Karl Subban thought he was done.
The proud papa of three black professional hockey players thought he was finished writing his first book, “How We Did It, The Subban Family Plan For Success In Hockey, School And Life.”
Then The Trade happened.
The move shocked the hockey world, helped guide the Predators to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance, and sent Karl Subban scrambling to his computer to write another chapter for his book.
“Yeah, I had to write it,” Karl told me. “It was unbelievable. It was an unbelievable run to the Stanley Cup Final. I’ve never been through that before. It took me a long time to believe that we were there.”
The elder Subban talks about his book, The Trade, the Predators’ Stanley Cup run, racism, and what it’s like raising three very talented hockey players in the first episode of the Color of Hockey podcast.
Our new podcast, like this blog, will tell the story of the history and growing impact of people of color in ice hockey at all levels and all aspects of the game – on the ice, off the ice, behind the bench, in the broadcast booth, and in the front office, wherever.
And what better lead-off guest than Karl, father of Pernell Karl (P.K.); Malcolm, a goaltender and Boston Bruins 2012 first round draft pick who was waived by the B’s this week and claimed by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights; and Jordan, a 2013 Vancouver Canucks fourth-round draft pick who’s a defenseman for the Utica Comets, the Canucks’ American Hockey League franchise in Upstate New York.
P.K. tallied 10 goals and 30 assists in 66 games in his first season in Nashville. He had 2 goals and 10 assists in 22 playoff games.
Malcolm compiled an 11-14-5 record in 32 games for the Providence Bruins and posted a 2.41 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. He was winless in the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs with a 2.12 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.
Jordan notched 16 goals and 20 assists in 65 regular season games last season for Utica. He had 2 goals and an assist in four AHL playoff contests.
True to its title, “How We Did It” gives insight to how Karl and Maria Subban guided their boys through various levels of hockey – from lacing on their first pair of skates skates to hearing their names called at National Hockey League drafts.
“The African proverb, I use it in the book, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,'” Karl told me. “It also takes a village to raise an NHLer…to grow their potential. Maria and I can’t stand there and say ‘Look at us, we did it all by ourselves.'”
But the book is also deals with immigration – Karl’s family moved to Canada from Jamaica and Maria’s from Montserrat – education, and the ugly realities of racism, an issue that P.K. first confronted when he was an 8 year old playing minor hockey in Toronto.
It’s a lesson that Karl, a semi-retired Toronto public school principal, was sadden that his son learned so early.
“He came out of the dressing room crying. He said a boy on the ice called him the N-word,” Karl writes in the book. “We said there was no need to cry because it was only a word. We probably said something about ‘sticks and stones.’ There weren’t too many kids playing who looked like P.K., but now someone had communicated it to him in a way he didn’t like.”
He’s endured racist taunts and attitudes as a pro, most notably during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs when so-called Bruins unleashed a torrent of hateful emails and social media posts after he scored two goals, including the double-overtime winner.Embed from Getty Images
When confronted with racist ugliness, Karl says P.K. follows a bit of advice that he gave him: Don’t let them win.
“I’ve told P.K. it’s vital to change the channel, because if you ruminate over it, you can’t free yourself from it,” the elder Subban writes. “It does take practice, though – and P.K. has had a lot of practice.”
Karl had to change the channel when the Canadiens traded P.K.. Montreal was Karl’s team ever since he was a boy growing up in Sudbury, Ontario, watching the Canadiens’ French broadcast on TV, and dreaming of being Habs goaltender Ken Dryden.
As an adult, he thought there was nothing like seeing a game in hockey-mad Montreal. Then came Nashville.
“I didn’t think there was anything better until I got to Nashville, and then I said ‘Wow!'” he told me. “It’s so different and a great experience. It’s the music there, the environment. After the game, the honky tonks, the bars, the food, I love country music. And then we went on that (Stanley Cup) run, and the city, which is alive anyway 24/7, it was taken to another level.”
But Karl still can’t quite get used to what’s becoming a tradition in Nashville: fans tossing catfish onto the Bridgestone Arena ice.
“I just want to eat those catfish,” he told me. “There’s a restaurant where I go, they have this catfish thing and I love it. Like, I’m saying ‘please don’t throw them on the ice. Can you just give them to that restaurant I go to and have them prepare it the way they prepare it there.”
