125
Photo Credit: © Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back on the Black History of the Vancouver Canucks

In the first week of February, the Canucks published a schedule of “Theme Nights” in efforts to celebrate “the team’s diverse community and fanbase.”

I, along with many others, noticed the absence of any Black History Month (BHM) events, which was glaringly obvious and disappointing in the month of February following a playoff season rocked by Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and postponements. It is important to state my positionality, being a non-black hockey fan and still expressing concerns about my favourite team’s lack of support.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The National Hockey League has continuously honoured the first Black NHL player in Willie O’Ree and other former and current Black NHL players during BHM alongside their “Hockey Is For Everyone” Campaign, which strives to create more inclusive hockey communities.

In January, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that all 31 teams would wear helmet decals featuring O’Ree with his famous fedora and the words “Celebrating Equality.” The Boston Bruins announced they will retire O’Ree’s jersey number #22 in a ceremony moved to January 2022 with hopes of an in-person audience by then. NHL teams like the Washington Capitals developed initiatives for the month and beyond through developing inclusion committees and recognizing Black alumni and current players.

As of Saturday, the Canucks announced that they took the Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC) #GetUncomfortable Pledge, one that other NHL teams like the Seattle Kraken and Carolina Hurricanes have also signed. The non-profit — founded in 2018 by Renee Hess — created this campaign to invite individual and organizational vows toward dismantling racism in hockey culture. The Canucks’ post was met with expected relief and criticism, as it was completed on the second last day of BHM. The team hasn’t taken much action, aside from the players’ support presented in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs when the police shooting of Jacob Blake caused ripples of protests across all professional sports leagues.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Celebrating BHM in sports, especially in a league still dominated by whiteness bottom to top, is an excellent way of validating younger generations of fans and future athletes that hockey is truly for everyone. This article recounts Black players in Canucks history, and I hope readers of this article learn as I did and learn more about those who deserve recognition for their achievements and impacts both within the club and off the ice.

More importantly, albeit current management uproar, I hopelessly hope for the Canucks to demonstrate the same appreciation for fans and players of colour as they stated.

Claude Vilgrain

The first Black player in the team’s history and first Haitian-born NHL player, Vilgrain made his NHL debut with the Canucks despite being drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 1982. He played six games for Vancouver in the 1987-88 season, slotting a goal and an assist before going on to play with the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers until 1994. He played for the Canadian National Team in 1985-88 and 1994-95, and the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

In a recent Sportsnet 650 interview, Vilgrain reminisced about these milestones, but also shared his experiences with discrimination. When playing in Europe, both opponents and fans taunted him with monkey sounds and threw objects like bananas on the ice when he’d skate on. Despite the degrading incidents he worked through, the mothers of Black and biracial children would often come up to him post-game to thank him for playing, and for being an idol for other kids to look up to. Indeed, Vilgrain is a role model for future players of colour to come, as recent inductee to the Hockey Hall of Fame Jarome Iginla often attributed his road to the NHL to him. Vilgrain retired in 2002 but is still on the ice coaching skills development. He continues to relay his past experiences to emphasize the importance of representation in hockey, and his love for hockey carried over to his daughter, Cassandra.

Nathan Lafayette

Wearing the beautiful skate jersey, Lafayette was originally drafted by the St Louis Blues before being traded to his hometown team in 1994, playing two seasons with the Canucks for a total of 38 regular-season games and notching 5 goals and 5 assists. Most significantly, he went on to play in the memorable 1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs and Final, putting up 2 goals and 7 assists, leading the team in +/- with 13+, and shooting the devastating shot that hit the post in the final minutes of Game 7 against the New York Rangers.

In an interview with Sportsnet650, Lafayette discussed the conviction of the roster at the time, which underachieved in the season. He shared how welcoming the Canucks’ locker room of the time was, consisting of players like captain Trevor Linden and Pavel Bure. He played six NHL seasons with four teams before retiring in 1999 due to a suspected concussion that interrupted his hockey career.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

In a short interview with Ron MacLean on Hockey Day in Canada, Lafayette shared his journey being half Black and half Irish, indicating that discussions of inclusion and diversity “bring the best out of people.”

Donald Brashear

As the first Black player born in the U.S. to play 1,000 games, Brashear played six seasons with the Canucks from 1996-2002. The former NHL enforcer also racked up 2,634 career penalty minutes, solidifying another milestone as the Canucks all-time single-season leader in penalty minutes in the 1997-98 season. Although most of his points were collected in Vancouver, he was also remembered for being the receiver of a violent slash hit to the head from Marty McSorley following an altercation with the goalie earlier in the game. McSorley was suspended indefinitely from the NHL, while Brashear actually returned to play despite suffering a concussion after his head hit the ice. After other notable fights and suspensions that titled him one of the toughest and most feared players in the NHL with four other teams, he retired in 2015.

