To the naked eye they are nothing more than buildings – unremarkable structures that house sheets of ice, scoreboards, benches and locker rooms.
But a handful of ice skating rinks across the United States and Canada are much more. They bear the names of minorities who’ve contributed to hockey history and their left imprint on the game and in the communities that these rinks serve. Some of the rinks may not look like much, but they mean a lot in terms of the little-known story of hockey’s rich minority legacy.
From the shores of Atlantic City, N.J., to the chilly river banks of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, the rinks offer a mixed roll call of recognizable and some not-so recognizable figures.
At age 83, Art Dorrington has long hung up his skates. But you can’t keep him out of the rink. He’s a fixture and legend in Atlantic City, known for being the first black hockey player to sign an NHL contract when he inked one with the New York Rangers in 1950 (he never played for the Blue Shirts). A veteran of the old Eastern Hockey League, the former center is also known for founding the Art Dorrington Ice Hockey Foundation, a non-profit program that gives Atlantic City’s low-income children a chance to learn and play the expensive game of hockey. His mantra to the kids: “On The Ice – Off The Streets.”
Last year, the city’s Boardwalk and convention center officials renamed the Boardwalk Hall ice skating rink The Art Dorrington Ice Rink with an elaborate ceremony that was attended by Willie O’Ree, the man who broke the National Hockey League color barrier eight years after Dorrington signed his pro contract.
“It felt great, I was very honored,” the Canadian-born Dorrington told me recently. “It was an honor for my family, and it’s a thrill for the kids in our program. They get inspired and are honored to play in the rink.”
O’Ree, who broke in with the Boston Bruins in 1958, knows how Dorrington felt. In 2007, officials in his home town of Fredericton, N.B., voted to name a new rink in his honor.
Today, the city’s Wilie O’Ree Place is a state-of-the-art facility with two NHL-sized rinks, 11 locker rooms, an indoor walking track and three community rooms.
“It’s a nice feeling, O’Ree, director of the NHL’s diversity program, told the Associated Press in 2007. “My close friends in Fredericton never forgot from Day 1 when I left there, the things that I accomplished playing hockey. I’m deeply honored.”
Angela James has been racking up honors lately. Regarded as the best female hockey player of her era, she was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010 and the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008, and the Black Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame in 2006. But she said one her biggest honors came when folks in North York, Ont., renamed the old Flemingdon Arena the Angela James Arena in 2009.
“That was right up there with everything else that’s happened in my life,” she told me. “It meant a lot to me and my family. It was a gathering of my family and community. To see that while I’m living was great.”James said seeing her name on the rink serves as inspiration to minority kids in her area who are lacing up the skates and reaching for sticks.
“I’m in a bi-racial family – the color of any skin doesn’t mean much one way or another,” she said. “But the (rink’s) influence of black, Afro-Canadians, I think it’s important to them.”In 2011, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s Team Up Foundation – part of the empire that owns the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs and NBA Toronto Raptors – donated $250,000 to the James Arena which helped replace dasher boards, skate matting, build a women’s dressing room, and upgrade existing dressing rooms.Unlike James, Laura Sims never scored a goal, took a face-off, or blocked a shot. Sims wasn’t a player. She was a doer who became a Philadelphia ice skating and hockey institution.A community activist, Sims almost single-handedly pushed, prodded, and cajoled Philadelphia officials into building an ice skating rink on the edge of West Philadelphia. When it opened in 1985, the Cobbs Creek Skate House was believed to be the first ice rink in the nation built smack in the middle of an African-American neighborhood.”Laura was a dedicated citizen, a concerned member of the community and was relentless in her efforts to build this skate park,” then-Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell recalled in 2005 in a statement honoring the rink’s 20th anniversary. “She was a true inspiration to those who knew her and those who know her story.”
In 1999, city officials renamed the rink the Laura Sims Skate House in Cobbs Creek Park. Then-President Bill Clinton sent a letter honoring the late Sims that was read at the dedication ceremony.
But time wasn’t kind to the rink. With a city in budgetary crisis, the semi-enclosed rink fell into disrepair with a leaky roof, battered walls, iffy ice, awful locker facilities and other unsafe conditions. As the city’s budget woes worsened, Mayor Michael Nutter signaled that the city might be unable to afford to open its public rinks for the winter season.
Snider’s Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation took over Sims and other city-run rinks in 2008. In 2010, Snider’s foundation kicked in $6.5 million, which was matched by state funds, to renovate Sims and three other down-and-out public rinks.
In late 2011, the Sims rink began life anew – fully enclosed, with NHL-caliber lighting, glass and boards. Now open year-round, it’s the flagship rink among four rinks that house nearly 3,000 mostly-minority kids who participate in the Snider Hockey program.
The late Herb Carnegie is yet to recognized for his achievements by the Hockey Hall of Fame, but the city of North York honored the hockey pioneer in 2005 by renaming the North York Centennial Stadium the Herbert H. Carnegie Arena.
The son of Jamaican immigrants to Canada, Carnegie was a dazzling center who’s regarded as the best black player never to play in the NHL. Held back by his color, Carnegie played for the Quebec Aces, where he was teammates with Montreal Canadiens’ great Jean Beliveau.
“It is my belief that Herbie Carnegie was excluded from the National Hockey League because of his colour,” Beliveau wrote in the introduction to Carnegie’s book “A Fly in a Pail of Milk.” “How could NHL scouts overlook not one, but three Most Valuable Player awards for a player on a team in a top senior league?”
Carnegie, who died last year, was part of the famed “Black Aces” – a high-scoring all-black line with his brother, Ossie, and Manny McIntyre. Herb Carnegie was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2001 and he was named to the Order of Canada in 2003.