We all know that Willie O’Ree was the first black player in the National Hockey League. O’Ree was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick in 1935 and began playing with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League in the 1956-57 season. The next year, when injuries hit the Boston Bruins, O’Ree was called up to play and was inserted into the lineup for his first game on January 18, 1958. He played two games that season with the big club with centreman Don McKenney and right winger Jerry Toppazzini.
He then went back down to Quebec but made it back up to the Bruins in the 1960-61 season and played in 43 games. He managed to get four goals and finished his time there with 18 points that year. Boston had a bad team in ’60-61 and finished last in the six-team NHL. A look through the Bruins page on HockeyReference.com will show you that a lot of guys worked in and out of the lineup that year.
What a lot of people overlook about O’Ree is that, yes, he first joined the Bruins when he was just 22 years old. When he rejoined the team, he was a mature 25 years of age. But he continued to play professional hockey until he was 43, spending most of his time playing for the Los Angeles Blades and the San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League. He scored 30 goals four times in his minor league career and won two scoring titles over that span.
He was a hockey lifer. And no one should construe that term as a perjorative. He gave his life to the game and was rewarded with a place in the Hockey Hall Of Fame in 2018. It wasn’t always easy. Being a black man in a white man’s game meant that he was subjected to vile abuse on most nights. He has been quoted as saying that the racial taunts were worse in the United States than they were in Toronto or Montreal. But he says he never listened to them. He just wanted to play hockey.
This past week, we saw that a number of NHL players have worn special skates made by Bauer and designed with O’Ree’s likeness on them and the inspirational quote “All I needed was the opportunity” to commemorate his career and his milestone NHL moment. Rightfully, O’Ree’s life and career are and should be celebrated.
There have been numerous black players in the NHL since O’Ree both made his debut in 1958 and played his last game with the Bruins in 1961. But who was the next one? Who was the NHL’s next black player? How long did it take for another black player to crack an NHL roster?
As many of us know, the NHL expanded from six to twelve teams for the 1967-68 season. Three years later, two more teams were added in Vancouver and Buffalo. In the summer of 1972, the league added the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames. The Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts joined the league for the 1974-75 season.
The league now consisted of eighteen teams and in the draft in the summer of 1974, the Capitals took a young black man in the second round, 19th overall, from the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey Association. Mike Marson had led the Wolves with 94 points in the ’73-74 season and was a second-team OHA All-Star. Marson was just 5’9” but played much of his career at 200 pounds and could play with an edge as well as his ability to display an offensive flair.
Marson played all 76 games in his first season, scoring 16 goals and adding 12 assists. That’s not bad for a rookie in the NHL in any era. But success on the ice wasn’t a problem for him. It was how things went for him off the ice that wore on him and stayed with him over time. The way he was treated as a black man in a white man’s game, not just in isolated incidents, but over and over and over again took their toll on him mentally and emotionally.
In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen’s Wayne Scanlan in 2020, Marson talked of things that repeatedly occurred for him. Aside from the racial taunts and the death threats, things like hotels refusing him a room when he was there with his team were a regular occurrence. Hotels and restaurants didn’t want to serve him food. Airlines refusing to allow him to pre-board with his team because, if he was black, he could not have been part of a hockey team.
Put your 18-year-old self in his place and consider how you might have dealt with a situation like that and ask yourself how you would have coped when it happened repeatedly. He played parts of five seasons in the league with the Capitals and the Los Angeles Kings.
“People weren’t ready. They didn’t know how to handle it. So how was an 18-year-old supposed to do it?
“I tell people,” Marson says, “if you want to get a sense of it, move to someplace in Africa where you’re the only person who looks like you and be at the top of your field and compete. Try that. You will get an insight.
“If I took away those things I experienced as a young player, who knows? But it wasn’t to be. I was the guy to open some doors and then the other guys could come in and take it further.”
I was fortunate enough to spend a few years working with Marson when we were both bus operators for the Toronto Transit Commission. He is retired now but the first time I met him, I was kind of in awe. I had had his NHL Action Players’ paper sticker in my book when I was a kid. I remember asking him if he missed hockey or his time with his teammates. I didn’t know at that time about what he had been through. He readily answered by shaking his head and quickly saying “No!”
Eventually, we would have occasion to meet up regularly as we would be at the same place somewhere in the city of Toronto. Our conversations would cover numerous subjects but the ones that would always stick out to me were the talks about his time being a black man living in Virginia (suburban D.C.) and just being in his car and being pulled over for what many of my other black friends have termed “driving while black”. Those conversations stay with me today.
He was always a great guy to talk to. He always had a calm, gentle demeanour and an easy smile and would tell me matter-of-factly about things he had experienced in his life. Some of the greatest stories he would relate to me were of his time as a bus driver when he first started back in the 80s. My eyes were absolutely opened about what life could be like on public transit in Toronto back in those days.
He’s now 65 and besides having been a pro hockey player and a TTC driver, Marson also is a 7th degree black belt and an accomplished painter having had his works displayed in gallery exhibitions.
When players and fans pay tribute to Willie O’Ree this month and over time, I hope they will also spend a moment to give a thought to a forgotten trailblazer, the second black man to play in the NHL, Mike Marson.
Howie Mooney | Sens Nation Hockey