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Some of the National Hockey League’s players of color are feeling a draft.
At least 17 minority players are among the players left unprotected by the NHL’s 30 teams for Wednesday’s Expansion Draft to help form the inaugural roster for the Vegas Golden Knights.
The players of color made available – a nicer phrase than “unprotected” – include a likely future Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, three multiple Stanley Cup winners, three Olympians, and a few minor league prospects.
Here’s a summary of the players available:
Emerson Etem, left wing. The 29th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Etem has bounced from the Ducks to the New York Rangers to the Vancouver Canucks and back to the Ducks. And he’s boomeranged between Anaheim and its American Hockey League affiliate in San Diego.
He only appeared in three games for the Ducks in 2016-17 and was held scoreless. He does have 22 goals and 24 assists in 173 NHL regular season games and 6 goals and 2 assists in 23 playoff games.
Malcolm Subban, goaltender. Subban was 24th player picked in the 2012 NHL Draft but has been unable to secure a spot on a Bruins roster that features Tuuka Rask between the pipes. Rask won the Vezina Trophy in 2013-14 as the NHL’s best goaltender.
The younger brother of Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban, Malcolm Subban appeared in 32 games last season for the Providence Bruins, Boston’s AHL farm team. His stats: 11 wins, 14 losses, a 2.41 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage. He had 2 losses in the AHL playoffs and sported a 2.12 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.
Johnny Oduya, defense. Oduya was a member of the 2013 and 2015 Chicago Stanley Cup teams and the Swedish team that won the Silver Medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics. He had 2 goals and 7 assists in 52 regular season games for the Blackhawks last season. He has 37 goals and 145 assists in 798 career regular season contests and 6 goals and 22 assists in 106 career playoff games.Embed from Getty Images
Jordin Tootoo, right wing. The diminutive dynamo of Inuit heritage was limited to 2 goals and 1 assist in 50 regular season games in 2016-17. He has 65 goals and 96 assists in 723 games with Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, and the New Jersey Devils.
Gemel Smith, center. The Stars took the 23-year-old in the fourth round with the 104th overall pick of the 2012 NHL Draft. He hasn’t seen much time in Big D. He scored 3 goals and 3 assists in 17 regular season games for Dallas in 2016-17.
His younger brother, forward Giavani Smith, was taken by the Detroit Red Wings in the second round with the 46th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.
Jujhar Khaira, center. Khaira was one of the feel-good stories of the 2016-17 season when he scored his first NHL goal – a source of pride for North America’s South Asian community. The Oilers took Khaira in the third round with the 63rd overall pick of the 2012 NHL Draft. His one goal and 2 assists were his only points in 10 games for the Oilers in 2016-17.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
Jarome Iginla, right wing. Iginla, 39, is one of hockey’s most-decorated players. He’s a two-time Olympic Gold Medal winner, and a recipient of the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the NHL’s leading goal scorer in 2002 and 2004 and the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer in 2002. He won the Lester B. Pearson Award – the most valuable player award voted by the players – in 2002.
Iginla, a sure-fire Hall of Famer when he retires, had 14 goals and 13 assists in 80 games for the Kings in 2016-17.
Jordan Nolan, center. A proud member of the Ojibwe Nation, Nolan played for the Kings’ Stanley Cup championship teams in 2012 and 2014. Nolan, the son of former Buffalo Sabres Head Coach Ted Nolan, appeared in only 46 games for the Kings last season and tallied 4 goals and 4 assists.
Matt Dumba, defense. Of Filipino heritage, Dumba posted a career-best 11 goals and 23 assists in 76 games. His plus/minus – an indicator of defensive responsibility – improved from plus-1 in 2015-16 to plus-15 in 2016-17.
Al Montoya, goaltender. The well-traveled Cuban-American goaltender could be on the move again. A 2004 first-round of the Rangers, Montoya has strapped on the pads for the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, Phoenix Coyotes, and Winnipeg Jets before he seemingly settled in as Carey Price’s backup in Montreal.
