Bernie Saunders, the only Black player on the 1980–81 Nova Scotia Voyageurs, was sitting with his teammates in the visitors’ dressing room. There had just been a bench-clearing brawl, and the referees had sent both teams off the ice.
Suddenly, one of Saunders’ teammates who had fought a Black player on the opposing team started yelling the N-word. Saunders was enraged and stepped toward his teammate, but the two were separated before they could come to blows. Saunders was then ushered into the hallway where a coach tried to explain that he hadn’t been the target of the slur.
“‘He didn’t mean that you’re an N-word. He meant the other guy’s an N-word,’” Saunders told me in a phone conversation, recalling his former coach’s justification.
“My head just wanted to explode.”
Not long before that episode — on March 19, 1980 — Bernie Saunders became the fifth Black player in NHL history. However, a barrage of racial incidents and a lack of opportunity sapped his passion for the game. And just two years after his NHL debut, he walked away from hockey.
Since then, Saunders has largely stayed away from the sport he used to love, and his name is often skipped over when stories of the first Black NHL players are told. But in recent days, the 63-year-old has been thinking about opening up on the hardships he faced during his career. He’s incensed every time he sees a Black player face discrimination, like when a hacker hijacked the chat of a Zoom call with New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller in April to repeatedly post racial slurs.
“It makes me sad. It makes me furious. It also makes me think, well, maybe I should tell my story. If I can help one player or move the needle just a little bit further, then I would like to contribute.”
His comments come as a group of current and recently retired members of the hockey community are formalizing plans to make similar contributions. Last week, seven players of colour teamed up to form the Hockey Diversity Alliance, whose mission is to rid the game of racism and intolerance. It’s a pursuit Saunders would love to see come to fruition so no one else has to come up in the game the way he did.
In his recollection, Saunders was first teased for being Black around the age of 15, while playing midget hockey in Chateauguay, Que.
“In those early days, it felt more like taunting as an athlete as opposed to ‘This person really hates me because of the colour of my skin,’” said Saunders.
The Montreal native moved to Toronto when he was 17 and spent two seasons with the Pickering Panthers, during which time the racial slurs intensified. Initially, Saunders dropped his gloves every time he heard an opponent utter the N-word, but as one of the league’s leading scorers, he became aware that sitting in the penalty box only helped his opposition.
“I had to teach myself that you have to put the team concept first, and the best way to beat the opposition is on the scoreboard and not with my fist.”
After high school, Saunders spent four seasons playing at Western Michigan University, where the right winger remembers reporters telling him they were shocked by the abuse he dealt with.
“‘Holy crap, Bernie. The whole night they’re just taking shots at you,’” Saunders recalled them saying.
Saunders always downplayed the taunts and the emotional burden they carried.
“I just said, ‘Yeah, it’s just the way it goes.’ I didn’t want to talk about it,” said Saunders. “I felt if I draw attention to myself, then there’s going to be this Bernie Saunders controversy, and they’re not going to want me here.”
Despite the abuse, Saunders graduated as the Broncos’ all-time leading scorer, and in 1979, he signed a contract with the Quebec Nordiques. He averaged over a point a game with Quebec’s AHL farm team in Syracuse, and the Nordiques called him up in March 1980.
“It was probably one of the most exciting days of my life,” said Saunders. “But I also felt it was where I was supposed to be.”
Saunders played four games with the Nordiques at the end of the season and worked out obsessively that summer, expecting to be a mainstay on the big club going forward.
“The Nordiques had basically told me I’m on the team,” said Saunders.
During the club’s 1980–81 training camp, Quebec held a scrimmage tournament, keeping track of each player’s stats. Saunders led all scorers with eight goals, and he finished tied for second on the team in points with future Hall of Famer Michel Goulet.
Despite his production, the six-foot forward was cut before the Nordiques played a single exhibition game.
“That just ripped my heart out,” said Saunders.
Many players and media members were shocked by the lone Black player’s demotion. The late journalist Albert Ladoucer published an article titled “The Dismissal of Saunders: A Surprise” in Le Journal De Quebec, where he wrote that some of Saunders’ teammates thought he was the victim of an injustice.
Looking back, Saunders can’t help but feel the colour of his skin played a factor in his relegation.
“I do feel that if I was white, and I did the same thing that I did as a Black player, I would not have gone to the minors.”
Since the Nordiques’ farm team in Syracuse had folded by that point, Saunders was loaned to the Montreal Canadiens’ AHL affiliate in Nova Scotia. And because Quebec still held Saunders’ rights, there was no incentive for Montreal to play him.
“They put me on the fourth line,” said Saunders. “They’re the worst numbers I think in my entire career because I was sitting on the bench.”
In addition to a significantly reduced role, Saunders continued to face discrimination. He says he endured about five racist incidents between 1979–80 and 1980–81, including the one in which his teammate yelled the N-word in the locker room, that left him heartbroken and disillusioned.
When the Nordiques cut him from training camp again in the fall of 1981, Saunders decided he’d had enough and asked the club for a buyout.
He played one final season with the IHL’s Kalamazoo Wings, notching 75 points in 70 games during the 1981–82 campaign. He raised his fist after each goal he scored that year, performing the Black Power salute.
After the season ended, Saunders held a ceremony with some friends, grieving his departure from hockey. He was 25 years old.
During the “service,” Saunders burned his skates and threw them into a pond.
“I loved the game so much and it meant so much to me. I felt like I had to spend some time in mourning in order to move on,” he said via text.
Saunders began a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, and he avoided reflecting on the NHL career he could’ve had.
“I had to survive. I had a wife at the time, kids shortly after that. I just couldn’t wallow in self-pity.”
Sometimes he’d share some hockey anecdotes with friends. But most of the time, it was too painful to think about.
“I felt it was so unfair. I had done so well, and I’d been treated so poorly that it was emotionally difficult for me,” said Saunders.
Despite the adversity he dealt with, Saunders wants people to understand he isn’t looking for pity. He was the one who asked the Nordiques for a buyout, and it was his choice to leave hockey.
“I’ve moved on and had a great life. I’m a happy person,” said Saunders.
He feels the environment for Black players has improved to some degree since he last donned a uniform. But he thinks racism is so deeply ingrained in hockey’s culture that it’ll be a long time before discrimination is completely eliminated from the sport.
“We just have to keep on chipping away,” said Saunders. “It won’t be in my lifetime and it probably won’t be in your lifetime, but hopefully down the road it’ll be eradicated.”