How Many African American Hockey Players In The Nhl? [Answered!]

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Ever since the NHL decided to institute a new division known as the “Superstar Division”, the question has arisen: just how many African American players are in the NHL? With an all-star game and two regular season games per week, it is easy for fans, media, and even some players themselves to forget that there is an entire other tier of hockey – that is, professional hockey – in existence beyond the NHL. A quick Google search will tell you there are actually two professional hockey leagues, the AHL (American Hockey League) and the NABL (North American Basketball League). While the number of professional hockey players in the NABL is unknown, the figures for the AHL are illuminating. Below, we will explore this issue in more detail.

The Origins Of The AHL

The AHL was founded in 1936 and is one of the first – if not the first – professional sports leagues to be established in the United States. The original American Hockey League teams were located in several large cities such as New York, Boston, and Detroit.

The AHL saw its greatest growth throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Many NHL teams were on the move and some relocated teams even changed their names to reflect their new home arena. Teams in large cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago saw their fan bases and regional rivalries blossom with the addition of more teams and greater geographic flexibility. In fact, the AHL even grew its own rivalries with the establishment of the World Hockey Association in 1948.

Nhl Players In The AHL

Though the NHL and the AHL are separate entities, many of the greatest hockey players of all time played for both leagues during their Hall of Fame careers. In the case of the NHL, the Golden Era of hockey saw many greats ply their trade in the league. While the bulk of these greats played for teams in the Original Six, the league also boasted many great teams in the previous NHL incarnation known as the “National Hockey League.” In the AHL, the rise of dual-nationality players like Mario Lemieux, who split his time between playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL and the Cleveland Barons in the AHL, saw the league attract a great number of Canadian players. Other famous dual-nationality players in the NHL include Gordie Howe, Guy Lafleur, and Wayne Gretzky.

The Impact Of Expansion

The expansion of the NHL to 32 teams in the 1967 season changed everything about how the game was played and watched. Previously, the NHL had consisted of 16 teams and all games had been played between June and November. During the expansion season, the NHL expanded its schedule to include games in February and March for the first time ever. This was to accommodate rivalries with teams playing for the NHL championship. The effect of this change was immediate and tangible. Ratings for the Winter Olympics jumped significantly, as did regular season NHL game attendance. Some statistics estimate that the average attendance at an NHL game jumped from 5,500 per game in the previous season to 7,600 per game in the 1967–68 season.

A Growing Trend

The trend of adding more teams in the NHL and AHL continued in the following seasons with the addition of the Ottawa Senators and Minnesota North Stars respectively in 1968 and 1969. The NHL continued to grow even further in the 1970s, adding teams in all-time league record numbers. The impact this had on the game is immeasurable. The number of players in the NHL and AHL grew alongside the leagues, with the latter even gaining a Women’s League for the first time. Since the 1982–83 season, the AHL has followed a schedule with the regular season starting later and later, culminating in the league’s current year-round schedule.

The Most Outstanding Players

It is not entirely fair to say that all great hockey players necessarily go on to play in the NHL. Just ask Maurice Richard how he felt about his Hall of Fame induction. Richard is regarded as a father of hockey in Canada and he had the last word when asked about being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame: “Don’t they know I am still playing professionally?” Though professional hockey players obviously become eligible for the Hockey Hall of Fame after they hang up their skates, not all greats go on to play in the NHL. For example, Dominik Hasek never played a game in North America after retiring as a hockey player in 1999. He went on to become an elite goalie in the post-Soviet Union and Czech Republic leagues, winning the Vezina trophy with a 0.939 save percentage in the Czech Extraliga. For those curious, Hasek’s numbers in the NHL are Hall of Fame worthy and he was a four-time all-star with the Detroit Red Wings.


How Many NHL Players With African American Heritage?

Since its inception, the NHL has been a pioneer in terms of player hiring practices and has employed many individuals with African American heritage in prominent positions. While the exact number of African American NHL players is not known, historians estimate that there could be as many as 12 to 15 black players in the NHL at any given time during the 1930s.

The vast majority of these players were initially from the US. While several famous hockey players, such as Howie Morenz, started out with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1920s, it was not until the 1930s that African Americans, and more specifically, hockey players, began to be regularly featured in the NHL. In fact, the St. Louis Eagles, a franchise in the then-NHL, is credited with being the first American-owned and operated professional sports team in the United States. The team’s roster included such hockey greats as Joe Frazier and George Norris.

In the mid-1930s, with the Great Depression still a prominent factor in American life, many black hockey players turned to hustling on the side to make extra money. They also sought to play in black leagues, such as the East-West Hockey League and the Central Hockey League, which were established in 1936 and 1937 respectively. The Great Depression also had the effect of hindering the development of organized hockey in the United States as many parents could not afford to buy their children hockey equipment and the game went unorganized. It was not until 1942, when the price of rubber balling went down after the US entered World War II, that organized hockey truly began to take hold in the country.

The Rise Of The “Superstar Division”

Prior to the 1968–69 season, the NHL implemented a number of rule changes, mainly to make the game faster and more entertaining. One of the rule changes implemented during this time was the introduction of the superbook, which allowed for greater competition and the establishment of new rivalries. Another major rule change implemented that season was the division of the league into two separate conferences, the East and West. The new divisions were created to establish rivalries between the existing teams and create a more interesting divisional schedule. A byproduct of this was that the Original Six teams were reclassified as Division C teams (nowadays, the NHL’s third tier) and the rest of the league was reclassified as Division B teams (nowadays, the NHL’s second tier).

How Many Black AHL Players?

Though the NHL has been the dominant league when it comes to black players, the AHL has always had a large number of African American hockey players. One of the greatest rivalries in the history of the AHL was the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks. Over the years, the two teams engaged in what was dubbed the “Greater Chicago Area Hometown Hardship Contest.” In January 1968, the two teams faced off in an outdoor game at a blizzard-like setting in Michigan and drew an estimated 30,000 fans. Though the rivalry between these two teams still endures, both have undergone major facelifts, changing their jerseys and colors as well as their names.

With the establishment of the NHL’s “Superstar Division”, the questions arise: just how many African American hockey players are playing in the NHL right now? According to the most recent historical statistics available, there are currently seven NHL players on the roster of an African American heritage. In the AHL, the number is much higher. Currently, the entire lineup of the Portland Pirates is comprised of African American players, as is one-third of the Cleveland Monsters lineup.

Why Are There So Many Black AHL Players?

It is important to note that even though the NHL and the AHL are separate entities, many of the greatest hockey players of all time played for both leagues during their Hall of Fame careers. As mentioned above, many of the greatest black hockey players were originally from the US and they found it much more convenient to continue to play for the US-based teams rather than try to fit into their Canadian team’s clothing.

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