Hockey Has Always Been Black

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As long as I live, I’ll never forget this story my dad has about one specific hockey tournament I played in when I was little.

It was 2005, and the event was at the Ice Palace in West Edmonton Mall. My mom, dad, little brother and I had all made the trip up from my hometown of Winnipeg, and I couldn’t have been more excited. This was an elite invite-only, 10-and-under tournament. The best of the best. I was basically counting down the seconds until I could get out on the ice and show what I could do.    

Once things finally got going, it was like everything clicked. Just one of those days where everything was going right. It was so much fun. Even among that group of players, I stood out. 

But that’s not what my dad’s story is about. 

The story is about me as a person, and my family, and … even just our presence at the tournament in the first place. Because anyone who noticed the plays I was making out on the ice, probably also noticed that I was the only Black kid out there. And, of course, they could surely guess which set of parents was mine, since my dad was the only Black parent in the stands. He was sitting right next to my mom, who is white, and who’s been there every step of the way to support me. Still, he stood out — our whole family did.

As the day wrapped up, another kid’s parent started up a conversation with my dad. This guy had some thoughts about how I played, and where my hockey journey might go. 

“Sure, your son is good now,” he told my dad, before pausing for a second or two. “But this won’t be his sport.”

Madison Bowey | Vancouver Canucks | Hockey Has Always Been Black | The Players' Tribune
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You can call it a coded message, but he barely tried to disguise what he meant: Black kids don’t play hockey. This isn’t his place. There are other sports for kids like your son.

Maybe he felt threatened because his kid wasn’t playing at the same level. Maybe he was just a cruel person who thought stereotypes could be weaponized at will.

Either way, though, he was definitely wrong — because hockey has always been Black.

Does that sound provocative? Controversial? 

It shouldn’t be. It’s the reality I’ve known ever since I first put on skates.

My dad was a big reason why I started lacing them up. He played pro hockey in Germany in his teens and early 20s, and he passed his love for the game on to me. My dad was my first role model for what a hockey player could look like — skilled, strong and Black. I found another role model in Ray Neufeld, who happened to watch one of my games from the stands when I was seven or eight years old. A Manitoba native, Ray played 595 games in the NHL in the 1980s while defying stereotypes about race in hockey. 

Ray had a different kind of feedback for my parents: “This kid has a shot,” he told them. “He could really make it if he just sticks to it and loves it.” 

To me, his words were inspiration to keep working toward the future I was already dreaming about. I wanted to play in the NHL, and I believed I could make it if I worked hard and kept up my passion for the game. There was no question in my mind that the sport had a place for people like Ray, or my dad, or me. 

But right around the time I met Ray is when I first learned that other people would doubt my place in the sport. That’s the best way I can describe how you process being called the n-word on the ice when you’re still young enough to count your age on two hands. Honestly, I wasn’t really familiar with the word the first time it was thrown at me — I could tell it was bad by the way the kid had said it, but I wasn’t sure of the significance. 

Madison Bowey | Vancouver Canucks | Hockey Has Always Been Black | The Players' Tribune
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So I asked my dad.

Right then and there, he sat me down and gave me a history lesson that he probably always knew would be necessary one day. He talked about society and racism, and how there were still too many obstacles blocking the equality that everyone deserves. When it came to hockey, he wanted to be clear: Anyone who said people like me didn’t belong in the game wasn’t just saying something mean, they were also saying something that was false.

The proof?

It goes back at least as far as 1895, he said. That’s the year the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes was founded in Nova Scotia. If you haven’t heard of that all-Black league with hundreds of hockey players across a dozen or so teams, you’ve definitely heard of some of the innovations they’ve been credited with inventing — like the slap shot and the butterfly goalie technique. And all this began more than two decades before the National Hockey League even existed. Black people were already playing the game — and advancing it, improving on it, with their skill and creativity. 

Anyone who said people like me didn’t belong in the game wasn’t just saying something mean, they were also saying something that was false.

Madison Bowey

My dad didn’t stop there. 

He also made sure I knew the names of elite Black players who’d never gotten the chance to play in the NHL, guys like Herb Carnegie. And he taught me all about the pioneer who ultimately did make it, Willie O’Ree. He emphasized how Willie’s amazing achievement opened doors for so many Black players to come after. (To this point, thanks to Willie and other pioneers, more than 100 Black players have worn an NHL uniform.) 

If you listen to a lot of the noise out there, it’s easy to assume that Black people never engaged with the game, or that it’s something our community just isn’t interested in. In reality, we’ve been part of the sport since the very beginning. Even when it wasn’t easy to access opportunities. Even when obstacles were blocking our path.

We were there. 

Erasing us from the narrative is probably a convenient way to avoid grappling with the doors that weren’t open to us. But we were always there — and we’re still here, as proud as ever to be playing the game we love.

