Top News

Former World Hockey Association star learned to skate in Amherst

It has been a long time since Alton White skated on an Amherst ice surface, but 74-year-old Vancouver resident – who left Amherst for Winnipeg at age 8 – enjoyed a successful professional hockey career, including three seasons in the former World Hockey Association. While playing with the Los Angeles Sharks, he became the first man of African decent to score 20 goals in a single season with a major league team. Photo provided by Jim Dorrington
It has been a long time since Alton White skated on an Amherst ice surface, but 74-year-old Vancouver resident – who left Amherst for Winnipeg at age 8 – enjoyed a successful professional hockey career, including three seasons in the former World Hockey Association. While playing with the Los Angeles Sharks, he became the first man of African decent to score 20 goals in a single season with a major league team. Photo provided by Jim Dorrington - Contributed

Alton White left Amherst in the early 50s and enjoyed a successful pro hockey career

VANCOUVER, B.C. —

A professional hockey career, that included parts of four seasons in the now-defunct World Hockey Association in the 1970s, began on a little patch of ice in Amherst 70 years ago.

Alton White was born in Amherst and moved to Winnipeg at age 8. But, it all started on a makeshift hockey rink near his Ottawa Avenue home in the late 1940s.

“Between our house and my uncle Ron’s there was a big field. My father had a garden in the summertime, but in the winter it would flood and then freeze when it got colder. I might have been three and a half at the time. During the day when my brothers were in school, my mom would send me out to skate on the ice near our home. I would wear my boots inside my brother’s skates because his skates were too big for me,” said White. “I would spend hours out there on the ice skating, until my brothers came home and I had to give up the skates.”

He also spent many hours on a rink put together near the corner of Ottawa Avenue and Albion Street by a neighbour, Howard White.

“I became a pretty good skater,” said White, who was called Junior as a child. “During the day I would skate there with Howard’s son Glen and Terry and in the evenings, when the lights were turned on, the older kids, like my brothers would skate and play hockey.”

White’s family moved to Manitoba because his father, Alton Sr. (who was nicknamed Mike) developed a medical condition that prevented him from working at his job at a foundry in Amherst. He had to move to a drier climate and took a job with CN in the Manitoba capital.

Little did he know that he would develop into quite the hockey player – one who would become only the second man of African descent to play professional hockey behind Willie O’Ree, who played with the NHL’s Boston Bruins in 1957-58 and 1960-61.

While many in Amherst know of the professional hockey careers of Bill Riley, Craig Martin, Mac Davis, Mark MacFarlane and others, White is lesser known. But his career, albeit not in the NHL, was still a successful one.

After playing minor and junior hockey in Winnipeg, White was picked up by the St. Paul Rangers in Minnesota and later played in the old International Hockey League with the Fort Wayne Komets and Columbus Checkers before making the Providence Reds with the American Hockey League.

In 1972 he was drafted by the New York Raiders of the new World Hockey Association that was put together to compete with the National Hockey League and would attract some of the continent’s best players away from the NHL – including Bobby Hull and Bernie Parent.

The WHA would also be the place where many future NHL stars got their start, including Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Rick Vaive, who spent several years as a youth in Amherst.

White played just 13 games with the Raiders, scoring a goal and four assists, but didn’t get along with coach Camille Henry. He was traded to the Los Angeles Sharks, where he would spend two seasons leading up to the Sharks’ folding.

“We had a good bunch of guys in L.A. and we liked playing there, but we didn’t play very well at home,” he said. “We were a much better team on the road.

“Los Angeles was a great place to play because not many people knew who you were. It’s not like today where everyone recognizes the players. We were in the background.”

Part of the problem with Los Angeles was the venue. While the NHL’s Kings played in the Forum in Inglewood, the Sharks played in a “bad part of town” at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.

However, when the team played at the Long Beach Sports Arena they had larger crowds – many of whom were Canadians.

“I think if the team would have fared much better if we’d stayed in Long Beach,” he said.

In that first season, he had 20 goals and 17 assists for 37 points in 57 games with the Sharks, picking up just 22 penalty minutes. The next season he had eight goals and 13 assists in 48 games.

While in Los Angeles, he became the first man of African descent to score 20 goals in a season and the first to score a hat trick when he scored three times in seven minutes against the Minnesota Fighting Saints on March 1, 1973.

An injury the following season limited him to just 48 goals while in 1973-74 he played in the Southern Hockey League with the Greensboro Generals and in the North American Hockey League with the Syracuse Blazers. He also played 27 games with the Michigan Stags/Baltimore Blades of the WHA – where the L.A. franchise relocated to after folding.

After that, White decided to retire after the birth of his son. He moved back to Winnipeg and then followed his brothers to Vancouver to work in the plastering business.

“I could’ve played a few years in San Diego, but I decided that I’d had enough,” he said. “I went to Vancouver in ’68 just for a visit, but it was there I met my wife. In ’69 we were married.”

After his career, he played with the Vancouver Canucks alumni for several years but stopped playing after knee replacement surgery. He still remains active with the alumni association.

Looking back at his career, White said hockey was very good to him and while he was one of very few African American professional hockey players in the early and mid-1970s he said he didn’t experience much racism.

“Growing up in Winnipeg I never experienced it and I played all the sports,” he said. “But I heard other guys who did experience it. I don’t know if it was my temperament or the way I carried myself, I didn’t witness it or very seldom hear anything derogatory.”

He does regret never getting a shot at playing in the NHL, although he knows he was just as good, if not better, than some of the players that called up to the NHL when he was with Providence in the American Hockey League.

“I always thought I was good enough, but was never in the situation to get there. I’m not bitter about it at all because I met some wonderful people and the game benefitted me a lot,” he said. “It just never happened. There were several guys like me who had great years in Providence, but would never get called up.”

While he hasn't lived in Amherst in more than 70 years, White still comes home to visit from time to time and still has relatives living in the community.

Recent Stories