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The history of black players in North American ice hockey has roots dating back to the late 19th century. The first black ice hockey star was Herb Carnegie during the Great Depression. Willie O'Ree broke the NHL's black color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958.[NB 1]

Coloured Hockey League

The Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes began in 1895, as an initiative of black Baptist churches in Nova Scotia.[1] The aim was to increase and retain male membership. The league consisted of teams from Halifax, Africville, Hammond's Plains, Dartmouth, Truro, Amherst, and Charlottetown, P.E.I.[1] All games were on an invitational basis with the trophy still residing in a private home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Historically, they were the first league to allow the goaltender to drop to the ice to stop the puck.[2]


Ontario is geographically large, and it was impossible in the early 20th century to organize an all-black league like in Nova Scotia. Some of the early black players in Ontario hockey history included Hipple Galloway and Fred Kelly. Galloway played as a member of the Woodstock team in the Central Ontario Hockey Association in 1899.[3] In 1916, Fred (Bud) Kelly of London played for the 118 Battalion team of the Ontario Hockey League. Kelly was scouted by the Toronto St. Pats but was never officially contacted. One of the first all-black teams in Ontario was the Orioles. The team was from St. Catharines and played in the Niagara District Hockey League during the 1930s.[citation needed]

Herb Carnegie's hockey career began in 1938 with the Toronto Young Rangers and continued in the early 1940s with the Buffalo Ankerites, a team in a mines league that played in mining towns in northern Ontario and Quebec. While with the Ankerites, Carnegie was part of the Black Aces line.[4] The other line members consisted of his brother, Ossie Carnegie, and Manny McIntyre, originally from Fredericton, New Brunswick. They were recognized as much for their talent and skill as their skin color (Herb was at center, Ossie was right wing, McIntyre was the left wing). In the semi-professional Quebec Provincial League, Herb was named most valuable player in 1946, 1947, and 1948.[5]

In 1948, Carnegie was given a tryout with the New York Rangers and offered a contract to play in the Rangers' minor league system. However, he was offered less money than he was earning in the Quebec league and turned down all three offers made by the Rangers organization during his tryout.[6]



Main article: List of black NHL players

The NHL does not keep statistics on the percentages of ethnicities in the league. However, outside sources have collected statistics on the number of black players in the NHL as well as the percentage of white players in the NHL. According to an article by USA Today, 97% of the NHL is white, while the other 3% is made of different ethnicities.[9] Of the 3% of the remaining ethnicities, twenty-six are black. Twenty of the twenty-six black hockey players are from Canada while six are American.[10] In all, the NHL is made up of 47.4% Canadians, 25.4% Americans, 9.0% Swedes, and the rest is made up by Russia, Finland, and a few other nations.[11] Notable players of African American descent include Dustin Byfuglien, who is of Norwegian, African, and Swedish descent; Kyle Okposo, who is of Nigerian descent; and Joel Ward, whose ancestors are from Barbados.

A Sports Illustrated article in 1999 attributed the increase in black NHL players, in part, to significant demographic changes in Canada, the country which supplies the largest share of the league's players: "In 1971 there were only 34,445 blacks in Canada ... 25 years later, after heavy immigration from British Commonwealth nations in the Caribbean, Canada had 573,860 blacks (2% of the population) ...."[12]

In 2019, the NHL designed a Black History Month mobile museum. The mobile museum is a part of the "Hockey is For Everyone" campaign and is aimed to celebrate Black History Month. The mobile museum is also a commemoration of the black players who have played in the NHL. The museum completed an eight-city tour in February, with its final stop being outside the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C.[13]


Willie O'Ree is referred to as the "Jackie Robinson of ice hockey" (and twice met Robinson personally, in O'Ree's own younger years)[14] as the first black player in the National Hockey League (NHL).[NB 1] He was called up to the Boston Bruins of the NHL to replace an injured player. He made his NHL debut with the Bruins on January 18 of the 1957–58 NHL season, against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first black player in league history. O'Ree is still heavily involved with the NHL, in promoting the league's Diversity Program all over North America with amateur youth and adult hockey players.[15]

Other firsts


In July 2022, the San Jose Sharks hired Mike Grier as general manager, making him the first black American to serve as general manager.[20][21]


