WASHINGTON — When he broke the National Hockey League's color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958, Willie O'Ree heard all sorts of myths about why there were so few black hockey players.
"People were saying that blacks had weak ankles and weak knees. It's crazy when you hear things like that," said O'Ree, now 75, who's the NHL's director of youth development and ambassador for the league's "Hockey Is for Everyone" initiative. "I don't hear too much of that now."
These days, O'Ree hears about growth in the number of blacks in hockey in nearly all areas of the game, from the NHL to the broadcast booth to community rinks.
The NHL has more than 20 black players on team rosters this season, an all-time high. The Atlanta Thrashers alone boast five black players — defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Johnny Oduya and forwards Evander Kane, Anthony Stewart and Nigel Dawes — another record. The Thrashers have four other black players in their minor league and draft systems.
"It's definitely something I've never been a part of before, and it just shows the direction hockey is going," Kane, the Thrashers' 2009 first-round draft pick, told NHL.com.
Kevin Weekes, a former goaltender who played for the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers and all three New York-area NHL franchises in his 11-year career, called the growing number of black hockey players "a reflection of the evolution of the sport. It's the kind of evolution you saw in the quarterback position in football with Doug Williams, Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon."
He was referring to National Football League players who helped shatter the myth that blacks were incapable of being quality quarterbacks. "The more people see people that look like them on the ice, the more likely they are to want to play the game," he said.
Weekes made hockey history in 2009 when he was hired as the first black national hockey analyst for "Hockey Night in Canada," a ratings giant that's Canada's equivalent of "Monday Night Football." He's also seen north of the border as an analyst on cable's NHL Network and New York's Madison Square Garden network.
"I'm something that 'Hockey Night in Canada' viewers hadn't seen before," Weekes said. "For some people, it has taken time getting used to it. I know that from certain comments from the odd person. But the vast majority of people have been excellent."
The Hockey Hall of Fame became more diverse last November when former Canadian national team player Angela James and Cammi Granato, a former U.S. women's Olympic hockey team captain, became the first women inducted.
James, who was regarded as Canada's female Wayne Gretzky during her playing heyday in the 1990s, was the first black woman and the second black player — after former Edmonton Oilers goaltender Grant Fuhr was inducted in 2003 — enshrined in Toronto's hall.
"The old days of just predominately white people playing hockey are over," said James, 45, whose half-brother, Theo Peckham, plays for the Oilers. She used to baby-sit for Jamal Mayers, who skates for the San Jose Sharks, and her mother is his godmother. "The NHL, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada are looking at the grass roots and looking at people who otherwise aren't exposed to the game."
James said the biggest barriers that had kept minority and inner-city youth from gravitating to hockey were the sport's expense and a lack of access to ice. Joining a team can set parents back hundreds of dollars, and equipment alone makes hockey one of the pricier sports to play.
Scott Tharp, the president of Philadelphia's Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, estimates it costs $2,600 to $3,400 retail to equip a youth hockey player.
To help soften the blow, the NHL, its players' association and several major hockey equipment manufacturers, along with the U.S. and Canadian hockey governing bodies, formed OneGoal, a nonprofit program that provides equipment to hockey associations at a low cost.
In addition, dozens of minority-oriented youth hockey programs across the United States — from Ice Hockey in Harlem to Washington's Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club to GOALS of Anaheim, Calif. — have been exposing kids to the game for decades, supplying gear and rink time to those who can't afford it.
Another program, the Detroit Hockey Association, hosts an annual "Hockey in the Hood" tournament during Black History Month that attracts minority youth hockey teams from across the country.
The Snider foundation hockey program is a relative new kid on the block among these programs, founded in 2005, but its enrollment already has surged beyond 3,000 kids.
The demand for ice time in the program is so great that Snider, the founder of the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers, announced last November that he'll contribute $6.5 million to help renovate and enclose three of the city's aging outdoor rinks. The work is expected to be complete by this November.
Even Washington has taken notice. First lady Michelle Obama has incorporated ice hockey into her "Let's Move" initiate to combat childhood obesity. In a 30-second television ad launched during the NHL's All-Star festivities in Raleigh last weekend, the first lady proclaims that hockey is "fun to play no matter who you are or where you are."
On Capitol Hill, 21 members of the House of Representatives have formed the Congressional Hockey Caucus, a bipartisan group whose mission is "the expansion of hockey programs in America, with special attention to programs for disadvantaged and disabled youth who might not otherwise be able to afford to participate in the sport."
Some caucus members play in an annual "Lawmakers vs. Lobbyists" game in which some of the proceeds go to the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club and its home rink, one of the few in the nation that are in predominately black neighborhoods.
Weekes also has done his part. During his playing career he helped underwrite Skillz, a Canadian hockey program designed to help kids who might not otherwise have a chance to play the game.
That program has produced a crop of black NHL players who include San Jose's Mayers, Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, Los Angeles Kings forward Wayne Simmonds, Nashville Predators forward Joel Ward, the Thrashers' Stewart and his brother, Colorado Avalanche forward Chris Stewart.
"Some people were laughing at us at the time," Weekes said of his investment in the program. "Now we've got 7-8 players in the NHL."
Weekes thinks that much has changed in hockey since the day in 2002 when a fan in Montreal threw a banana at him or when Dallas Stars defenseman Trevor Daley was called the N-word by his Canadian junior hockey team coach-general manager in 2003.
Today's minority hockey players are getting opportunities to showcase their talent and leadership skills, chances that weren't afforded to many of the black players who broke into the NHL in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, he said.
"There were pressures on them to be fighters, but this generation of black player is free to be who they are," added Cecil Harris, a former hockey beat writer and the author of "Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey." "The pressure isn't there for a big, strong black guy like Dustin Byfuglien to be a goon. He can be himself, and he's an All-Star this year."
Still, some things haven't changed, Weekes said. He blanched when some hockey analysts and NHL players complained earlier this season that Subban, a highly touted rookie, was disrespecting the game with his flashy style and trash-talking ways on the ice.
"It's annoying. It's code. It's frustrating," Weekes said flatly of the complaints.
But, despite the Subban episode, Weekes is bullish on the future of minorities in hockey.
"We're here to stay," he said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington