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A Reporter's Notebook : Breaking the Ice: a Black Man in the White World of Hockey

May 07, 1985|CHRIS BAKER | Times Staff Writer

To the best of my knowledge, I'm the only black hockey writer in the world. At times during my first season of covering the National Hockey League, I felt as though I had landed on another planet.

I think I know now how Jackie Robinson must have felt when he broke baseball's color barrier. I became a story just because of my skin color. I was interviewed on radio and TV in almost every city in the NHL. Invariably, after a few easy questions, I would be asked what it's like to be a black man covering a sport as white as the ice it's played on.

Pro hockey is pretty much a closed fraternity whose members regard outsiders with suspicion. I'll probably never be part of the inner circle, but I certainly became recognized. Everyone in the league seemed to know who I was. At the All-Star game in Calgary, people I'd never met greeted me by my first name.

Several Canadians said I was the first colored person they'd ever met. At first, I was offended at being called colored because it had never happened before. Now I believe it was simply naivete. There just aren't that many blacks in such Canadian cities as Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary.

I was hassled nearly every time I went through Canadian customs when crossing the border.

After landing at the airport on a flight from the United States, I would be ushered into a small room to meet with an immigration officer who would ask if I had the means to return to America. My bags were usually searched and my portable video display terminal inspected.

Most times, white reporters on the same trips were merely waved through the line unless it appeared they were with me.

I got strange looks at many rinks around the league. Often, I was the only black person in the arena, although I was surprised at the number of black hockey fans in Washington, D.C.

There are three black players in the NHL--goalie Grant Fuhr of the Edmonton Oilers, left wing Tony McKegney of the Minnesota North Stars and right wing Ray Neufeld of the Hartford Whalers. Fuhr's nickname is Cocoa, and it's not because he likes hot chocolate.

That's it in the NHL, three black players and one black reporter who can't even skate.

I had seen three hockey games before I was assigned to cover the Kings for The Times last August. I had no real interest in the sport. I hadn't even watched the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Naturally, I made mistakes. In the Kings' season opener, for example, I wrote that the game was played in quarters instead of periods. Once, The Hockey News ran an item in their Blues Lines column, saying that the Kings' insiders were miffed at my coverage.

Most of the racism I encountered was subtle. No one ever called me a nigger to my face, burned a cross on my hotel door or hit me with a hockey stick.

I even managed to go an entire season without being subjected to a hockey prank, although a few of the Kings did threaten to get me down in the locker room and shave my head after I got a haircut that they considered brutal.

There were moments, however, when I was graphically reminded that blacks and hockey are still basically strangers. Some instances:

--King Coach Pat Quinn was telling a joke that made fun of blacks, then stopped just before he got to the punch line when he realized that I was listening.

--The publicity man for one of the NHL teams refers to the National Basketball Assn. as the African Roundball League.

--In Montreal, the usher assigned to check press credentials always translated my name into French.

--When I went to a gym in Montreal and said that I was a visiting reporter from Los Angeles, I was asked if I knew the Jacksons because they used the same gym while they were in town for a concert.

--King winger Dave (Tiger) Williams introduced me to a fan as baseball player Dusty Baker, a former Dodger.

Being a native Southern Californian, it also took a while for me to get used to real winter weather.

I'd never seen it snow until last October, when I was in Winnipeg. The corner of Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg is said to be the coldest corner in North America. It was raining when I arrived at the airport, and I took a nap after checking into the hotel. When I got up to go to the game, I found that the rain had turned to snow. I resisted the urge to go out and build a snowman in front of my hotel.

It gets so cold there--it was 60 degrees below zero when I was there just before Christmas, and on another night, my hair froze--that they have to plug their cars into heaters in outdoor parking lots to keep their engine blocks warm. I'm still not used to seeing cars driving around with extension cords wrapped around the antenna.

I had a cold all season long. Maybe that was because of the extreme temperature changes. For example, when I arrived in Calgary for the All-Star game, it was 10 below zero. Three days later, I was back in Los Angeles, where it was 90.

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