Montoya appeared in 19 games for the Habs, posted an 8-6-4 record with a 2.67 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Devante Smith-Pelly, right wing. Devo is coming off a down season in New Jersey, his third team since the Ducks chose him with in the second round with the 42nd overall pick in the 2010 draft. He scored only 4 goals and 5 assists in 50 games.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Christopher Gibson, goaltender. The black Finn didn’t play a minute in Brooklyn in 2016-17 and had a short season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Isles’ AHL team. There, he appeared in seven games and won 6. He had a 2.52 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.
Gibson played in four NHL games in 2015-16, posted a 1-1-1 record with a 3.40 goals-against average and an .882 save percentage.Embed from Getty Images
Pierre-Edourard Bellemare, left wing. The French player probably enjoyed his most memorable season in 2016-17. It started with the World Cup of Hockey, where the fourth-line Flyers player became a key contributor for Team Europe and ended with him playing before his countrymen at the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship in Paris.
In between, Bellemare had a solid enough year for the Flyers that the team re-signed him to a two-year deal at $1.45 million per year and made him an assistant captain. The 32-year-old checking line forward scored 4 goals and 4 assists in 82 regular season games. He has 17 goals and 17 assists in 237 career NHL games.
Trevor Daley, defense. Daley is experiencing the cruel business side of hockey. Win a Stanley Cup one week, get exposed to the expansion draft the next. The 33-year-old offensively-talented and defensively-responsible player began his NHL career with the Dallas Stars in 2003-04. Daley reached the 20-point mark seven times during his tenure with Dallas.Embed from Getty Images
He had 5 goals and 15 assists in 56 games for the Penguins in 2016-17 and tallied 1 goal and 4 assists in 21 playoff games that ended with him winning a second Stanley Cup. Daley 78 goals and 200 assists in 894 career NHL regular season games.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Joel Ward, right wing. Injuries in 2016-17 hampered the 36-year-old wing who earned a reputation as a clutch playoff performer during his NHL career. He scored 10 goals and 19 assists in 78 regular season games and 1 goal and 3 assists in six playoff games.
He’s tallied 22 goals and 30 assists in 83 playoff games for San Jose, Nashville, and the Washington Capitals.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
J.T. Brown, right wing. A tough player who isn’t afraid to speak his mind on social issues, Brown had 3 goals and 3 assists for the Lightning last season. He has 18 goals and 39 assists in 262 NHL regular season games.
T.J. Oshie, right wing. Why in the world would the Capitals expose a player who notched 33 goals and 23 assists in 68 games last season? Our friends at the Russian Machine Never Breaks Capitals fan site break it down to money and uncertainty. Oshie needs a new contract and the NHL currently isn’t sure what the league salary cap will be next season. And Oshie could become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. All that might be enough for the Golden Knights to pass on him, leaving the Caps to move forward with a new deal once the 2017-18 salary cap is set.
We’ve taken a look at diversity in the National Hockey League at the start of the 2016-17 season. Now let’s take a peek at the future.
A growing number of players color have been drafted by NHL teams in recent years. Several of them are currently playing for the minor league affiliates of the NHL teams that drafted them or skating for the major junior teams they were chosen from.
And others, like forward Joshua Ho-Sang, have the potential to be called up to the parent club this season. So here’s a look at NHL diversity, the next generation.
Baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson earned the nickname “Mr. October” for his home run exploits in the playoffs and World Series.
San Jose Sharks forward Joel Ward has earned the reputation as “Mr. April” or “Mr. May” for his post-season heroics. Ward showed why the Sharks signed him to a three-year contract last summer as he scored a beautiful goal in the Sharks’ 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators in a second-round Stanley Cup Playoffs tilt Friday night.
“I just try to embrace the moment,” the 35-year-old veteran told the Associated Press. “I just think it’s the atmosphere of the crowds whether its home or away. Everyone is ramped up.”
Ward has 15 goals and 26 assists in 59 career playoff games. He’s averaging a point a game – 1 goal and 5 assists – in six playoff games this post-season. When he played for the Predators, Ward scored 7 goals in 12 playoff games in 2011. Another important number: Ward wears 42 to honor Brooklyn Dodgers baseball great Jackie Robinson.
