalo Sabres), Grant Fuhr (1981, Edmonton Oilers), Dirk Graham (1984, Minnesota North Stars), Donald Brasher (1993, Montreal Canadiens) Anson Carter (1996, Boston Bruins), Jarome Iginla (1996, Calgary Flames), and Dustin Byfulagin (2005, Chicago Blackhawks).

It is undeniably clear that narrowed-minded men ran the NHL and its teams between 1961 and 1974. As it were, they missed a “unique opportunity” to (a) build on and leverage the historic precedence set by Willie O’Ree’s entry into the NHL and (b) create a more inclusive league which would have enhanced the image of the NHL as a major professional sports league. More importantly, it would have demonstrated progressive leadership on the part of the NHL and set the league apart from the woeful efforts of Major League Baseball and the National Football League to fully integrate their teams.