AMHERST – Players like Bill Riley helped set the stage for the gains made by black hockey players in today’s NHL.
It wasn’t easy being a black man playing on hockey’s highest stage in the 1970s. He and Washington Capitals’ teammate Mike Marson were among the few blacks playing in the National Hockey League.
It wasn’t easy skating away from some of the comments directed his way.
“Mike and I could tell some stories. We had a lot of good times, but we had a lot of bad times as well,” said the 67-year-old Amherst native who scored 31 goals five NHL seasons with Washington and the Winnipeg Jets. “There were lots of times we had to turn a deaf ear to what was being said or what was going on, but at least we had an opportunity to fulfill our dream.”
It was recently announced that Willie O’Ree, the first black man to play in the NHL, will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Marson was the second and Riley the third – although he has the distinction of being the first black Nova Scotian to play in the NHL.
Riley is one of three former Amherst pro hockey players who will be inducted into the Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame, a California-based organization that recognizes former pro athletes. On July 18, they will be inducted during a dinner at the Amherst Centre mall. Also being inducted are: Bob Edgett (Community Advocate Award), Lynn Jones (Humanitarian Award), Elizabeth Cooke-Sumbu (Lifetime Community Support Award), Amherst Royals hockey team (Pioneer Award) and Janiva ‘Jay’ Willis (Visionary and Community Award).
To Riley, the taunts were motivation for him to rise above what was being said. He said his mother, Gladys, always told him there was nothing wrong with turning the other cheek. He said those who were taunting him were just trying to get him off his game.
One of those who followed Riley was Mark McFarlane, who won a Memorial Cup with the Swift Current Broncos in 1989, a CIS championship with Acadia in 1994 and a Colonial Cup with the UHL’s Quad City Mallards.
“It’s always nice to get honoured, but to go in with Bill and Craig is great,” McFarlane said from his home in Kennebunkport, Maine. “Craig and I grew up together and Bill was our mentor.”
McFarlane remembers when Riley would return to Amherst after the NHL season ended.
“It was like Santa Claus coming. He’d come through the neighbourhood and we’d be playing street hockey. Next thing you know we’d have a new pair of gloves or a couple of hockey sticks,” the 47-year-old former right-winger said.
While the slurs and taunts weren’t as bad when he was playing, McFarlane said there were times he lashed out in anger at what was said.
“I remember one season in Swift Current we were playing in Medicine Hat and they had these guys who’d sit behind the visiting team’s bench and try to get under our skin. There was one night one of them said something and there were a number of kids sitting there and I just lost it,” McFarlane said. “I tried to climb the glass to get at them and the boys were pulling me back onto the bench.”
McFarlane’s whose son also plays youth hockey knows racial taunts are something he has to deal with as well. He often tells him not to let others’ ignorance get to him, but there’s only so much a person can take.
Martin, who lives in Napanee, Ont., played with the Winnipeg Jets and Florida Panthers in the NHL, but also spent several seasons win the AHL with Moncton and Detroit’s affiliate in Adirondack, N.Y. before retiring from hockey in 2006.
He didn’t hear the slurs Riley did. He said it’s because of players like O’Ree, Riley and Marson that he was more accepted.
“Bill blazed a path for players like me,” said Martin, who is 47. “It wasn’t hard for me to play in the National Hockey League as a black man and that’s a tribute to Willie, Mike Marson and Billy. Whatever they had to ensure I didn’t. I experienced racism, but not to the extreme they would have. You earned you way there on merit. Hockey is a game and if you’re good, you’re good.”
Proceeds from the event will support the Heather Arseneau Scholarship and the Amherst food bank. Tickets are $50 each and tables of 10 can be purchased through the Amherst and Area Chamber of Commerce’s event page at http://amherstchamberns.ca/