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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Snubbed in black and White

Winnipeg-raised Afro-Canadian pro hockey player doesn't merit mention as a pioneer because he played in the WHA, not the NHL

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Black hockey players who paved the way onto professional teams are finally getting their due.

When hockey legend Herb Carnegie died at the age of 92 in March, Canadians were reminded of Conn Smythe's racist statement that Carnegie could play for the Leafs if only he were white.

 

Willie O'Ree was lauded in 2008, the 50th anniversary of his stepping onto the ice in a Bruins jersey, as the first black man to play in the NHL.

But one prominent black professional player seems to have been unjustly dropped from memory. Alton White, a Winnipeg son, has long been denied his proper place in sport history because he played solely in the World Hockey Association.

White has never been included on the list of Afro-Canadian and African-American hockey pioneers, despite playing in a pro hockey league. White deserves to be recognized for his accomplishments and for the discrimination he faced in life to end.

Born in 1945, White moved to Winnipeg at an early age, from Nova Scotia, because of his father's job as a porter for the Canadian National Railway. He learned to skate before he was four and loved hockey, dreaming of playing in the NHL some day.

As a boy in Winnipeg, he held his own against other Winnipeg players who later made their mark in the NHL, including Pete Stemkowksi and Ted Irvine. White had a distinguished junior career with the Winnipeg Rangers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, and attended United College, now the University of Winnipeg, before turning full-time to hockey.

White started his career in the International Hockey League and had four very good seasons with the Fort Wayne Komets and the Columbus Checkers. His last IHL season saw him score 37 goals and 38 assists for 75 points in 70 games.

He took a big step up when he signed with the Providence Reds of the American Hockey League. Despite three seasons of great play and good stats in Providence, White played directly for the Reds and was not sponsored by an NHL team, so he never received the coveted "call up" teammates did.

With the start of the WHA in the 1972-73 season, White was able to prove he could play alongside some of the best.

The first black player to play in a pro league since O'Ree broke the race barrier in the NHL 15 seasons earlier, White had an outstanding first year in the WHA, starting out with the New York Blades, then he was traded to the Los Angeles Sharks. He scored 20 goals for the Sharks, for a total of 21 for the year, and became the first black player in a pro league to score 20 goals in a season.

Also that year, he became the first black player to score a hat trick in a major league game when he scored three goals in seven minutes against the Minnesota Fighting Saints.

It seems like Alton White has been erased from history. For example, his story is afforded only one sentence in the 203 pages of Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey, Cecil Harris's 2005 book.

He merits one sentence in The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association, Ed Willes's 2004 book on the history of the WHA.

Let's face it. Alton White does not merit even a footnote in history because he played solely in the WHA. The WHA is slighted as if it were a minor league.

It's all but forgotten that NHL stars played in the league and gave it instant credibility. Some of the names are obvious: Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Dave Keon, Jacques Plante, Marc Tardif, Gerry Cheevers, Frank Mahovolich, Bernie Parent, Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell.

The list of future stars who broke into professional hockey in this overlooked league is staggering. Mark Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Liut, Ken Linseman, Mike Gartner, Michel Goulet, Rob Ramage, Pat Riggin, Pat Hickey, Craig Hartsburg and others come to mind.

In his three seasons in the WHA, from 1972 to 1975 with The New York Blades, Los Angeles Sharks, Michigan Stags/Baltimore Blades, there was always a sense of pride when White came to Winnipeg to play against the Jets. The hometown crowd knew he was the second black player in a pro hockey league.

Fans of the WHA look back with nostalgia and fondness, fully aware that much of the hockey world does not give proper recognition to this rebel league.

That Alton White is not recognized for the pioneer he is as the second black man to break the colour barrier in professional hockey is one more snub against the WHA. Surely, had he played in the NHL, the trail he blazed would be lauded.

Hopefully in future, sportswriters and hockey historians will no longer overlook the accomplishments of this Afro-Canadian.

Alton White deserves no less.

 

John Horan is a public relations consultant

for Cranbrook Strategies, LLC in Avon, Conn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 J12

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