Tony McKegney feels conflicted.
The retired National Hockey League forward isn’t sure how he feels about former NHL goaltender John Vanbeisbrouck becoming USA Hockey’s assistant executive director for hockey operations 15 years after he called a young Trevor Daley the N-word.
He knows Vanbiesbrouck from their days as teammates on the New York Rangers in 1986-87, McKegney’s only season on Broadway.
“John and I were good friends. We spent a lot of time together, we had a lot of fun together,” McKegney told me recently. “We went to concerts together, we golfed together, we must have roomed together at some point. We went to Florida together to my home in Jupiter. He was from near Detroit, I was from near Detroit, and we just got along.”
But having been one of the few black hockey players of his era, McKegney also knows the hurt that a then-19-year old Daley must have felt when Vanbiesbrouck – who was Daley’s coach and general manager with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds – used a racial slur in 2003 to define him.
“I just felt for the kid because it just brought back some memories for me,” McKegney said of the episode. “Going forward, I just don’t know how to feel about it now. I don’t know. When I hear that word, it brings up some tough memories.”
USA Hockey tapped Vanbiesbrouck last month to succeed Jim Johannson, who passed away in January. Vanbiesbrouck addressed the Daley controversy in a teleconference with reporters last week, saying he was “absolutely, 100 percent wrong” for using the slur.
“I’m extremely sorry for it,” he told reporters. “It’s not who I am, it doesn’t define me as a person and I have no prejudices in me, and it will never happen again.”
USA Hockey Executive Director Pat Kelleher added that Vanbiesbrouck looks at the incident as “a terrible situation, an awful mistake, something that’s helped change him for the better.”
Vanbiesbrouck’s hiring has been criticized on social media by hockey fans who say it sends the wrong message about a sport that says it promotes diversity and inclusion.
But others online have expressed support for Vanbiesbrouck, acknowledging that he made a terrible mistake, but asserting that 15 years is a long time to hold it against him.
McKegney says he’s not one to judge another person’s actions considering the troubled times he’s had in his life.
He pleaded guilty to impaired driving in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, in 2017 and guilty to operating a water craft in Kingston, Ontario, while intoxicated in 2015 – a case that brought incidents of substance and domestic abuse to light.
“I’ve certainly made some errors in my life, made some bad judgments, made some mistakes I would love to take back,” said McKegney, who attributes some of the problems to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative brain disease that he says stems from concussions he suffered during his playing career. “I’m certainly not defending anything.”
Still, Vanbiesbrouck’s hiring stoked memories of the 2003 incident for McKegney along with unpleasant recollections of the racial abuse that he endured from the time he started playing hockey as a kid through his 13-year NHL career.
McKegney said he heard racial slurs so much that “I thought the N-word was my middle name.”
Though Willie O’Ree was the NHL’s first black player, Val James the league’s first American-born black player, and goalie Grant Fuhr the first black player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, McKegney was the NHL’s first black star.
He was the first black player to score 40 goals in a season and the first to score 20 or more goals in eight seasons.
McKegney tallied 320 goals and 319 assists in 912 NHL season games for the Rangers, Buffalo Sabres, St. Louis Blues, Quebec Nordiques, Minnesota North Stars, Hartford Whalers, Chicago Blackhawks, and Detroit Red Wings between 1978-79 to 1990-91. He notched 24 goals and 23 assists in 79 Stanley Cup Playoff contests.
“Tony McKegney showed me it was possible for someone like me to play in the NHL,” future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla said in author Cecil Harris’ book, “Breaking The Ice, The Black Experience in Professional Hockey.” “He set the example. He was a role model.”
But McKegney’s on-ice accomplishments weren’t enough to shield him from racist taunts from fans and opposing players.
“In certain cities, we’d go to St. Louis, we’d go to Atlanta (Flames), Pittsburgh, for some reason, then Philadelphia,” McKegney said. “It was a small group of people, but you feared the words coming out.”
Occasionally, the racial insensitivity occurred on teams he played for.
“I had an assistant coach come up to me and ask me if I could date a black woman versus a white woman,” said McKegney, who was adopted and raised by white parents. “This happened in the early ’80s, and this (white) woman became my wife. When I heard that, I thought ‘My God.'”
When McKegney heard about the racial incident with Vanbiesbrouck, he said he reached out to Daley and chatted with briefly after a junior hockey game in Ontario.
“It was a one of those subjects where he wanted to focus on how well he was doing and just be positive and not dredge up anything, the past,” McKegney said. “Obviously, he was moving forward.”
McKegney’s trying to do the same thing these days. Instead of dwelling on an ugly moment in 2003, he prefers to think about how well Daley has done in his career.
A 2002 Dallas Stars second round draft pick, Daley, now 34, is a two-time Stanley Cup champions who has helped anchor defenses for the Stars, Chicago Blackhawks,Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings.
“Every time I see Trevor Daley, and see he’s still playing and having success, I think about that part,” McKegney said. “And I draw on that positive.”
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