File this one under the “You Never Know Until You Know” category.
I was at a holiday party last December where a friend of mine was chatting up the Color of Hockey to John C. Brittain, a prominent civil rights attorney and a mentor of his.
After hearing what the blog was all about, Brittain, a trim, impeccably-dressed, bow-tied black man with more salt than pepper in his hair, smiled. He then offered information that his protege – my friend – never knew in his decades of knowing Brittain.
“I was captain of my high school hockey team in Norwalk, Conn., in 1962,” he said.
It doesn’t take a historian or detective to deduce that very few black people played organized hockey in Connecticut – or anywhere else in the United States – in the early 1960s, let alone be designated as the undisputed leader of a team.
But there’s Brittain in the pages of Norwalk High’s 1962 year book, kneeling front and center in the first row of the hockey team’s picture and proudly wearing the captain’s “C” on his jersey.
“I’m surprised I never really talked about it,” Brittain, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, told me. “I never suppressed it for any conscious reasons – I loved it. That photo hangs in my office as part of a collage of my induction into the Norwalk Hall of Fame in the mid 1990s. And I mention it to people if they look at it and say ‘You played hockey? Or when something hockey comes up. But otherwise, no, I’ve never talked about it.”
Brittain learned to play hockey in the late 1950s the same way many New England kids do.
“I got started playing hockey on a frozen pond near our house,” he said. “I walked to school with my buddies. Along the way, there was this very wealthy man’s estate high up on a hill. The land included a huge pond in the back of the mansion in the woods, kind of secluded. We played on the ice often to and from school, but a lot on the weekends. We began playing with just our shoes and boots on, just kicking a rock around or playing make-believe hockey with a stick and a rock.”
Christmas presents allowed the boys to graduate to ice skates, rubber pucks and real hockey sticks, which enabled Brittain and his friends to skate and play at Norwalk’s indoor ice rink.
“Virtually from grade school through middle school, I either skated on the pond and played hockey or skated at the indoor rink and played hockey,” he said. “By the time I reached the ninth grade I was in, modern-day terms, ‘tapped’ by the coaching staff to join the high school hockey team. I became captain because I was one of the best and the highest scorer on the team.”
Brittain says he never experienced problems or discrimination from Norwalk High’s coaches or his teammates. However, he remembers hearing the N-word and being called a monkey by spectators at road games played in parts of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Upstate New York.
But the taunting didn’t discourage him because he knew his teammates had his back.
“One of the reasons it didn’t bother me was in my neighborhood we had a ‘Rat Pack,’ so to speak, since I was one years old. We all went through elementary, junior high and high school together,” Brittain recounted. “It included an immigrant Jew from Israel…the second was an Italian…and the third was an Englishman. It was one for all and all for one. If anyone ever called us the N-word, the K-word, the G-word, or the L-word, it was throw down your gloves and time to fight.”
To put the hockey timeline into perspective, Brittain was playing in high school five seasons after Willie O’ Ree became the National Hockey League’s first black player in 1957-58 with the Boston Bruins and one year after O’Ree’s last NHL game in 1960-61.
It would be 14 years before another black player – forward Mike Marson with Washington Capitals – would reach the NHL.
Meanwhile, several talented black Canadian players who had long-toiled in the minor leagues because the NHL’s unwritten race rules kept them down were hanging up their skates.
Forward Herb Carnegie, regarded by many as the best hockey player never to play in the NHL, retired in 1953. Forward Art Dorrington, who signed a contract with the New York Rangers in 1950 but never played a game with them, ended his nine-year minor league career in 1961.
Brittain said he thought about playing hockey in college. But any chance of that happening ended when he enrolled at Howard University, a black college in Washington, D.C.
He put down his stick and took up the causes of the turbulent of the 1960s.
“One of my closest college mates was (black activist) Stokley Carmichael,” Brittain recalled. “Muhammad Ali coming up on campus, civil rights movement, John Lewis, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I got involved in the activist wing at Howard University, joined the anti-war movement, got involved in track, and later went on to law school. I had a whole bunch of new stuff to do.”
That “stuff” led to a distinguished law career in the courtroom and the classroom. In addition to his U.D.C. professorship, Brittain is a former University of Connecticut law professor and former dean of Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law.
He’s a former chief counsel and deputy director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a group established under President John F. Kennedy to enlist private lawyers to take on civil rights cases at no cost.
Brittain has handled several high-profile school desegregation and funding cases. In addition, he’s chair of the Norflet Progress Fund, a charitable group created by a lawsuit settlement involving John Hancock that will distribute about $16 million in grants to benefit African-Americans in education, health, and post-Hurricane Katrina relief.
At 69, Brittain is a staunch vegan and a nationally-ranked masters runner. He hasn’t played hockey in decades, but he hasn’t abandoned the sport. He’s a devoted Washington Capitals fan and college hockey follower who takes his 7-year-old grandson ice skating.
“I’ve got a new one-year-old grandson, so both my son and I said we’re going to introduce him to more winter sports,” he said. “We’re going to get him some hockey skates to see if he’s interested in that.”