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‘I didn’t have any role models,’ says black hockey tour curator

Mobile museum tour kicks off in D.C. ahead of Black History Month

The NHL Black Hockey History Tour’s mobile museum will visit 14 cities across North America. (Clyde McGrady/CQ Roll Call)
The NHL Black Hockey History Tour’s mobile museum will visit 14 cities across North America. (Clyde McGrady/CQ Roll Call)

The tractor-trailer parked in front of the Canadian Embassy is there to remind people of what overlooked black hockey players have contributed to the game.

“This is so that the young kids, fans of the game, are able to see ourselves in it,” says Kwame Mason, one of the curators of the NHL’s Black Hockey History Tour, which kicked off Monday in Washington. 

For the second consecutive year, the mobile museum will travel the country to educate fans. The tour will make 14 stops in NHL cities across North America and will be parked in D.C. outside the embassy until Tuesday.

The inside of the trailer is designed like a hockey stadium locker room, with walls adorned with photos of every black player in NHL history and milestones of black achievement in the sport. The Boston Bruins jersey of Willie O’Ree, who integrated the NHL in 1958, is enshrined in a glass case.

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O’Ree himself stopped by Monday. The 84-year-old is still waiting on another D.C. event — the passage of the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act, which would award him the highest civilian honor in the United States.

The act has been introduced but needs to be sponsored by two-thirds of Congress before it can be considered by the banking committees in both chambers. If both panels approve, the measure would receive a floor vote.

Many people don’t know that black players have been part of the NHL for decades, says Mason. “One of the biggest things for us is to be able to say, ‘We’ve been here playing this great game of hockey.’”

Mason likens the progress of black hockey players to that of black quarterbacks in the National Football League, who for years were steered into other positions under the prejudice that they weren’t capable of leading.

For instance, black players in the early days of the NHL were not considered main parts of the offense, says Mason. “If you’re looking at the guys who were playing 1970s or 1980s, and maybe the early 1990s, a lot of them were used as enforcers.” Enforcers, sometimes called “goons,” are responsible for protecting their own star players by meting out violence against the other team for suspected dirty play. But now black players such as forward Anthony Duclair are getting more opportunities to play central roles in the game.

Diversity and inclusion can be an uphill climb even in a league like the NFL, which has 70 percent black players yet still struggles to place them into leadership. Despite efforts such as the Rooney Rule, which requires that NFL team owners interview at least one minority candidate for head coach job openings, only 3 of 32 are black.

The NHL’s tour is a part of its “Hockey Is For Everyone initiative,” a two-decade-old effort that aims to reach fans from diverse communities.

“I really didn’t have anybody that was there to guide me,” Mason says. “I didn’t have any role models that I could see on a consistent basis. They were out there, but I never got to see them on TV. No one talked about them, and they weren’t celebrated.” He pauses and grins before saying, “I’m so jealous of these kids today.”

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