Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 257 pounds, Dustin Byfuglien is easily envisioned as a pro athlete in football, basketball or baseball. But unlike most African Americans in major team sports, the Minneapolis native found his soul on ice. Byfuglien (pronounced BUF-lin) scored three game-winning goals in the Western Conference semifinals, including the winner on May 23, propelling the Chicago Blackhawks to the NHL Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992.
With a mother of Norwegian descent and an African-American father, Byfuglien is a rarity in the NHL, among just 20 black players this season out of 690 overall. The Philadelphia Flyers—Chicago's opponent in the finals—feature one in goalie Ray Emery, but he's been sidelined with a hip injury since March.
Like the majority of black players in the NHL, Emery is Canadian. So is the man who's doing his best to expose hockey to minority youth in the United States.
"We've reached out and touched over 45,000 boys and girls since 1998," said Willie O'Ree, 74, who holds a special place in NHL history, having paved the way for Byfuglien and Emery and other black players, such as Mike Marson, Grant Fuhr and Mike Grier. On Jan. 18, 1958, playing for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens, O'Ree became the first black to play in the NHL.
These days he helps lead "Hockey Is For Everyone" and other diversity efforts as the NHL's director of youth development. "Once you let them know there is another sport they can play, some of the boys and girls have a lot of natural ability. But they haven't had an opportunity to display it.
"If we can't get them on the ice, we work with them in street hockey programs," he said. "Then when they get on the ice, they find out they can maneuver a puck and stick and do things on the ice they probably never dreamed of before. It's really overwhelming to watch these kids bring out this talent that they have."
For his years of service to youth and the growth of hockey, O'Ree recently received one of his country's highest honors, the Order of Canada, which is administered by the governor general-in-council on behalf of the Queen of Canada.
Although he never became a force—playing in just 45 NHL games from 1958-61—O'Ree's pro career spanned 21 seasons. Amazingly, he was blind in his right eye for the duration, having been struck by a slap shot during his last year of junior hockey, back when players didn't wear helmets and visors.
But O'Ree's dreams weren't gone and neither was his love for the game. Like seemingly every kid in Canada, O'Ree started skating at age 2 and playing hockey age 5. He spent every day from October through March on the ice, with a rink in his backyard and four more outdoor rinks within a 15-minute walk. He skated to school on creeks, ponds and rivers. Wearing skates on ice was as natural as wearing sneakers on grass.
He says becoming comfortable and confident on ice is one of the main barriers (along with expense) to increased minority participation in hockey. You can play catch with a football or baseball just about anywhere, and the same is true for shooting hoops. But ice hockey requires a specific, unique playing surface, and rinks are often few in number where minorities are concentrated.
"I was at the Los Angeles Kings practice rink a little while ago, and they had about 260 boys and girls come in from different schools and areas," he said. "Some of them had never been on ice before. Some of them came out and hung on the boards. Others would go along the boards for a little bit and all of the sudden take off. You could just see it was a natural thing for them. They were a little wobbly, but they had balance."
As evidenced by Olympic speedskating champion Shani Davis, African-American athletes can handle their business on ice—if they get to a rink early and often enough. Considering the speed, grace, strength and agility that hockey requires, O'Ree is certain we'll see more Byfugliens and Griers in the years to come. But he isn't limiting his goal to developing NHL players.
"I enjoy working with the diversity program and 'Hockey Is For Everyone,'" he said. "I've come in contact with a lot of boys and girls over the years. When you can put a smile on their face and let them tell you they're having a great time and enjoying the sport, that's nice to hear."
Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root.