He’s the crusher of goalie dreams. In 2012, as a member of the Washington Capitals, he scored a Game 7 overtime goal past Tim Thomas that eliminated the Boston Bruins from the playoffs. In last season’s playoffs, he scored a game-winning goal with one second left that beat goalie Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers.
You can call Ward anything – a baller, a player, the X-Factor, The Man, money, a beast, a stud, “Mr. April” or “Mr. May.” Whatever it is, just make sure you call him one hell of a playoff hockey performer.
Jermaine Loewen longs to be The Second One.
The left wing for the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League dreams of becoming the second Jamaican-born player to skate in the National Hockey League, standing on the broad shoulders of Graeme Townshend.
Townshend was a rugged right wing who played 67 NHL games for the Boston Bruins, New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators. Loewen, who was born in Jamaica and raised in Manitoba, inched closer to his dream Monday when he turned 18 – the minimum age to be eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft.
“I think about that a lot , it’s like, ‘aw, man, I want to be the second guy,'” Loewen told Canada’s Sportsnet of joining Townshend in hockey history books “I just really want to make that happen.”
Loewen is also excited about the possibility of someday seeing Jamaica compete in the Winter Olympics in hockey. The Caribbean island nation, known for its Olympic track and field prowess and for having the world’s funkiest bobsled team, is an associate member of the International Ice Hockey Federation.
The Jamaica Ice Hockey Federation has been scouring Canada and the United States for Caribbean expatriate hockey talent in hopes of forming a touring team this summer to boost interest in the program and to attract sponsors for its Winter Olympics endeavor.
The national team effort will need deep pockets to field a team and to help build an ice skating rink in Jamaica, a requirement for full IIHF membership. In hockey’s six degrees of separation, Jamaica’s coaching staff is headed by none other than Graeme Townshend.
“To have an Olympic team is huge, especially the fact that we’re so small. I’m really happy that they’re making progress,” Loewen told NewsKamloops earlier this month. “Oh yeah…I definitely dream about it…maybe someday going and playing for that. There still is a lot of stuff to work out to get to that level. It’s a pretty big deal. I find it really cool.”
Townshend says he would love to see Loewen – all 6-foot-3, 205 pounds of him – don Jamaica’s flashy green, yellow, and black jersey. In time.
“You know what? I’m hoping that he’s Canadian hockey material first, to be honest,” Townshend told me recently. “Selfishly, of course, I’d love to have him on our team. But I’d like to see him be considered for Team Canada at some point. I know he’s Jamaican, but he grew up in Canada, I’m sure he has a soft spot in his heart for Canada. Like every Canadian kid, he’d want to represent his country. At some point, I’m sure our paths will cross, but I’d like to see how far he can take this. If he could play for Canada in the World Juniors, that would be amazing.”
Everything about Loewen’s hockey journey has been amazing thus far. Adopted from an orphanage in Mandeville, Jamaica, and relocated to rural Arborg, Manitoba, when he was five, Loewen didn’t lace on a pair of skates until he was six – late by Canadian standards.
He didn’t play his first organized hockey game until he was 10. But that didn’t stop him from getting drafted by the Blazers, a Canadian major junior team, six years later.
Year One with the Blazers was a learning curve for Loewen. He was scoreless in 37 games and amassed 24 penalty minutes. In 39 games this season, he has 5 goals, 3 assists, and a robust 39 penalty minutes.
Loewen wasn’t among the players listed Tuesday in NHL Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings of players eligible for the June draft in Buffalo. Still, Townshend is impressed with what Loewen has accomplished so far and believes that he has the raw talent and determination to eventually be chosen by an NHL team.
“His is one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever heard,” Townshend said. “Obviously when you start playing organize hockey at 10 when other kids start at six or seven, you’re way behind. He’s made up a lot of ground in a very short period of time. That says a lot about his character.”
Reggie Leach won a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe trophy, notched 381 goals in 13 National Hockey League seasons, and shares scoring records with legends like Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
But the man known as the “Riverton Rifle” declares that “I’m more proud of what I’ve done after hockey than during my hockey days.”
Hockey brought Leach fame for his regular season scoring prowess and post-season lamp-lighting heroics with the Philadelphia Flyers during the team’s “Broad Street Bullies” haymaker heydays in the 1970s and early 80s.