Once you’re armed with the level of detail and history my dad passed down to me, you bring a new kind of confidence to everything about how you approach the sport.

So I never believed the pop culture references that said hockey was a “white man’s game.” I knew it was our game, too, and that no one can take that away from us. There were also other references I knew enough to ignore and dismiss … like the idea that Black players can only be fighters or enforcers. 

Sure, there’s a solid list of Black enforcers who have impacted the game. But there’s no limit to the roles that Black athletes can play on the ice. Look at Bill Riley as a winger in the 1970s. Or Tony McKegney scoring 40 goals in 1987–88. Or Jarome Iginla leading the league in goals and points in 2001–02, among many other highlights during his Hall of Fame career. 

Jarome, in particular, was extra special to me when I was coming up. I’d watch the Calgary Flames play, and right when the game was done, I’d throw on my Iginla jersey, head out to the backyard rink (thanks, Mom and Dad!), and pretend I was skating in the NHL. There are many reasons why I idolized Jarome, but a big one was because he was a hard-nosed guy who went out there every day and stayed true to himself. No stereotype could stop him from being the league’s most outstanding player. He exemplified how Black players don’t have fit a certain mold. 

We have been everything, from team captains to goalies to All-Stars to Stanley Cup champions. (When I was lucky enough to hoist the Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018, I was so proud to do it while wearing number 22, chosen in honor of Willie O’Ree and the path he paved for players like me.)

Madison Bowey | Vancouver Canucks | Hockey Has Always Been Black | The Players' Tribune
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These days, when I think back to that parent at the tournament in Edmonton — the one who didn’t see the possibility of overlap between hockey and my skin color — I have to assume he was blind to all this history. And I know that guy is not alone in having those blind spots. Even today, as the game grows more diverse than ever, greater representation on the ice doesn’t always translate to more expansive views about what a hockey player looks like and who can play this sport. There’s been more than one road trip where me and my Abbotsford Canucks teammates, Justin Bailey and Devante Stephens — who also happen to be Black — have walked into a hotel or restaurant together and heard people guessing that we’re football or basketball players.

It’s the kind of thing that digs at you every time it happens. But it’s important to mention that the people making those guesses usually aren’t bad people. They’ve just been given bad information — which means the narrative can change when we start educating people to know better and do better.

That change has to start at the top.

Leaders in hockey — owners, general managers, coaching staffs — need to use their positions of power to shift old perceptions about what’s considered the “norm” in our sport. They need to acknowledge the experiences of diverse players and alumni, make sure current players feel supported and welcomed, and develop platforms for underrepresented voices that may not have been recognized in the past. I’ve noticed many allies who have advanced this work in recent years, and it’s something I truly hope everyone will keep striving for. 

At the same time, hockey’s leaders need to bring underrepresented voices into the business of the sport by hiring more people of color and women in the front office. With greater diversity in those decision-making positions, the feel of the game will start to better reflect the diverse communities that have shaped hockey from the time it began. The benefits of that transformation will trickle down — to current players, and longtime fans, and to families with kids who are just beginning to think about which sport they might want to play. 

We were always there — and we’re still here, as proud as ever to be playing the game we love.

Madison Bowey

For too long, people of color have had to walk into the rink with something to prove, as if it was their responsibility to reset the narrative about their place in hockey. And many of them have moved the game forward, simply by being themselves, showing their passion for the game, and working harder than they should have had to in order earn the same acceptance and respect as everyone else. We’ve battled through for generations, and we’re not asking anyone to feel bad for us.

But that added burden is something no one should have to carry just to play the sport they love.

It’s a burden we need to eliminate — and can eliminate — by prioritizing inclusion in everything we do. 

Madison Bowey | Vancouver Canucks | Hockey Has Always Been Black | The Players' Tribune
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Telling the full, inclusive version of hockey’s history is just one piece of how we get there. And if society has learned anything from the reignited racial-justice movements of the past few years, it should be that history can only stay hidden for so long — because it’s a reflection of who we really are. When we share the stories of underrepresented groups, explain the systems that created barriers for them, and celebrate their perseverance despite the cards they’ve been dealt, we can change perspectives and help make the world a little more equal. 

I’m excited for what that equality will look like in hockey. It’ll be a future where kids from every background are empowered to truly understand and love this game. A future where they see themselves reflected in the values and actions of the game’s leaders. And a future that draws inspiration from the stories of the past — the diversity of people who were there, the amazing things they accomplished, and the way they seized their place in this sport. 

Hockey is a sport I’m so proud to have found my place in, and a sport we should all celebrate for everything it has always been: team-oriented, fast, exciting, fun, competitive, tough, generational, special. 

And, also, without a doubt … Black.