Friday, 29 January 2010

Unrecognized Hockey History

Do you know who the gentleman is pictured to the left? If you don't, that's ok. I'm here to tell you. The NHL doesn't recognize any of the records set in the WHA by any player simply because the NHL doesn't recognize its largest rival to date. The WHA was the "rogue league" - a league whose players wouldn't be included in any international event that the NHL was included in. Because of this, there are a large number of records that have gone unrecognized despite the WHA having some impressive records set. The man to the left is a man who set a record that will never make a record book because of the NHL's unwillingness to acknowledge anything WHA. However, the man to left - Alton White - will be recognized here because of what he did.

While Willie O'Ree is certainly recognized and celebrated by the NHL for his achievement of being the first African-Canadian or African-American to suit up in the NHL, Willie O'Ree didn't accomplish what Alton White accomplished. White is widely recognized as the second black player in professional hockey, but Alton's achievements need to be recognized by the NHL simply due to marketing. Not many kids today can relate to what Willie O'Ree did, but they can relate to what Alton White accomplished.

The right winger starred in the WHA with the Los Angeles Sharks from 1972-74. He never caught the eye of any NHL general manager, but White carved out a pretty decent hockey career in the IHL, AHL, and WHA.

White was born in Amherst, Nova Scotia on May 31, 1945, but moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba as a young child with his parents. White's father took a job in the Manitoba capital with the Canadian National Railway, so they headed west. White was taught to skate before he was four, and he continued playing hockey in Winnipeg. White attended United College (now the University of Winnipeg) to study liberal arts, but only made it through a year-and-a-half of school before turning to hockey as a full-time job.

White had a successful season with the Winnipeg Rangers in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League in 1962-63. This led to a roster spot with St. Paul Rangers in Minnesota under the tutelage of legendary Flyers coach Fred Shero in the old Central Professional Hockey League. Shero, a Winnipeg native, would go on to coach the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers for the 1971-72 season, leading them to consecutive Stanley Cup championships in 1973-74 and 1974-75.

From the CPHL, White cracked the roster of the IHL's Fort Wayne Komets. In his first professional season in a major league at age 20, White played 66 games, posting 17 goals and 25 assists.

The Columbus Checkers picked up White for the following season, and he really began to climb the scoring ladder. In his first season with Columbus, he scored 24 goals and 42 assists in 62 games. Columbus kept him around for the 1967-68 season, and he continued to show improvement. White put up 37 goals and 38 assists in 70 games for the Checkers, prompting them to bring him back for another season. The 1968-69 season was his best yet as White scored 35 goals and 50 assists in 72 games for the Checkers.

Because of his impressive scoring in the IHL, he was signed by the AHL's Providence Reds for the stretch run and the playoffs at the end of the '68-69 season. In seven regular season games, White only scored one goal for the Reds. However, the Reds made the playoffs, and he also scored one goal in nine playoff games.

The Reds signed White for the next three seasons where he played a total of 211 games. His scoring ability quickly found its way back, and White scored 48, 61, and 64 points respectively over those three seasons. In all three seasons, he scored 24 or more goals, showing that he definitely had a nose for the net. With his 64 points, White finished second in scoring on the Reds - pro teams started to take notice of the 26 year-old.

With the upstart WHA coming into existence in 1972, there were hundreds of professional hockey jobs opening up for players with talent. The New York Raiders were one of the teams in the WHA's first year, and they quickly signed White to a deal after he starred with the Reds. However, he saw little ice time with the Raiders after they had signed a number of talented minor-leaguers, and he demanded a trade in December after playing only 13 games. With one goal and four assists to his name in his short time in New York, White demanded a trade to the Los Angeles Sharks, and got his wish in December of 1972. The trade for White got New York a couple of grinders in Bob Brown and Jarda Krupicka.

In Los Angeles, White got what he wanted: playing time. Sharks coach Terry Slater gave White a spot on the top two lines most nights, and White responded. In 57 games after the trade from New York, White went on a tear, finishing the season with a combined total of 42 points in the 70 games he played that season. But what was more significant were the two benchmarks he set.

White became the first black hockey player to score 20 or more goals for a professional hockey team, finishing the season with 21 goals. And White became the first black hockey player to ever record a hat trick in a professional hockey game. That feat was accomplished on March 1, 1973 in Minnesota.

In a rather surprising seven minutes of action, White netted three goals for the Sharks in a 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Fighting Saints. The first two came the standard way: beating the goaltender with shots. The goaltender that gave up White's first two goals was Jack McCartan, the gold-medal winning goaltender for Team USA at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California and former New York Rangers goalie.

White's third goal, and 21st goal of the season, was credited without having White shoot the puck. With the net empty late in the game and Los Angeles up 3-1, White was sprung for a breakaway. However, a Saints player threw his stick into White's path, and the play was blown dead. The officials made the correct call in awarding White the goal, giving him his first career hat trick and the first hat trick ever recorded by an African-Canadian or African-American player.