On April 3, 2001, Jay Sharrers made NHL history as the first black referee to officiate an NHL game. He worked his first game as an NHL ref when the Philadelphia Flyers faced the visiting Florida Panthers.[22]

Racial incidents in the NHL

During the 1958 season, Canadian-born Willie O'Ree became the first player of African descent to join the National Hockey League. Playing a short career of only 45 games, O'Ree faced racism after being recalled from the Canadian minor leagues. While in the minor leagues, O'Ree recalls the racism he faced as predominantly muted. However, as soon as O'Ree entered into the NHL, racist remarks and actions by hostile fans and players appeared.[23] While playing in America, O'Ree recalled one racial incident where Chicago Blackhawks forward Eric Nesterenko yelled racial slurs at O'Ree and butt-ended O'Ree with his stick. The event caused fights to break out between all players of each team and a police escort was required for O'Ree to leave the building safely.[23] O'Ree has stated that racism had not affected him in his playing career. In addition, any racial slurs, according to him, "would go in one ear, and out the other." O'Ree cites his brother as his main inspiration to become the first black hockey player. He found that if the fans were against him playing because of his skin color, he may as well ignore it and focus on what he does best.[9] This motivation led Willie O'Ree to be named the "Jackie Robinson" of hockey by the NHL community.

When O'Ree first entered the league as the first ice hockey player of African descent, he received no recognition from the league or the media. The media did not publish any articles that the color line in hockey had been broken. Some newspapers who reported about the first game O'Ree played confused O'Ree's first name Willie, as Billy. O'Ree himself noted, "It didn't really dawn on me then,"[24] that he had broken the color barrier in professional hockey. When Val James first entered the league in 1981, the NHL did not make any recognition of him being the first African American in the NHL.[25]

Nowadays,[when?] O'Ree serves as the NHL Diversity Ambassador and aims to raise participation in hockey by all races through hosting programs at local ice arenas. These programs include learn-to-skate clinics as well as youth hockey development clinics for children of multi-ethnic backgrounds. The main goal of the clinics is to increase the diversity of hockey and allow children who are unfamiliar with the sport to have a chance at trying it out. The clinics also address the issue of race within the hockey community. O'Ree's personal goals are to communicate that, "Your race can't keep you from succeeding,"[24] to the younger children and to share how he overcame the racism he faced during his career.

The first American-born player of African descent in the NHL was Val James. James's short career was spent with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres. James recalls fans taunting him with racial slurs as well as players committing penalties and fights against him because of his skin color. In an interview with James, he states that he could not watch another hockey game for ten years due to the events of his NHL career haunting him.[25] Val James found the most intensive racism to be in the United States. During his career with the Buffalo Sabres, Val James recalls beer bottles being thrown at him when entering the arena as well as fans shouting racial slurs at him.[25]

Modern-day racial incidents in the NHL come in many different forms; however, the most prominent are player and spectator interactions. According to an interview with Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly, "As a Black hockey player, he [Smith-Pelly] knew exactly what they meant by, 'Basket­ball, basket­ball, basket­ball!'"[9] In this case, the spectators are taunting Smith-Pelly that he is better suited to play basketball, since the majority of the NBA is African American.[26] Smith-Pelly states that this incident was "just ignorant people being ignorant."[9]

Many other racist incidents during hockey games have also occurred. During a preseason game, while playing for the Philadelphia Flyers, Wayne Simmonds had a banana thrown at him by a fan. Simmonds' response to this event was very similar to Smith-Pelly's. He believes that a strong example should be set by including a zero-tolerance policy in the NHL. With this policy enacted, any racist remarks or gestures would cause an immediate ejection from the arena and a subsequent ban from attending that organization's games.[9]

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has supported his players' wishes by including the zero-tolerance policy for racism. According to Gary Bettman, "Even if it's only one incident it is one too many."[9] The NHL has taken increasing action in the past few years[when?] against racist events, even banning four fans from the United Center and all future Chicago Blackhawks events. Commissioner Gary Bettman has also raised awareness of racist incidents around the league by dedicating the month of February to "Hockey is for Everyone Month". The event starts on February 1, the same date as Black History Month, and has the goal of raising awareness of equality throughout the league. Players tape their sticks with pride tape that represents awareness of equality, respect, and inclusion. In addition, many different programs take place across the nation to include players with disabilities. The event is also promoted through social media with the hashtag HockeyIsForEveryone.[27]

