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.
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 in Amherst.
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 United Hockey League’s Quad City Mallards.
McFarlane, along with former NHLer Craig Martin, are also being inducted along with Riley.
“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.”
Martin, who lives in Napanee, Ont., played for the 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.
“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.
“I experienced racism, but not to the extreme they would have. You earned your way there on merit. Hockey is a game and if you’re good, you’re good.”
Riley’s pro career ended in 1983-84 with the American Hockey League’s Nova Scotia Voyageurs.
Three years later, he arrived in St. John’s, as player-coach of the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League’s St. John’s Capitals.
Riley promptly helped deliver a Herder Memorial Trophy to St. John’s, the first Herder the city won in eight years following the Shamrocks’ upset victory in 1979.
Riley would play two more years in St. John’s. In 1989, the Caps lost the Herder final to the Port aux Basques Mariners, but the Mariners added Riley to their roster for the Hardy Cup Canadian intermediate championship.
Port aux Basques won the national championship on home ice, beating Kindersley, Sask. in a five-game series. Riley scored a goal in the final game of the series, a 7-2 Mariners’ win.
The Newfoundland Senior Hockey League folded after that 1989 season, and Riley returned to Nova Scotia.