Being a black ice hockey player in Great Britain in the 1980s wasn’t exactly a walk in Hyde Park. Eddie Joseph can attest to that.
“I went to a place called Sunderland, near New Castle, I remember walking into the ice rink in Sunderland and a 10-11 year old little kid came up to me, rubbed my hand and said ‘Oh, it doesn’t come off,’ recalled Joseph, who played semi-pro hockey for the London Rangers and Lee Valley Lions. “That’s what the country was like. There were parts of this country where there were no black people at all.”
Times have changed in Great Britain, along with population demographics and
attitudes. When Joseph takes the racially and ethnically diverse East London youth hockey teams that he coaches on road games today people barely bat an eye.
“When I was playing, this country was very different – I was racially abused,” Joseph told me recently. “Today, it just doesn’t happen. People are so much more enlightened.”
Joseph didn’t envision it when he retired from semi-pro hockey at the age of 32, but he’s a hockey lifer. When he’s not carrying a night stick as a London Metropolitan police sergeant, Joseph is holding a hockey stick and coaching kids ages 10 to 18 and teaching them to love a sport that he says he owes everything to.
“It’s my passion,” said Joseph, 52. “Hockey has been the most constant thing in my life. I don’t know why the game bit me as it did, but it did.”
Joseph just wishes more folks on his side of the pond felt the same way. In the land of Big Ben, fish & chips, and One Direction, ice hockey is obscured by the large shadows cast by soccer, cricket, rugby, field hockey and tennis.
“To say it’s a minority sport is overplaying the word minority,” Joseph told me recently. “It’s such a small game in this country.”
With a population of nearly 64 million people, Great Britain has only 6,798 ice hockey players, according to International Ice Hockey Federation statistics. Of that group, 2,289 are men, 3,815 are junior players, and only 694 are female.
The IIHF ranks the country 22nd in the world in men’s hockey and 18th in women’s hockey. An IIHF founding member in 1908, Great Britain used to be a beast in ice hockey. Team Great Britain captured a Bronze Medal at the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, a Gold at the 1936 games in Germany, and experienced international success with teams comprised mostly of Canadian-born players
But as Canada gained independence from the monarchy, Great Britain’s hockey prowess faded. It hasn’t had an ice hockey team in the Winter Games since 1952.
When Brits do think ice, most of them think figure skating, Joseph said. Robin Cousins, Tim Curry and the pairs team of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean brought Olympic Gold and notoriety to the country in recent decades.
“Ice rinks aren’t necessarily ice hockey-friendly,” Joseph said. “Figure skating is more popular here than ice hockey because over the years we’ve had success at that sport. Whereas with ice hockey it’s ‘What is it, who is it?’”
But that hasn’t stopped Joseph from preaching the gospel of hockey in his East London community and around the country.
Joseph returned to hockey when his son, then 10, said he wanted to play the game. Joseph went to the Lee Valley where his hockey odyssey began only to discover that the game was no longer played there.
“Hockey had pretty much died at the ice rink,” Joseph recalled. “I was fortunate that when I went back to the rink I met a lady there who was one of the rink directors. She said ‘Hockey would be a great idea.’ The rink manager wasn’t very keen, but she was one of the directors of the company that runs the facility.”
After receiving coaching training, Joseph started a hockey program with about 15 children once a week. Today, Lee Valley has about 125 hockey players spread over five youth teams and an adult squad.
About 25 percent of the players are minority – black, Asian, Arab and Jewish, Joseph said.
The hockey program draws many of its patrons from the East London/Hackney area, historically one of London’s poorest communities. Spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on hockey equipment and ice time isn’t the first priority for most families in the neighborhood.
So the Lee Valley rink does what U.S. programs like New York’s Ice Hockey in Harlem, Washington’s Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, Philadelphia’s Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation and other non-profit NHL-affiliated “Hockey is For Everyone” organizations do and minimize the cost of the game for those interested in playing it.
“The people that walk through our door and want to give hockey a go can’t afford to buy the kit, can’t afford to buy skates,” Joseph said. “So what we, people with a like mind to myself, do is we’ve done fund-raisers, we’ve bought equipment so we can just say to kids ‘Here you go, you can borrow this from us.’ I think it doesn’t necessarily go down well with our hockey establishment here, but we are more akin to a charity than we are to an ice hockey club.”
Joseph can identify with the needy patrons. He was a 14 year-old boy in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood when he and some mates walked into the Lee Valley rink, saw hockey, and were instantly captivated by a sport they never knew existed.
“I grew up in one of the worst parts of London, if not the country. I had friends who were killed, friends who were in prison – it was that kind of area,” he told me. “And for some reason, they put an ice rink up in this place. It gave me something other than hanging around the streets. In my circles, I got to see our country playing hockey. It gave me a sense of pride, gave me some value, some worth.”
No one confused Joseph for the next Wayne Gretzky. Between 1984 and 1993, Joseph tallied 54 goals, 68 assists and racked up 271 penalty minutes.
“I was never a great hockey player, but I served a purpose on the team and they signed me up every year,” he said. “Yeah, I got a bit of a reputation for being a scrapper, nonetheless I wanted to play hockey.”
He hopes the rest of Great Britain will, too, someday soon.