The conversation about black players in hockey is often a binary one — even during Black History Month. We celebrate Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL, and maybe mention Mike Marson, who was the second, then the conversation shifts all the way to the unprecedented diversity we see in the game today.
That fast-forwarding tends to bypass the magical middle and the stories of many players who felt alone but nonetheless accomplished great things, opening opportunities for those who followed. To me, there is no better example of such a player than Tony McKegney, who played 13 seasons in the NHL and was the first star of colour. McKegney was supposed to play in the WHA for the Birmingham Bulls, but the team illegally voided his deal after fans in Alabama threatened a boycott. Instead, he was drafted 32nd-overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 1978 and went on to score over 320 goals. Looking back on his incredible career and contribution, McKegney shared with me the pleasure, pain and purpose hockey brought to his life.
SPORTSNET: What was your first exposure to the game of hockey?
TONY MCKEGNEY: I was adopted when I was 18 months old and I moved [in with my adoptive family]. I showed up there and I remember sitting on my adoptive mother’s knee and looking out the dining room window at this ice rink. It was wintertime and my dad had floodlights out there. Boards and the whole thing. And I just thought to myself, “What are they doing out there?” And I couldn’t wait to go out there and join them at a year-and-a-half. That was my first exposure, to have a hockey rink in my backyard. And obviously we watched the games, the Leafs and the Red Wings on TV back in the six-team league. But I had a rink in my backyard, my own playground.
SN: When you were playing hockey as youngster, there weren’t many black faces for you to see when you watched NHL games on Saturday nights. Did that ever dissuade you at all from getting into the game?
TM: I liked all sports. I loved basketball, football, baseball, golf. But hockey was a window of opportunity because we saw people from our area making it. So, for me, there were just so many good influences. And my brother was four years older than me and and took a lot more abuse than I did. He paved the way for me. My older brother, Mike, was drafted in the NHL, first black player ever drafted by the Montreal Canadians. I know there weren’t very many [black players]. My first time playing against another black hockey player was probably my third year in the NHL, Grant Fuhr and Ray Neufeld. Other than that, I hadn’t played against another black hockey player my whole life.
SN: What were the conversations like between you and your brother about the abuse he faced?
TM: We never really talked about it much. The focus was just on playing hockey. I was there in the audience watching the games, and I heard the comments that were [made about him]. When I came along, obviously there were comments made, but I was so focused on what was happening on the ice. I just tried to shut everything else out. But I know my brother took a lot more abuse than I did because I saw it.
SN: How did it make you feel when you saw it?
TM: It just made me want to be better. I wanted to be the best, that was a driving force. I wanted to be as good as my brothers. I wanted to be the best hockey player from my hometown.
SN: What did you hear?
TM: Everything. Not a lot from opposing, players, but more so from fans, that they just couldn’t handle the fact that the pure white sport, was being dominated by a black kid — and that was me.
SN: What were the conversations like with your parents about it?
TM: – We just sort of stayed away from it. The people in our hometown of Sarnia, Ont., were so supportive through sports. You sort of never felt like you were different. So that support carried over all the negative stuff that happened. And there was a ton of it, ugly stuff. The hockey portion and the support from teammates and my parents and other hockey parents all the way along got me through it.
SN: When you got to the league was it a lonely existence for you?
TM: No, not really. Buffalo was very interesting because we hung around with the football players. Then the Buffalo Braves were there, the basketball team. So, there was a lot of black athletes in town in Buffalo. And my teammates treated me like I was not any different than anybody. And that was the Buffalo Sabres. I just had this conversation with one of my former teammates, and he said, “We just treated you like one of us brothers.”
SN: Was there a brotherhood among the black players in the league?
TM: I remember mentioning to Grant Fuhr, it might’ve been an All-Star Game or something, I said, “You’re lucky. You get to keep that mask on and I’m out there for everybody to see.” So, I told Grant, jokingly, that I was envious of him. There’s another occasion where Ray Neufeld and I got into a scuffle. And between the benches, one of the guys said it would be termed as a black-on-black crime. So, we laughed about it later on over a few beers.
SN: Given what you went through in your career, does it make it tougher to hear stories of the abuse faced by players who came after you?
TM: I heard some stories about the tough guys like George Laraque, Peter Worrell and Donald Brashear, and apparently it was absolutely brutal for those guys in Quebec. In fact, I think their parents were thinking about saying, “Look, why don’t you just go play soccer,” because it was so bad as far as the remarks. Jarome Iginla gave me a very nice compliment when he said he felt he was at home on the ice and in the school yard, because he could say, “Hey, Tony McKegney, he’s playing in the NHL.” He felt like he belonged on a hockey rink because I was out there. That’s the greatest compliments I’ve received from the younger people.
SN: Trevor Daley went through a difficult, racially insensitive experience with John Vanbiesbrouck. You reached out to him afterwards. Why did you feel like that was necessary?
TM: I knew John because we were teammates, we were roommates, and it seemed out of character for him. So, I reached out. I went to [Daley] and said, “Hey, how are you doing and how are you feeling?” I just wanted to reach out and say, “Been there, just keep at it. You’re a great player. You’re going to do well in the NHL.” I just praised him, knowing that he was a great player and he was going to play in the NHL for a long time.
SN: Trevor was able to persevere. Akim Aliu hasn’t had the same ability to bounce back from his difficult treatment in the game.
TM: He brought up a lot of memories for me, ugly memories. The things he went through were things I experienced in my time. I always said that the game is tough enough as it is just trying to survive and make it outside of having that stuff on the sidelines. It made me angry, made me sad. It brought back some ghosts and nightmares, memories for me, which I hadn’t thought about in a while. And I still struggle with that to this day, with the trauma that I faced and went through. I’m sure it affected me. I tried to, basically, suppress a lot of those feelings back then, and I just buried a lot of things. But sometimes it comes back to haunt you.
SN: How has it impacted you as you’ve moved on from the game?
TM: I had several concussions, so that’s not been a good scenario for me. After playing for 15 years professionally, it was a hard transition and I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes and would do some things differently. You get one kick at the can, as they say, in life. I suppressed a lot of things over the years. I didn’t talk to many people about it. I probably should have, and I never did that.
SN: If you had a chance to talk to the young African-Canadian and African-American kids coming into the game, what would you tell them that you wish you’d known?
TM: I just would tell them to persevere. Willie [O’Ree] had a good thing. He said, “Just turn on the red light,” which means scoring a goal. Anytime I faced adversity, I said, “Okay, I’m going to put a couple of pucks in the net today for sure.” And I was just going to show everybody that I was as good or better than them. And the support I got from teammates just carried me through some difficult situations. They were there for me for the most part.
SN: The numbers of black players at all levels has increased. How does that make you feel?
TM: It’s wonderful. When I started in the league, I never would have guessed. And the NHL has done a great job with helping. I was at a Queens University hockey game. They were playing Ottawa and there were five black players in the game on the two teams combined. And I said to myself, “Geez, this is great.” It was awesome to see these guys and they’re all good players. It’s just something I never envisioned when I was growing up — seeing five black hockey players playing in the same game.