His post-hockey life has brought something more – sobriety, clarity, sense of purpose, and a renewed family closeness.
Leach, who’s Ojibwe, First Nation, candidly recounts his life on and off the ice in his autobiography “The Riverton Rifle My Story – Straight Shooting on Hockey and on Life.”
It’s a story that spans Leach’s impoverished beginnings in Riverton, Manatoba, to junior hockey stardom in Flin Flon, Manitoba, with a young teammate named Bobby Clarke, to an NHL career marked with records on the ice and recklessness off it.
“It wasn’t that hard to do if you’re honest with everything and go ahead and write it, ” Leach, 65, said of penning the book. “It’s more of a learning book based on the Seven Grandfather Teachings of the Ojibwe nation. It was dedicated to my grandkids and kids that need help.”
People who watched a young Reggie Leach play hockey in Manitoba considered him a natural – a swift skater blessed with a hard and deadly accurate shot.
What they might not have known that his skating skills were honed by figure skating lessons and the shot developed from countless hours in the offseason shooting on the hard concrete of thawed-out rinks.
The hard work paid off in success in major junior hockey. Playing alongside Clarke, Leach 255 goals and 146 assists in 183 games for the Flin Flon Bombers of the Western Hockey League and the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
Although he was a star player in juniors, he wasn’t immune to racist taunts of opposing players and so-called “fans” in the stands.
“There’d be a bunch of name-calling and everything else,” he said. “My junior coach, Pat Ginnell, said ‘Reg, the only reason these people are calling you names is you’re being noticed out there.'”
The Boston Bruins noticed Leach and took the right wing with the third overall pick in the first round of the 1970 NHL Draft. He appeared in 78 games over two seasons with the Bruins playing with the likes of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Gerry Cheevers and Derek Sanderson.
Leach endured three seasons in Oakland with the white skates-wearing Seals before being dealt to the Flyers and reunited with Flin Flon linemate Clarke, the gap-toothed, diabetic center who blossomed into the ringleader of the Broad Street Bullies and one of the best players in the NHL.
Leach would often say that “Clarkie makes the bombs and I drop ’em.” He proved to be quite the bombardier throughout his NHL career, notching 381 goals and 285 assists in 934 games.
While Leach was piling up goals, he was also compiling records, many of which stand today: goals in consecutive playoff games (10 in 1976); most goals in one playoff game (5 in 1976), shared with the Montreal Canadiens legend Rocket Richard, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Darryl Sittler , and Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mario Lemieux; most goals in one period of a playoff game (4 in 1976), shared with Flyers forward Tim Kerr and Lemieux; most goals in one playoff season (19 in 1976), shared with Edmonton Oilers winger Jari Kurri.
Success for Leach came as fast and hard as the shots he fired at terrified goalies. Perhaps too fast.
He drank, heavily. He wasn’t an everyday drunk. Sometimes he wouldn’t imbibe for weeks. But when he did, he went all-in.
“Years of binge drinking had taken a toll on my (first) marriage and it was hanging on by a thread,” Leach writes in his book. “By that time, I would go on a bender every week or two – run out for a loaf of bread on Friday and return on Sunday.”
After a doctor told him “Either you stop drinking now or you keep drinking and die,” Leach checked into the Maryville Addiction Treatment Center in Williamstown, N.J., where he confronted the demons that drove him to booze.
“It was very difficult to look at my past,” he writes. “In just a few short years, I had left behind my life as a carefree kid to become a married father of two. I had gone from relative obscurity to hockey stardom – and life in the fast lane. The change had been overwhelming and I turned to alcohol to help me cope.”
Leach left rehab in 1985 and felt good enough to consider resuming his hockey career – either as a player or a coach. Former teammates Clarke and Bill Barber suggested that he lace up the skates and give hockey a go again.
“It slowly dawned on me that I was about to return not just to the game I loved but also to the life of a professional hockey player, a life that involved spending time in bars and other places where beer taps were open,” Leach writes. “I knew I had to avoid situations that would trigger a relapse in my drinking – so after a lot of thought about what I had just fought through and careful reflection on what I had learned, I decided not to make a comeback.”
And he hasn’t looked back. Sobriety rekindled Leach’s relationship with his son, former Penguins right wing Jamie Leach, and his daughter, Brandie, a chiropractor in Austin, Texas, and a former Canadian national team lacrosse player.
