“All I wanted was to be a hockey player. All I needed was the opportunity.”
That was a part of Willie O’Ree’s opening statement during his Hall of Fame induction speech earlier this November. O’Ree, 83, was the first black hockey player in the National Hockey League.
“On January the 18th, 1958, when I stepped on the ice with the (Boston) Bruins, it did not dawn on me that I was breaking the color barrier,” he continued. “That’s how focused I was on making my dream come true. …I have spent 67 years of my life in hockey. Now as the NHL’s (diversity) ambassador I travel across North America introducing boys and girls to the game I love. …My mission is to give them the opportunity like the one I was given.”
O’Ree’s monumental impact on the game of hockey cannot be denied. He paved the way for the 26 active black players in the NHL this season, and for hundreds more at the grassroots, collegiate and minor levels on up.
For the players however, hockey has always just been hockey.
“You notice, it’d be almost impossible not to,” Rosemount native and current Minnesota Wild forward J.T. Brown said of being black in a predominately white sport. “But for me, for the most part, I was just playing the game I loved. It didn’t matter what color my skin was or what religion you are. When you’re on the ice it’s about playing hockey. That’s how it should be.”
Brown grew up in the Rosemount Hockey Association, becoming a superstar at Rosemount High School and compiling 56 goals through 51 games his final two seasons in an Irish sweater. He went on to play two seasons at the University of Minnesota Duluth, helping the Bulldogs capture the program’s first-ever national championship in 2011 and earning Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player honors along the way.
From there it was six seasons between the Tampa Bay Lightning and their American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse before spending the second half of the 2017-18 season with the Anaheim Ducks. He signed a two-year contract with the Wild this past summer.
With each new locker room, coach and team, Brown remains adamant that he never felt like he stood out, a credit to those he surrounded himself with all of his life.
“I feel like I had a good group of coaches, friends and family support, so even when there were issues or things were said on the ice, I had a good grouping of people to support me,” Brown explained. “I know that’s not what everyone has, and everyone’s situation is different, but for my situation it was good to have those kind of people that I could talk to and be around.”
For CJ Suess, the experiences were similar. The Forest Lake native was playing organized hockey for the first time at age six, continuing up through his senior year of high school (playing baseball the entire way, too). From Forest Lake to Minnesota State University, Suess always felt a part of the hockey family and community.
“I definitely felt like I was part of the hockey culture and wasn’t standing out by any means,” said Suess who is playing his first professional season with the Winnipeg Jets AHL team in Manitoba. “As a kid there was maybe one or two instances that happen where someone says something they shouldn’t, but you just can’t let that bother you. I feel like USA Hockey, Minnesota Hockey and the game itself is doing a great job of weeding that out.”
“I was just playing the game I loved. It didn’t matter what color my skin was or what religion you are. When you’re on the ice it’s about playing hockey. That’s how it should be.” – Minnesota Wild forward J.T. Brown
J.T. Brown, Minnesota Wild (Rosemount)
*Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets (Roseau)
Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres (St. Paul)
CJ Suess, Manitoba Moose (Forest Lake)
*K’Andre Miller, University of Wisconsin (Minnetonka)
Micah Miller, St. Cloud State University (Grand Rapids)
*Byfuglien was the first American-born black player to win a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009-10
*Miller was drafted 22nd overall by the New York Rangers in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft
A large part of hockey’s inclusiveness seems to be the team-first mentality. Anyone who knows the game quickly realizes what a true bond every team must have to be successful.
“I think hockey is an ultimate team sport,” said Brown who’s dad, Ted, was a member of the Minnesota Vikings from 1979-86 . “If you look at other sports, individuals can kind of take over. In hockey, you need the person next to you just as much as they need you.
“Once you’re on a team, everybody has the same goal. Nobody cares what your race is, what your religion is, everybody can have their own separate beliefs. I think we’re all here for the same purpose, no matter what level of hockey be it high school juniors, college, pros, everybody has the same goal and I think as a team, at least from my point, nobody has ever cared if you’re white, black, Asian. You’re welcomed in with open arms and I would say other guys feel the exact same way.”
Suess again echoes Brown’s sentiments.
“Everyone’s out there to do the same thing,” he said. “The color of your skin shouldn’t play a matter in that.”
While Suess and Brown admit their positive experiences might be anomalies compared to other players of other races, it shows that the game has moved in the right direction to truly make hockey a sport for everyone.
The NHL teamed up with USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, You Can Play and Rise in 1998 to begin the Hockey is For Everyone campaign. It’s trickled down to grassroots programs with NHL cities aiding inner city programs. Even without NHL backings, programs like Minneapolis’ DinoMights exposes the sport to inner city youth at no cost, not only to teach the game of hockey, but the important life lessons that go along with it.
In Minnesota, the easy access to ice, low costs and the community-based model gives most players a leg up in accessibility as well.
Still, growth needs to be made.
There are only 26 active black players in the NHL and according to QuantHockey.com, 97 percent of the NHL remains white.
It took until 2018 for Team USA to have an African American represented on the Olympic squad (Wild forward Jordan Greenway who said the honor was “cool” but “I just see myself as a hockey player, not a black hockey player.”)
Presently USA Hockey and Minnesota Hockey do not track a player’s ethnicity, but a USA Hockey representative said they collected that specific data for the first time this season to evaluate for future use.
Ultimately, diversity as a whole in the sport remains minimal.
“While the community-based model is the most accessible model of hockey for people of all backgrounds, when it comes to diversity, we have a lot of work ahead of us,” said Minnesota Hockey executive director Glen Andresen. “It’s encouraging to see more ethnicities in hockey, but it’s still not enough. We need to really take a hard look at new ideas aimed at getting these families into hockey and making it an environment where they feel welcome and part of the hockey community.
“That will involve sitting down with families to find out what made them want to try hockey, and also to families who didn’t try it, and how can we change that? This must be something we constantly work on.”
Suess said he recognizes the efforts being made by the sport’s governing bodies. It gives him hope for the future of the game, and the future of players of all races to be included.
“The more people you get into the game, the better it is,” he said. “The more anybody can feel comfortable coming into the environment of the hockey culture, the more players we will get. It will invite more players in the future in, and I truly think that the race thing will soon become a thing of the past as long as we keep moving forward and making the efforts moving forward.”