Although the NHL has taken strong actions against racism in the league, players still believe there is a large issue at hand. Most players, including Smith-Pelly and Evander Kane of the Edmonton Oilers, believe that the NHL has still a long way to go. In their words, race as an issue in the NHL will continue to exist, due to similar incidents occurring in the NHL both sixty years ago and today. O'Ree has a hopeful outlook for the future of hockey's diversity. He has stated, "There's more kids of colour playing hockey today than ever before, and more girls."[13] Furthermore, many players are optimistic that the NHL community has gathered around to protect its players from racist incidents.[9]


Women's hockey

Angela James played in the Central Ontario Women's Hockey League, precursor to the National Women's Hockey League and Canadian Women's Hockey League. She represented Team Canada internationally. She scored 34 points (22g, 12a)[35] in 20 games over four women's world championships,[36] including 11 goals in five games in the inaugural IIHF World Women's Championships, held in Ottawa in 1990.[37] In 2008, she, along with Cammi Granato (USA) and Geraldine Heaney (CAN), became the first women to be inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hockey Hall of Fame.[36] James is the daughter of a black father and white mother; she is the only Black Canadian to captain a national hockey team.[38]

Career stats

Franchise career

These are the top-ten point, goal, and assist scorers in any franchise history. Figures are updated after each completed NHL regular season.

Note: Pos = Position; GP = Games played; G = Goals; A = Assists; Pts = Points; P/G = Points per game; G/G = Goals per game; A/G = Assists per game; * = Active player; Bold = Currently playing

NHL career

These are the top ten point, goal, and assist scorers in NHL history. Figures are updated after each completed NHL regular season.

Note: Pos = Position; GP = Games played; G = Goals; A = Assists; Pts = Points; P/G = Points per game; G/G = Goals per game; A/G = Assists per game; * = Active player

Historic firsts

American born


See also


  1. ^ a b "China Clipper" Larry Kwong broke the NHL's color barrier a decade earlier than Willie O'Ree, on March 13, 1948, playing with the New York Rangers against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum.


  1. ^ a b [1] Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925
  2. ^ African Nova Scotia Hockey History Archived February 11, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 2010-12-02.
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  4. ^ Herb Carnegie. Greatest Hockey (2007-01-21). Retrieved on 2010-12-02.
  5. ^ Carnegie, Herb; Carnegie, Bernice (2019). A Fly in a Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story. ECW Press. ISBN 9781770414952.
  6. ^ Humber, William (2004). A Sporting Chance: Achievements of African-Canadian Athletes. Toronto : Natural Heritage Books. pp. 107–108. ISBN 1896219993.
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  14. ^ Russo, Eric (January 17, 2018). "O'Ree A Vital Part of Hockey History". National Hockey League. Retrieved January 19, 2018. Willie O'Ree first met Jackie Robinson when he was just 14 years old...The New Brunswick native was in New York for a trip honoring his youth baseball team and managed to carve out a few minutes to chat with the legend by the dugout during a visit to Ebbets Field. O'Ree made sure to inform Robinson that in addition to his baseball accomplishments, he was also a hockey player...Robinson was a bit surprised, not realizing that any Black kids played hockey. It was an interaction that proved to be a memorable one...Some 13 years later during an NAACP luncheon in Los Angeles, the two once again crossed paths. Following an introduction, Robinson - the first Black player in Major League Baseball history - quickly realized that it was not their first encounter..."'Willie O'Ree - aren't you the young fella I met in Brooklyn?" Robinson asked...It was a moment that O'Ree cherishes to this day - and one he felt important to share during a celebration marking the 60th Anniversary of his breaking the NHL's color barrier.
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  25. ^ a b c James, Valmore (January 10, 2017). Black ice : the Val James story. ECW Press. ISBN 9781770413634. OCLC 960097075.
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  27. ^ "Hockey Is For Everyone month begins". Retrieved February 28, 2019.
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  31. ^ @jonmorosi (August 6, 2022). "Honored to share the inspiring story of Kaidan Mbereko, the third African-American goaltender to make a @usahockey World Junior roster, joining Doug Bonner (1995) and @ijsaville31 (2020). @kaidanmbereko30 @CCTigerHKY @TheNCHC @USAHockeyNTDP @LincolnStars" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
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