CALGARY (660 NEWS) — Since 1976, Black History Month has celebrated African-American triumphs. As the NHL formally recognizes Black History Month for the first time, a former NHLer is reflecting on the hardships he endured on and off the ice.
As a former winger for the Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey Devils, Claude Vilgrain has experienced racism during the three decades he was an amateur and professional player from the 70s to 90s. His first game in the juniors playing in Montreal he was targeted by fans and players for the colour of his skin.
They would make “monkey sounds, and say ‘go back to Africa,'” he said. “I was shocked.” It was his first time he had left the protection of his suburb in Quebec City and experienced the blatant racism.
“That was the worst hockey game I ever played and after that, I swore I would never let that bother me,” he said.
Born in Haiti, Vilgrain moved to Quebec City when he was a child where he fell in love with the game of hockey.
“I was always the black kid unless I played with my brother,” he said. “I went through the ‘hey blackie’ or after games kids not shaking my hand.”
Though the NHL is making efforts to put racial diversity front and centre, minority players like P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators still endure racism from fans. One man was charged for throwing a banana onto the ice in the direction of Wayne Simmonds, then forward for the Flyers, during a pre-season game in London, Ont.
One of the most famous African-American NHL players is Willie O’Ree, whose known for breaking the colour barrier in the sport. Vilgrain had the opportunity to speak with him many years ago.
“I finally met Willie O’Ree maybe 30 years ago, and I heard his story and it was amazing how he managed to play,” he said. “My story paled in comparison to his story.”
The NHL has since created a mobile museum to showcase the role of minorities in the game. Today, there are roughly 20 black players currently on NHL rosters.
With files from CityNews’ Brittany Rosen.