In a post-game interview, White downplayed the colour of his skin in regards to the hat trick. Instead, he said that the hat trick itself was a big achievement in his hockey career. While that may be the case for White, the fact that the NHL doesn't have any information about Alton White is tragic. If they needed a role model for African-Canadian or African-American who scored in bunches, Alton White was the first man to score with some regularity after becoming the second black man to play hockey professionally.

White's WHA career only last two more seasons, seeing him suit up for the Sharks before moving on to the Michigan Stags/Baltimore Blades franchise. Thanks to a little research and some digging, Alton White's story can be told here. In the 145 WHA game he suite up for, White recorded 38 goals and 46 assists. 21 of those goals and 21 of those assists came in the 1972-73 season split between New York and Los Angeles when he was 27 years-old.

According to Joe Pelletier's fabulous site, Greatest Hockey Legends, White is living in Vancouver and working in the construction business.

So there's a little hockey history about Alton White, the first African-Canadian or African-American hockey player to record twenty goals in a season, and the first African-Canadian or African-American to record a hat trick in a professional game. While there are some details that conflict in stories, there is no denying Alton White's place in hockey history.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

***Information sourced from Ebony Magazine, April 1973 edition.***


garagehero said...

As a kid I saw Alton play for the Sharks at the old Sports Arena in Los Angeles. Many of us inner-city kids used to buy tiks up in the cheap seats, and because the Sharks never drew more than half capacity, we used to sneak down, where we would cheer our heroes, Alton White and the other Sharks. I can sill see him in my minds eye, whizzing down the ice and looking to pass. Thanks for your article...I agree. The NHL, and yes, the hockey world in general has amnesia when it comes to recognizing the players of the WHA.

Anonymous said...

I had the privilage of watching Alton practice daily with the New York Raiders. A good skater,good hands and a eye for the net. There were days ,he would skate on Ron Ward's line. The guys loved him. As a inner city kid,I had a appreciation for what he represented. Its because of him and the New York Raiders, I worked in hockey for 17 years. I just want to say,"Thank You.

Anonymous said...

I just had the privilege of meeting Alton today at the B.C. Seniors Games in Courtenay, British Columbia. He continues to skate well & his stick handling & play-making are still in tack. I was honored to meet such a gentleman with this hockey history. He does live in the Vancouver area.

Anonymous said...

I've prattled on here before about the rampant bias in hockey...the anti-WHA bias, that is. This great story only drives home the point.

Despite numerous opportunities -and FAR too many "reasons"- to point to a guy like Alton White as evidence hockey isn't racist, the NHL hockey monopoly never has. Clearly, their anti-WHA bias is more important to them than dispelling charges of racial bias in hockey. Poor Willie O'Ree was forced to be the "Look, we've had black friends for decades" role pretty much on his own.

From what I know, Alton White is a potentially fantastic argument against hockey racism. The most obvious reason is that he was pretty successful. Twenty goals meant a lot more in those days and he did it with a franchise not known for its offensive. If he was on the Jets, he might have scored 40-50 goals.

Second, the timing was great. He appeared in the WHA while Willy O'Ree was still playing in the WHL (which the NHL monopoly also avoids mentioning because it once hoped to become a WHA before the WHA did). Hell, O'Ree played right down the road from the LA Sharks in San Diego and was still putting pucks in the net. The Sharks really should have signed him. He had a hockey profile in LA because he spent most of the 60's as one of the (WHL) LA Blades' best players. And he might have helped mentor Alton. The Sharks would've had a great marketing angle. Willie would've have retired on a more visible stage and "handed the torch" over to Alton. Missed opportunity.

The point is, Alton could serve as evidence of "a continuity of acceptance". Instead, the NHL completely ignores him, largely jumps over Mike Marson & Bill Riley (Granted, they both played on THE worst team in hockey history.) and straight to Tony McKegney. His style was more similar to Alton's and he too was signed by the WHA (Birmingham Bulls). But threats of a race riot cancelled that before it began. In short, the NHL would rather act as if pro-hockey went without a black player from 60-61 to 78-79 (almost 20 years) rather than accept Alton's very respectable major league play in the WHA. Effectively, they've declared him a "non-person". Nope, no racism there!

Third, Alton didn't fit the stereotype of black hockey players that has a racist aftertaste to it..."physical, aggressive, play" only. With 45 career penalty minutes, he was anything but that. Everything I've read (and I saw him in a couple TV games) indicates he was a quiet, small-ish, offensive player who was more brains than brawn. And in a time when it was rarely done, he requested a trade...and got it! That's a an "anti-racist" story all on it's own.

Unfortunately, because Alton played in the WHA, the NHL has forced him to the back of the hockey bus while other less talented, less significant, less deserving players sit in the front. In the process, it actually makes hockey look a bit more racist than it actually was/is.