When the Washington Capitals face the St. Louis Blues at the Verizon Center on Fan Appreciation Night Saturday, perhaps no one in the arena will be more appreciative than Mike Marson.
The Capitals are scheduled to honor Marson, who was the National Hockey League’s second black player, with a video salute on the Verizon Center’s giant scoreboard during a TV timeout.
“I’m very pleased that the Capitals made a move to invite me to come down,” Marson, a Toronto resident, told me recently. “It’s an honor and a pleasure.”
Marson and his Capitals teammates endured the indignity of an 8-67-5 record in the team’s inaugural 1974-75 season, one of the worst records in NHL history.
But Marson also endured the indignities of racism – on and off the ice. Taunts and physical liberties by opposing players on the ice and racist letters delivered to his home and to the Capital Centre, the team’s original suburban Maryland home, were the unsettling norm.
“It was a culture shock,” Marson recalled.”Nobody should have to make a comment that you’re with the team to get on the plane; nobody should have to, when you get to the hotel, hear the staff ask the coach ‘is that gentleman with you?’ Or hear ‘we don’t have people like him stay at our hotel;’ and nobody should then have to go down in the morning for breakfast and have people usher by you non-stop because they won’t feed you. This is before you even get to the rink, before you have to deal with your opposition. It was non-stop.”
Marson’s story is chronicled in filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason’s black hockey history documentary, “Soul on Ice, Past, Present & Future,” which aired on NHL Network in February as part of Black History Month.
His professional hockey career was brief – five seasons with the Capitals and three games with the Los Angeles Kings combined with stints with the American Hockey League’s Baltimore Clippers, Springfield Indians, Binghamton Dusters and Hershey Bears.
The left wing tallied only 24 goals 24 assists in 196 NHL regular season games and never appeared in a Stanley Cup playoff game.
Still, Marson left an imprint on the game. It’s evident in Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban and New York Rangers forward Rick Nash, who, as youngsters climbing the hockey ladder, trained off-ice under Marson during his post-hockey career as a martial arts instructor.
“The main thing about Mike was he taught P.K. how to be mentally strong,” Karl Subban, P.K.’s father, told me recently. “If you look at P.K. today, that’s one of the traits he has as a hockey player. It doesn’t matter what’s happening off the ice, it doesn’t matter what’s written about him or what’s said about him. He’s going to go out and play. And I’ve got to give Mike Marson credit for that.”
The elder Subban also credits Marson for igniting his love for hockey – a passion that he passed onto P.K., middle son Malcolm, a goaltender for the AHL Providence Bruins, and youngest son Jordan, a defenseman for the AHL’s Utica Comets.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Karl Subban grew up in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where Marson played major junior hockey for the Sudbury Wolves, then of the Ontario Hockey Association.
Marson was the Man in Sudbury: a black skating, scoring, and fighting machine who wore the captain’s “C” on his jersey. He exuded unabashed blackness – sporting an Afro, Fu Manchu mustache and mutton chop sideburns.
“Mike Marson gave my community a reason to watch hockey,” Karl Subban told me. “I loved the Sudbury Wolves.But when Mike came onto the scene I took it to another level. They were not just the Sudbury Wolves, they were my team because they had a player who looked like me.”
Between 1972 and 1974 Marson tallied 40 goals, 87 assists and amassed a whopping 263 penalty minutes in 126 regular season games for the Wolves. His hockey resume was strong enough that the expansion Capitals grabbed him with the first pick in the second round of the 1974 NHL Draft.
“I was pretty quick,” said Marson, who works as a bus driver in Toronto.”Having attended so many training camps where I was the only person of color, I had to be able to handle myself. I liked to score, I wasn’t afraid of the rough stuff.”
He was chosen ahead of Hockey Hall of Famers Bryan Trottier, a center who scored 1,425 career points mainly for the New York Islanders, and Mark Howe, who tallied 742 career points as a defenseman playing primarily with the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Capitals believed they had a solid pick, so did other hockey people. Plus, it didn’t hurt to have a black player as a potential gate attraction in a new hockey city with a sizable black population.
Marson graced the cover of The Hockey News in October 1974. When he made his regular season debut with the Caps at age 19, he became the NHL’s second black player, the first since forward Willie O’Ree played his last game for the Boston Bruins in the 1960-61 season. O’Ree first joined the Bruins in the 1957-58 season.
Marson showed promise in an otherwise dismal inaugural season for the Capitals. The rookie finished third on the team in scoring with 16 and 12 assists in 76 games.
“He was a great talent – a great skater, great puck skills, tough as they come. He was the complete package,” said right wing Bill Riley, who became the NHL’s third black player when he joined the Capitals for one game in 1974-75 and went on to become a sometimes line mate of Marson’s from 1976 to 1979. “He was strong. I only came across two guys with that kind of strength: Stan Jonathan and Mike Marson. When Mike hit you, you knew you got hit.”
Still, Riley, who went on to become Junior A hockey general manger and a head coach of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Moncton Wildcats in 1996-97, said “I was looking for bigger and better things for Mike.”
So was Marson. But being drafted at 18, becoming a $500,000 bonus baby, and going straight to the NHL without a proper apprenticeship in the minor leagues might have been too much too soon, he said.
And the culture shock of moving from Canada – where he considered himself a hockey player first – to an NHL city south of the U.S. Mason-Dixon line in the racially-tumultuous 1970s also took its toll.
“You can’t really compare my situation back in 1974 to today’s way of thinking,” he told me. “There’s no way to measure that by today’s uplifted society.”
But Marson says he doesn’t dwell on the painful past. Age brings perspective. And healing.
“You don’t get to be 60 and not have some regrets in your life – decisions you made here and there,” he told me. “You react differently than you did at 19 or 16. For me, it’s interesting to have put away all the negative things that transpired so many years ago – we’re talking over 40 years ago – when the world was a totally different place.”