Brashear founded Brash87, a high-performance and affordable hockey stick company. In 2016, he pitched his concept to Dragon’s Den, a Canadian reality TV show featuring a panel of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs seeking financial support or partnerships. He complained of the prices of hockey sticks going upwards of $100 after playing in the NHL, acknowledging that hockey equipment fees tend to be the first barrier that prevents low-income, minority-populated communities from playing the sport he loves.

Kevin Weekes

Weekes was one of many exceptional hockey players to grow up in Scarborough, Ontario, getting drafted by the Florida Panthers in 1993. The netminder won the James Norris Memorial Trophy in the IHL in 1998-99, thus was a key part of the blockbuster trade to Vancouver for Pavel Bure. He played for the Canucks for two seasons from 1998-2000 before being traded to the New York Islanders.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

After retiring in 2009, Weekes became a fixture as the first Black hockey analyst joining Hockey Night in Canada and NHL Network, the first in 91 years of NHL history. He often expresses his responsibility as a former NHL player and media member in proving aspiring children that they should have the opportunity to play hockey.

In a recent DailyFaceOff.com interview, Weekes discussed how he wished the NHL and the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA), a committee of former and current Black NHL players who are dedicated to eradicating racism in the sport, would work together as they share the same end goals of accessibility and inclusion. He sets a baseline example of how important it is to create safe spaces for children with no connections to the sport but still find interest in it, as the case of them giving up early is due to hockey’s boundaries, be it representation or finances. He also admits his disappointment of the performativity and sudden advocacy happening around him during the rise of the BLM movement, appreciating their support but knowing the work that comes with it and the years they had to do said work.

Anson Carter

Carter, originally drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in 1992, was famously known for scoring the gold medal-winning goal for Team Canada in the 2003 IIHF World Championship. He played for the Canucks in the 2005-06 season: 81 regular season games, notching 33 goals and 22 assists. He played alongside the Sedins and was voted the team’s “Most Exciting Player” that year.

In a Sportsnet article, Carter said he felt that his skin colour played a role during contract negotiations throughout his career. He discussed that fans often called him greedy, leading him to sign with Columbus after his season as a Canuck. In a heartbreaking quote, he stated “I really believe if I was a different colour hockey player, and I’m going to say it, I really believe I would’ve been looked at a lot differently. I really do.” Carter goes on to appreciate the responses of support from the NHL community and the formation of the HDA and looks forward to action and policy-making as a result of it at all levels of the sport. By making the game more inclusive in lower, junior hockey spaces, minority player participation can be increased in the NHL.

His 10-year career ended in 2008, but like Weekes, Carter flipped over as a studio analyst for MSG Networks and NBC Sports. Earlier this month, he joined an episode of Hockey Culture presented by On Her Turf, featuring LA Kings pro scout Blake Bolden, journalist Erica Ayala, and NWHL player Saroya Tinker to discuss the representation of Black women in hockey. They shared their experiences of exclusion in the sport coupled with optimistic efforts contributing to growing the game.

Sean Brown

Wearing the OG gradient jersey that was remixed in the recent Adidas “Reverse Retro” collection, Brown played 12 regular-season games in the 2005-06 season, ending his NHL career with the Canucks. Although fights began to decline in the early 2000s, the defenceman racked up 907 PIM as an effective enforcer.

After retirement, he founded Breakout Hockey, a skill development camp in Alberta that supports children in their path to becoming successful athletes.

Derek Joslin

Born in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Joslin was drafted in 2005 by the San Jose Sharks. He joined the Canucks in the 2012-13 season, only playing 2 games with the team before becoming a restricted free agent after failing to receive a qualifying offer. According to Hockeydb.com, he played a total of 116 NHL regular-season games and currently plays in the Austrian League for Salzburg EC.

Darren Archibald

Archibald signed with the Canucks as an undrafted free agent in the 2013-14 season, playing at multiple levels of the club out of the Kalamazoo Wings, Chicago Wolves and Utica Comets. Though he failed to make the official roster multiple times, he played 52 regular-season games for the Canucks in the 2013-14, 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. He scored his first career NHL goal in March 2014 with the Canucks against the Calgary Flames.

Archibald currently plays in the Austrian League for Vienna.

