, , ,

Finally, he’s feeling the love.

Mike Marson, an original member of the woeful Washington Capitals 1974-75 expansion team, returned to D.C. Saturday to the sustained applause and appreciation that eluded the National Hockey League’s second black player during a five-season professional career that ended nearly four decades ago.

The Capitals paid homage to Marson during  the team’s 4-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues Saturday with a video feature on the Verizon Center’s giant center ice scoreboard. Then, when Capitals public address announcer Wes Johnson pointed out that Marson was in attendance in the team’s luxury box, the sellout crowd stood and clapped, long and loud.

“Really, really moving,” a still-beaming Marson told me Sunday, the morning after the tribute. “I had a great time. My son said, ‘Dad, you look like the Pope.’ I was waving to the people. It was so moving. In a quiet moment, you might shed a tear.”

The love was a sea change from some of the treatment Marson received during an NHL career that spanned from 1974-75 to 1979-80. Racist taunts on and off the ice, mailed death threats, and racial intolerance – even from some teammates – greeted Marson from the moment he entered the NHL at age 19 as the Capitals’ 1974 second-round draft pick.

“I was called n****r and every other bad name in the book,” Marson said in author Cecil Harris’ book, “Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey,” “along with stuff I didn’t even know was in the book.”

Capitals Owner Ted Leonsis wanted to meet Marson after seeing his story captured in Canadian filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason’s black hockey history documentary “Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future,”  which had its U.S. premiere in Washington in January.

“I would like to and plan to invite him to join us for a game,” Leonsis wrote in his “Ted’s Take” blog shortly after the screening. “As a society and a league, we have come a long way since 1974, and I would like Mike to be closer to the Capitals family.”

Marson, a Toronto resident, appeared genuinely surprised by the reception he received Saturday from the Verizon Center crowd.

“Everybody was looking at me and clapping their hands – jubilation,” a smiling Marson told Comcast SportsNet’s Washington Capitals game reporter Al Koken shortly after the tribute.

Forward Mike Marson scored 16 goals for a Washington Capitals team that went 8-67-5 in its first NHL season in 1974-75 (Photo/Washington Capitals archives).

Forward Mike Marson scored 16 goals for a Washington Capitals team that went 8-67-5 in its first NHL season in 1974-75 Photo/Washington Capitals archives).

Koken concluded his short interview by calling Marson’s tribute “long-overdue.” He urged hockey fans see Mason’s “Soul on Ice” and read Harris'”Breaking the Ice” book.

“Those are things you need to read,” Koken told the television audience. “Guys, I’ll leave you with this: 16 goals right out of junior hockey on one of the worst NHL teams ever. How about that man, Mike Marson, in his rookie year?”