He moved from South New Jersey, where many of his Flyers teammates retired, to Manitoulin, Ontario with his wife, Dawn. The “Riverton Rifle’ may be retired, but he hasn’t stopped working.
He helps teach aboriginal kids the value of making positive choices through the Shoot to Score hockey school he runs with his son. And he’s an in-demand motivational speaker who shares his story and his phone number with troubled teens.
“I’ve done this for a number of years. I’ve probably had 50 to 60 calls at night,” Leach told CBC News in November. “Even if you talk to these kids one or two minutes and give them the acknowledgement they deserve, I think for me it’s a big relief just to see smiles on their faces.”
While Leach speaks with pride about his post-hockey life and his Ojibwe heritage, he talks modestly about whether he should be honored for his playing career.
There was a 2013 drive to have Leach inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, where his “LCB” linemates Clarke and Barber are already enshrined, that spurred a petition and even a song.
“To me, it really doesn’t matter,” Leach told me. “All these people that want me in the Hall of Fame, I say they are my hall of famers.”
Propp produced 425 goals and 579 helpers in 1,016 NHL games over 16 years.
“He’s got nearly 1,100 points, no different than some of the other players that are put in there,” Leach said.
“I’m happy that Billy and Clarkie got in there,” he told me. “I’m happy for all the guys from the Flyers who got in the Hall of Fame, that’s great. There should be more players in the Hall of Fame who played for the Flyers who are not.”
There’s something special about brothers playing against each other in hockey.
Carolina Hurricanes forward Eric Staal once knocked brother Marc, a member of the New York Rangers, silly with a questionable hit against the boards. And Keith and Wayne Primeau actually dropped the gloves and duked it out when Keith played for the Hartford Whalers and Wayne for the Buffalo Sabres.
Hockey fans could be in for a treat Sunday when the Montreal Canadiens play the Boston Bruins, a game scheduled to air nationally on NBCSN. If Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien decides to start rookie goaltender Malcolm Subban against defenseman P.K. Subban’s Habs, it will be one of the rare times when players of color who are related square off in an NHL regular season game.
There are no guarantees that it happens. Malcolm Subban hasn’t played a regular
season minute in the NHL. He’s up from the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins because Boston sent backup goalie Niklas Svedberg to its Rhode Island affiliate for a conditioning stint.
Boston has been slow and deliberate in grooming Malcolm Subban, their 2012 first-round draft pick. When asked if the rookie goaltender would get a start this weekend, Julien only told reporters “We’ll see, guys.”
Julien could give Subban his first NHL start Saturday when the Canadiens play the New York Islanders.
Malcolm Subban told reporters that he’s up for whatever, even facing P.K. and his Howitzer slapshot from the point. “It would be pretty cool, but I’m not thinking into it too much,” he told WEEI.com Thursday. “Just trying to stay focused. Whenever the opportunity comes, hopefully I’ll be ready.”
Netminder Subban and defenseman Subban have faced each other before in a 2013 preseason game that Boston won 6-3.
“He had one (shot), it was probably the slowest shot I had all night,” Malcolm told NHL.com after that game. “A little knucklepuck on net.”
Sounds like blackboard material to me.
Minority hockey-playing brothers have skated against each other before. Chris Stewart, then a forward for the St. Louis Blues, and Anthony Stewart, a forward for the Hurricanes at the time, faced each other in 2011.
Hockey wasn’t easy for Val James – from picking up the game as a young Long Island rink rat, to literally fighting his way through the minor leagues, to trading punches with some of the toughest enforcers in the National Hockey League.
But for James, the NHL’s first American-born black player, the roughest opponents often weren’t on the ice. They were in the stands.
“Think about going on the ice, 40 games a year on the road, and every three seconds of a 60-minute game, you’re getting a racial slur thrown at you over a 10-year period,” he told me recently.
James and co-author John Gallagher recount the hostility he endured and the good times the left wing experienced in hockey during the 1970s and 80s in his book, “Black Ice: The Val James Story,” which goes on sale Feb. 1.