Emerson Etem

Drafted 29th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in 2010, California-born Etem was known for his speed and consistently showed off his skill in the WHL prior to his drafting, until a knee injury in 2013 kept him from displaying his potential. Willie Desjardins, Canucks coach of the time, knew of Etem’s elite skating abilities, but recognizes he struggled to adapt after the injury. The winger was traded by the New York Rangers in exchange for Nicklas Jensen and a 6th round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and played 39 games for Vancouver in the 2015-16 season. He played 173 regular-season games, retiring in 2019.

In an nhl.com article, Etem describes his love for the game by returning as a coach for Missoula of the North American 3 Hockey League, a Tier III junior team in western Montana. He felt rewarded through coaching and running practices, helping in the development of young players.

Jordan Subban

As the Canucks fourth-round draft pick in 2013, Subban works hard to prove his NHL capabilities. Playing three seasons for Canucks AHL affiliate in the Utica Comets, he was called up a few times and scored his first NHL goal against the San Jose Sharks in 2014. In 2017, he was traded to the LA Kings in exchange for Nic Dowd.

Following a life-threatening experience of being robbed at gun-point in his own home several years ago, Subban found interests in computer programming and app development. According to a complex.com article, the COVID-19 pandemic also gave him more time to reflect and focus on his off-ice passions. He combined his technological interests with his desire to fighting for racial justice and equality to create Ujimaa, a digital platform used to promote BIPOC and women-owned businesses. The name originates from Swahili, translating to “collective work” and “responsibility.”

The Subban family is full of talent: Jordan is the youngest of the Subban siblings, middle child Malcolm is goaltender for the Chicago Blackhawks, and older brother P.K. is a Norris Trophy-winning defenceman for the New Jersey Devils. In the first episode of the Color of Hockey podcast, their father, Karl Subban, described his then-published book called “How We Did It”, giving insights into how Karl and his wife Maria guided their sons through various levels of hockey. He also shared disturbing details about racist confrontations that his children faced in early minor hockey games in Toronto. His advice to his kids and to other aspiring Black hockey players: “Don’t let them win.” Their upbringing led to all their sons entering the NHL, reflecting themselves for younger Black audiences to watch and follow.

Jalen Chatfield

Chatfield signed with the Canucks in 2017, called up from the Utica Comets to play in the shortened 2020-21 NHL season. CanucksArmy’s Cory Hergott interviewed Chatfield in a detailed interview regarding his experiences as a player of colour in hockey. He discussed the name-calling he had to face on the ice, as other Black hockey players have mentioned, and shrugged off in the same fashion by focusing on playing the game he loves.

Chatfield has played 9 regular-season NHL games so far, suffering from an upper-body injury in January.

Justin Bailey

Bailey, originally drafted by his hometown team in the Buffalo Sabres in 2013, was signed as a free agent to the Canucks in 2019. He was also called up from the Utica Comets to play in the shortened 2020-21 NHL season. In a buffalospree.com article, Bailey, who is biracial, recalled as he played up ranks in junior hockey, some of his teammates would regularly joke about race or sang songs with the racial slurs in it. Around the height of BLM protests in June 2020, Bailey partnered with Just Dishin, a Buffalo-based hockey streetwear brand, to produce t-shirts that read “JUSTICE”, with “BLM” on one sleeve, with proceeds benefitting the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

When the NHL postponed games in August due to the shooting of Jacob Blake, they indicate that Bailey spoke to a few of his Canucks teammates during the time off. He said, “they had a tough time understanding what I was talking [about] … that was a perfect situation for me to educate, and I was able to talk to them and send them a couple videos.” Essentially, he recognizes the significance of sharing resources to help with unlearning, especially for individuals who never experienced what people of colour go through every day.

Additionally, when he played with the Philadelphia Flyers, Bailey reached out to Roshaun Brown-Hall, a Black high school hockey player, after he was racially taunted by his opponents in a game in January 2019. A video captured the players making monkey noises when Brown-Hall stepped on the ice. His family filed complaints, which lead to the suspension of the opposing team’s assistant coach, two players, and the resignation of the regional president of the New York State Amateur Hockey Association.

Bailey has played 68 regular-season NHL games and is currently out with an upper body injury.

 

Happy Black History Month! I invite readers to continue their learning through readings about the Coloured Hockey League, supporting organizations like Black Girl Hockey Club and the Hockey Diversity Alliance, and celebrating Black achievements and excellence in so many facets of society.

This article makes references to colorofhockey.com, a hockey blog curated by William Douglas, dedicated to diversity withi