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Blacks and Hockey Maintain a Tenuous Relationship


MONTREAL — The neighborhood known as Cote-des-Neiges (Coast of Snow) is near Mount Royal and only six subway stops from The Forum, the most hallowed arena in hockey. But the Montreal Canadiens, with 23 Stanley Cup banners dangling from the rafters of The Forum, are rarely visited by the people of this multiethnic, but predominantly black neighborhood.

"Very, very few blacks would go to the Forum to see a hockey game," said Des Williams, principal of Coronation elementary school in Cote-des-Neiges. "The times that I've gone, I could count the number of blacks in a crowd of 15 or 18,000."

The Coronation school is on Rue Vezina. Georges Vezina was a goaltender for the Canadiens and his name is on the trophy that goes to the best NHL goalie each season. There is an indoor arena right next to the school, with a rink, and skating is part of the physical-education program. But when one sits in the library with a dozen or so students and inquires as to who might be their sporting idols, the response is foreign.

"Jordan," said one.

"Jordan," said another.

"He starts from the foul line," 12-year-old Marlon Brown said matter of factly. "He does things that are impossible for other people to do."

Michael Jordan, of course, plays basketball. But hockey is the sport that pervades the thoughts of Canadians. Yet these youngsters do not recite the statistics of Stephane Richer or extol the virtues of Patrick Roy, who won the Vezina Trophy last season. Aren't some of them, or some like them, the professional hockey players of the 21st century?

"My family doesn't want me to play hockey," said 13-year-old Michael Mills, "because it's a white man's sport."

The numbers certainly show that blacks have had a scant presence in hockey. Just 16 black players have made it into at least one National Hockey League game. Currently, there are five in the NHL: Edmonton goalies Grant Fuhr and Eldon "Pokey" Reddick, Quebec's Tony McKegney, Chicago's Dirk Graham and New Jersey's Claude Vilgrain.

The two highest minor leagues, the American Hockey League and the International Hockey League, have three or four black players each, as do the three top junior leagues. Attendance is up with nearly every NHL franchise, but black fans make up a small percentage of those buying tickets.

The issue of race raised its head last month when Graeme Townshend of the Boston Bruins started a fight with the New York Rangers' Kris King because Townshend said King used a racial slur. The penalty Townshend drew helped the Rangers beat the Bruins.

The NHL office investigated the incident, but since King denied uttering a racial epithet, it was his word against Townshend's and there was no penalty handed out. Townshend is now back with the Bruins' farm club in Maine. Sadly, there have been copy-cat instigators in the AHL.

"I've gotten it a few more times since then," Townshend said. "Now, guys have heard about it. I'm learning to shrug it off. It's going to be part of the game."

Townshend has not reacted as he did to King, in part because he is now wiser and because teammate Ray Neufeld, who also is black, has helped a bit.

"I've either tried to stare him down or skate away," Townshend said. "I talked to Ray Neufeld and he told me all you can do is shrug it off. The way I reacted in Boston made more trouble for me and the Bruins than anyone else."

Neufeld, who will be 31 in April, played his first NHL game in 1979-80, so he's been around long enough to have heard such discouraging words.

"He doesn't say anything," Townshend said of Neufeld's experiences. "The only thing I remember him doing was in one of my first games, a guy said something and Ray sort of came to my aid and told the guy to think of something else to say."

Hockey is a very rough sport. Fighting is penalized but not banned, and there are players whose only real contribution is their ability to distract opponents in whatever way possible, physically or mentally.

"It's important to understand where it came from," Townshend said. "I don't think Kris King is a racist. I never said that. If I was white, maybe I would say something like that to get somebody off their game. In the heat of battle, you never know."

Townshend grew up in Toronto and went to school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., graduating last May with a degree in management. Townshend said he never heard any racial slurs in four years of college hockey and added that fans weren't a problem, either.

"Maybe the fact that the ECAC had four or five black players made it less of an issue," Townshend suggested.

Townshend said he was surprised to discover that Canadian players appear more likely to use his race as bait. "I get that more from Canadian guys," he said. "I grew up hearing about racial problems in the United States. Socially, in Canada I never got that. But (on the ice) it was totally opposite from what I expected. It's always one of the Canadian guys."

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