He writes honestly about his career as an enforcer – not a goon – whose punching power instilled fear in opponents. He unflinchingly describes the racial abuse he endured during a professional career that spanned from 1978-79 with the Erie Blades of the old North Eastern Hockey League to 1987-88 with the Flint Spirits of the International Hockey League.
“You’d get depressed every now and then over it, thinking ‘why are these people doing this, they don’t know me.’ I’m just out to entertain them, to give them a night out with their families, their girlfriends, whoever,” he told me. “It can work on your psyche if you let it. I was lucky enough to have a lot of good people around me. My teammates supported me totally.”
Canadian-born Willie O’Ree became the NHL’s first black player when he debuted with the Boston Bruins in 1958. James, 57, was the league’s first U.S.-born black player and probably the only NHLer born in Ocala, Florida.
His path to hockey started when his family moved to New York and his jack-of-all-trades father took a job at the Long Island Arena.
“He started out being a night watchman there, fixing things when they needed to be fixed,” James told me. “Then he ended up getting into the operations of it all.”
With dad working in the arena, young Val James got freebies for every major 1970s rock & roll act when they played the Island – the Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, Burton Cummings.
He also regularly watched the EHL Long Island Ducks play and practice at the arena, fascinated by the speed and aggressiveness of the game. When James got his first pair of ice skates at 13, and with his dad owning a key to the stadium, the Long Island Arena became his practice facility.
“I’d grown up watching the Canadian men play hockey for the Long Island Ducks skate on this same ice,” James and Gallagher wrote. “I imagined myself as one of them.”
James developed into a good enough hockey player to be a 16th-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 1977, though he never played for the team. He cracked the Buffalo Sabres’ roster in 1981-82 after signing as an unrestricted free agent.
“The top guy was Larry Playfair. He was a heavyweight, I was a heavyweight. So that spot was already filled,” James said. “The second line was Lindy Ruff. They all had multi-year contracts at the time because they never expected a guy like me to come along.”
After five seasons in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans
and the St. Catharines Saints, James returned to the NHL for four games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1986-87.
His NHL career stat line: No goals, no assists and 30 penalty minutes. But it’s the minor leagues where James had his greatest impact. He played in 630 games, tallied 45 goals, 77 assists and accumulated more than 1,175 penalty minutes – most of them with the AHL Americans.
A lot of those minutes were fives for fighting.
“It was something I was really good at,” James said.
Mike Stothers, head coach of the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs, can attest to that. He and James fought 13 times during a seven-game playoff series when Stothers was a defenseman for the Hershey Bears and James a winger for the St. Catharines.
“He was very good, probably one of the toughest at the time in the American Hockey League. He might have been the toughest ever in the American Hockey League,” Stothers told me. “He was a big man, very strong.”
Stothers paid James the highest compliment one enforcer can give another: “He was an honest fighter.”
“There was never any extra stuff: no cheap shots or stick work involved,” he added. “He never took liberties on skilled players.”
But that never stopped so-called “fans” from taking liberties on James. Objects and racist taunts were routinely thrown his way.
“At that point in time when I was coming up, it was always bananas, pictures of people from Africa with the bone in their nose, spear in their hands, the shields,” James told me. “People would make 8-foot, 9-foot signs like that and display them. At that time, there was no governing of behavior, players or fans, by the leagues.”
It was so bad that when CBS followed James in 1981 for a segment for “CBS News Sunday Morning,” the public address announcer at the Salem-Roanoke County Civic Center felt compelled to remind game attendees that use of offensive language was prohibited – something he’d never done before.
“Either way, neither the announcement nor the presence of the news cameras could stop the slurs and, as usual, not a single soul got tossed out for playing the racist fool,” James and co-author Gallagher wrote.
But there were times when people took stands against the abuse aimed at James. When two Richmond Rifles fans cast a fishing line with a toy monkey tied to it into the penalty box where James was sitting, referee Patrick Meehan stopped the EHL game and demanded the ejection of the offending fans.
“He did something that could have possibly at that point got him killed or lynched after the game,” James said. “But, nonetheless, he stood up for something, and that means a lot to me.”
Meehan, now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania, said he wasn’t trying to make a statement. He just trying to stop something that was “fundamentally wrong.”
