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Graeme Townshend, Islanders' first Black player, had to endure racial incidents

Graeme Townshend, the Islanders' first Black player,

 Graeme Townshend, the Islanders' first Black player, now runs a hockey school in Maine where he once played for the Maine Mariners.  Credit: Portland Press Herald via Getty

Graeme Townshend learned early not to let others crush his dreams.

Townshend, the first Black player to wear an Islanders uniform, fell in love with hockey when he was 8 years old and playing with neighborhood kids on an abandoned parking lot that had been flooded by the city of Toronto.

Townshend’s parents, who had immigrated to Canada from Kingston, Jamaica, knew little about the game but encouraged him to follow his dreams. Others were not so positive.

"I remember one person, an adult, telling me that I couldn’t play hockey because Black people had weak ankles and weren’t good skaters," Townshend, 55, recalled in a phone interview. "I was 7 or 8 years old. I had been taught to respect adults."

Not long after that conversation, Townshend was flipping through a pack of hockey trading cards when he saw Mike Marson, a rookie forward for the Washington Capitals in 1974-75.

"I was freaking out," Townshend said. "I see this Black guy. And he was playing for the Capitals. I had no idea. After that, whenever someone would say something like that, I’d say what about Mike Marson? Then it was what about Bill Riley? Then the first big star was Tony McKegney. What about McKegney? I had these guys whose names I could bring out as proof."

Willie O’Ree became the first Black player to appear in an NHL game when the Boston Bruins called him up in 1958. It would be 16 years before Marson became the second.

Townshend, a 6-2, 200-pound right wing, was the first Jamaican-born NHL player. He had three goals and seven assists in 45 NHL games during an 11-year professional career that included stints with the Bruins, Islanders and Ottawa Senators.

Though he was not among the league's first wave of Black players, he endured racist taunts and attitudes from fans, players and even coaches.

When Townshend was a senior captain at powerhouse Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1989, coach Mike Addesa used a racial slur in the locker room while addressing him and another Black player, Bruce Coles. Though Townshend said that they worked it out with their coach, the incident was leaked to a local newspaper, igniting protests on campus that resulted in Addesa’s firing.

Townshend got a rude introduction to professional hockey in 1989-90 when he was playing for the Maine Mariners, then the Bruins' American Hockey League affiliate. At a game at an arena in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Townshend heard monkey and jungle sounds every time he and Black teammate Ray Neufeld stepped on the ice.

"We also had a Japanese player, and they would start playing chimes and gongs and stuff when he went on," Townshend said. "This is a municipal building. It was like state-sponsored racism. I turned to Ray and said, ‘What the hell is this?’ He just said, ‘Welcome to pro hockey, kid.’ "

In 1990, his rookie season with the Bruins, there was a much-publicized fight with then-Ranger Kris King that resulted in Townshend being suspended for six games. Bruins coach Mike Milbury later told reporters and officials that King had shouted a racial remark.

There also was the annual Christmas joke gift exchange with a teammate — Townshend won’t identify which one — in which someone gave him a bag of cotton.

"I had a teammate who was a recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict, and the guys got him a bottle of Jack Daniels and bag of baby powder," Townshend said. "You kind of have to have a thick skin. My wife, though, she flipped out when I showed her the gift."

Townshend was signed by the Islanders on Sept 3, 1991. During the next two seasons, he had a goal and two assists in nine games for the Long Island version of the team, spending most of his time with the Capital District Islanders.

In a span of four days in January 1992, he scored a third-period goal in a 5-2 victory over the Quebec Nordiques and assisted on two first-period goals by Ray Ferraro in a 5-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.

Townshend said he loved living in New York and being a part of such a storied franchise. He added that he never faced any racist taunts from fans on Long Island, though he did have one bad incident when he was playing for the Capital District team.

The team was playing against the Adirondack AHL team, its biggest rival. During the entire game, three guys in the stands were yelling at him, calling him names and making obscene gestures. To get from the ice to the dressing room, a player had to go through the stands, and after the game, Townshend decided he was going to grab one of them and "scare the crap out of him."

"When I got off the ice, I see my wife and she has one of the guys by the throat," Townshend said. "She screams at me, ‘Honey, I got this!’ And she shoves the guy and he runs away. Apparently, the usher has told her that they were taunting me using the N-word. She assumed I heard them, and she thought I was going to go after them, get arrested and lose my career. She figured if she took care of things, we didn’t have as much to lose."

Townshend also worked as a skating coach with the Sharks and Maple Leafs. He also has served as the coach of the Jamaican national team and runs a hockey school in Maine.

Townshend said he believes he just developed a thick skin and blocked out many of the racial incidents in which he was involved over the years. Hockey has provided a great life, he said, and he refuses to let those memories taint his overall experience.

"He is a really positive guy and a great role model," said Coles, his former teammate at RPI, who played minor league hockey for a decade. "Graeme really shielded me from a lot of the stuff that went on when we were in school. He’s done a lot for me and a lot for kids who want to get into the game. I can’t say enough about what a good guy he is."

Townshend has given kids scholarships to his hockey school and has acted as a mentor to others.

Townshend and Coles said they would like to see the NHL to do more to encourage and develop young Black players.

"When I was a kid, I assumed my mom couldn’t afford hockey school," Townshend said. "I would get a brochure of kids doing all this fun stuff and I would just imagine doing all these things. I think it's important that kids get a chance. Hockey is a great sport."

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