The Players That Broke The Colour Barrier for Each NHL Team

A look at the trailblazers that challenged the whiteness of hockey.

Last month was “Hockey is for Everyone” month and we had the chance to speak with with Val James, the first US-born African-American player in NHL history, about his experience coming up through the game. One point that James raised was the fact that he hadn’t received much recognition as the player to break the colour barrier for the Leafs. Which got me wondering about how well the NHL is doing about recognizing the players that broke the colour barrier for each respective NHL franchise.

The answer is not well at all.

Outside of Willie O’Ree — who is often incorrectly cited as the player that broke the NHL’s colour barrier when he debuted for the Bruins in 1958 (that distinction technically belongs to Larry Kwong, a Chinese-Canadian who played a single-shift for the Rangers in 1948 )— teams have a mixed record on recognizing these feats. The NHL itself has done little to celebrate Kwong’s achievement, despite the fact that Kwong’s track record in the minors indicates that he was a talented-enough player to deserve more of a shot in the NHL, had it not been for the discrimination he faced. (Sadly, any such recognition will now have to come posthumously, as Kwong passed away last week at the age of 94). The same can be said for the players that broke the barrier for each respective team. In fact, I was unable to find any single comprehensive list that provided the colour barrier-breaking player for every team in the NHL anywhere. So I made one.

Below is a chronological list of every player of colour to break a NHL franchise’s colour barrier. Relocated teams have not been counted twice, so there are not separate entries for the Quebec Nordiques and the Colorado Avalanche for instance.

1948: New York Rangers — Larry Kwong

As mentioned above, Kwong only played a single shift of NHL hockey. After seeing less-skilled players consistently promoted ahead of him, he decided that there was little to no future for him in the NHL and took his talents to the Quebec Senior Hockey League. He later became the first person of Asian descent to coach a professional hockey team (HC Ambrì-Piotta).

1953: Chicago Blackhawks — Fred Saskamoose

Saskamoose became the first Canadian Indigenous player in NHL history, playing 11 games for Chicago in 1953.

1958: Boston Bruins — Willie O’Ree

O’Ree was the first black hockey player in the NHL. While only playing two games in his inaugural season, he returned in the 1960–61 season and scored four goals and 10 assists in 43 games.

1975: Detroit Red Wings — Mike Wong

Mike Wong was a Golden Gloves boxing champion in his home state of Minnesota. Despite his combat pedigree, he was a skilled player on the ice and played for Team USA in the first ever World Junior Championships in 1974.

1976: Washington Capitals — Mike Marson

The Washington Capitals are the first non-Original Six team on the list. Marson’s first NHL game was also the first game for the Washington Capitals franchise. He was the second black player in the NHL overall, and his teammate, Bill Riley, was the third.

1979: Los Angeles Kings — Mike Marson

Marson strikes again, breaking the colour barrier for his second NHL team.

1979: Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche — Bernie Saunders

Saunders managed to play in four different North American professional hockey leagues over the course of his professional career: the CHL, the NHL, the AHL, and the IHL.

1979: Winnipeg Jets/Arizona Coyotes — Bill Riley

Riley was the first black player in the NHL to not break a colour barrier upon joining the NHL, as he debuted on the Washington Capitals after Mike Marson.

1979: Buffalo Sabres — Tony McKegney

Originally signed with the WHA’s Birmingham Bulls, McKegney was dropped illegally by the Birmingham’s GM due to fans threatening a boycott due to McKegney’s race before ever playing a game for the Bulls. Their loss was the Sabres’ gain as he set a single season scoring record for a black player of 78 points during the 1987–88 season that remained unbroken until Jarome Iginla beat it during the 2001–02 season. He had 9 seasons of 20+ goals and played in over 900 NHL games during his career.

1979: Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes — Ray Neufeld

The last entry in the 1979 class is Ray Neufeld. He is likely a familiar voice to Canadian hockey fans as he worked as a commentator on TSN after retiring as a player.

1981: Edmonton Oilers — Grant Fuhr

Fuhr was the first black player to win a Stanley Cup and first to be inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He helped lead the Oilers to multiple Stanley Cups in the 80’s and even finished ahead of Wayne Gretzky in Hart Trophy voting one year (1988). He mentored Dominik Hasek while with the Buffalo Sabres. The NHL named Fuhr one of the “100 Greatest NHL Players of All Time”.

1983: Pittsburgh Penguins — Darren Lowe

Lowe only played in eight NHL games, but was a member of the 1983–4 Canadian National Team and played in the 1984 Winter Olympics. He is an award-winning head coach for the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.

1983: Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars — Dirk Graham

Graham won a Selke Trophy in 1991 and was the first NHL captain of African descent.

1986: Toronto Maple Leafs — Val James

James was the first US-born African-American player in NHL history. During his time in the AHL, he scored a Calder Cup winning goal in 1983.

1987: Vancouver Canucks — Claude Vilgrain

Vilgrain is the first black NHL player to not be born in either Canada or the United States as he was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (although he was raised in Quebec). He played for Team Canada in the 1988 Olympics.

1987: St. Louis Blues — Tony McKegney

This is McKegney’s second time featuring on this list. He played with seven different NHL teams over the course of his 17 year NHL career.

1988: Montreal Canadiens — Steven Fletcher

Fletcher only played for the Canadiens in a single game during the playoffs. He also played three games for the Winnipeg Jets, but spent most of his professional career in the AHL and IHL.

1989: Atlanta Flames/Calgary Flames — Theoren Fleury

Fleury is of First Nations (Métis) heritage. Despite his diminutive stature of 5'5", Fleury was renowned for his physicality as well as his skill and speed. He scored three assists in his NHL debut and went on to score 1088 points in 1084 games played (as well as racking up 1840 PIM) over his NHL career. After retiring, he wrote his autobiography Playing with Fire about his struggles with mental health and addiction, which we spoke to him about in more detail.

1989: Kansas City Scouts/Colorado Rockies/New Jersey Devils — Claude Vilgrain

By the time Vilgrain joined this franchise it was the New Jersey Devils. This is Vilgrain’s second time featuring on this list.

1991: San Jose Sharks — Dale Craigwell and Mike McHugh

Craigwell and McHugh both played during the Sharks’ inaugural season. Craigwell was the 11th player drafted in the history of the franchise. McHugh’s only NHL point of his career came as a member of the Sharks.

1991: New York Islanders — Graeme Townshend

Townshend was the first Jamaican-born NHL player. After retiring from the NHL, he worked as a skills coach for San Jose and Toronto before becoming the first head coach of the Jamaican national team.

1993: Philadelphia Flyers — Claude Vilgrain

Vilgrain’s third colour barrier broken ties him with Tony McKegney for the most in the history of the NHL.

1993: Florida Panthers — Eldon “Pokey” Reddick

Another player to feature in his franchise’s inaugural season, Reddick formed a goaltending duo with Daniel Berthiaume, and brought to life the best nickname ever — “Pokey and the Bandit”. He also won a Stanley Cup as a backup goalie with the Oilers. While playing in the IHL, he was the first player to record a professional three round playoff unbeaten streak, going 12–0 in 1993. He also has the dubious distinction of playing the most consecutive NHL games without recording a shutout at 132.

1993: Ottawa Senators — Graeme Townshend

Townshend joined the Senators in their second season in the NHL. This is his second time featured on this list.

1995: Anaheim Ducks — Paul Kariya

Kariya was the first player of Asian descent to captain a NHL team (Anaheim). He was inducted in the Hall of Fame, as a seven-time All-Star, a two-time Lady Byng winner, and a two-time Olympian for Team Canada.

1997: Tampa Bay Lightning — Sandy McCarthy

McCarthy is partly of First Nations descent (Mi’kmaq). McCarthy played a total of 11 seasons in the NHL and was known for his enforcer role. He retired with 1554 PIM.

1999: Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets — Rumun Ndur

Another player to break his team’s colour barrier during their inaugural season, Ndur is the first African-born NHL player. He has played in a total of eight different professional leagues around the world.

2000: Columbus Blue Jackets — Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre

Grand-Pierre spent five seasons in the NHL, compiling 20 points in 269 games.

2001: Minnesota Wild — Richard Park

Only the second Korean-born NHL player, Park went on to be an assistant coach for Korea’s national team under Jim Paek, the first Korean-born NHL player. In an odd coincidence, both players were drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

2002: Nashville Predators — Francis Bouillon

Over a 14-season NHL career, Bouillon played for two teams five separate times. He started with the Canadiens, went to Nashville, returned to the Canadiens, returned to Nashville again, and finished his career with the Canadiens.

2017: Vegas Golden Knights — Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

Bellemare was a late-age rookie, joining the Philadelphia Flyers at 28. He was named an alternate captain shortly before being left unprotected in the 2017 Expansion Draft where the Vegas Knights picked him up.

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*An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Tony McKegney as the first person of colour to play for Chicago. That distinction is actually held by Fred Saskamoose.