“That’s not something that’s ‘fans just being fans.’ That can’t be tolerated,” Meehan
told me recently. “I did blow the whistle and skated over to the penalty box and I told (Richmond Rifles officials) that if those fans weren’t ejected from the game, I wouldn’t continue officiating that game and that game would be done.”
“I remember the owner came down and he was like ‘What are you doing?'” Meehan added. “I looked at him and said ‘That’s wrong.’ He said ‘You can’t do it.’ I said ‘Whether I can or can’t, I am because I will not skate in a game that condones that activity, so you make a choice.'”
The fans were ejected and the game went on.
On most nights, James took racial justice in his own hands – taking out his anger at the crowd on an opposing player.
“Since I couldn’t act on my fantasy of shoving a hockey puck down the throat of every big-mouthed racist, one acceptable way for me to respond to these attacks was to turn up my physical play,” James and Gallagher wrote. “If I could knock one of their hometown players into next week, then some of my anger might fade.”
James said he’s pleased to see the growth of players of color in hockey, from youth leagues to the pros.
He thought the sport had put its racial woes behind it until some Boston Bruins “fans” unleashed online racist tirades against Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward for scoring a game-winning overtime goal that eliminated the Bruins from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2012 and Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban for scoring a double-overtime game-winning goal against Boston in last season’s playoffs.
“It tells me that the state of hockey has advanced but hasn’t advanced, all in the same breath,” he said. “Those Boston incidents, they might be the same relatives of the people that tried to get me back in the 80s, right?”
Since hanging up his skates, James has traded hard ice for soft water. He works as a water park mechanic in Niagara Falls, Ontario, a short drive from Rochester and Buffalo – homes of his hockey glory days.
Rochester fans remember James not only for his fisticuffs but also for scoring the game-winning goal for the Americans in the deciding game of the 1983 Calder Cup championship against the Maine Mariners.
The Americans are holding a “Val James Legends Night” on Feb. 13 – the day before his birthday – at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena. In Buffalo, he’s been invited to speak to the kids of Hasek’s Heroes, an inner-city hockey program founded by former Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek.
James hopes the attention from the book will lead to opportunities to get back into organized hockey, perhaps in the coaching ranks.
“I think I can help the sport out more than I have,” he said.
The publication is named The Vancouver Sun but the caption with the photo was hardly enlightening.
Defenseman Jordan Subban, the Vancouver Canucks’ fourth-round draft pick in 2013, scored his first-ever NHL goal in Tuesday night’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks. After scoring the goal, a happy Subban celebrated with his teammates, a moment captured in a photograph published in The Sun’s online edition.
The picture was fine. The caption that accompanied it, not so much. It said: Vancouver Canucks celebrate goal by Jordan Subban (dark guy in the middle) against San Jose Sharks in NHL pre-season game at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, B.C. on September 23, 2014.
“Dark guy in the middle.” Really? Glad the cutline cleared up that confusion.
To add some bones to the caption’s obsession with Subban’s flesh: Jordan Subban was the 115th player selected in the 2013 draft. He’s the youngest brother of Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban and Boston Bruins goaltending prospect Malcolm Subban.
Jordan was a top defenseman last season for the Bellville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League. The diminutive 19-year-old notched 12 goals and 30 assists for the Bulls in 65 games. Big brother P.K., who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman in 2013, on several occasions has said Jordan is a cerebral blue-liner who can teach him a thing or two about playing defense.
The Sun and Vancouver’s Province newspaper apologized for the insensitive caption, but it’s still the latest racially clumsy episode before the first puck drops on the NHL’s 2014-15 season. First EA Sports inexplicably depicts St. Louis Blues tough guy Ryan Reaves about 15 shades too dark in its NHL video game, now the crazy Subban caption.
Subban took the episode in stride.
“I heard about that,” he told The Province Wednesday. “I had a chance to talk to a representative from the paper and it seemed like a pretty honest mistake. Am I worried about it? No. If people should be talking about something, it should be the way I played last night rather than that. Hopefully, it will just die down.
“It was just unfortunate. I don’t think there were any bad intentions. It is what it is and I’ve moved on and I’m sure everyone else will, too.”
Subban is on his way back to Bellville. The Canucks cut him and three other players and shipped them back to their major junior hockey teams.