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Townshend, first black Isles player, inspired by O'Ree

Graeme Townshend clutched the old trading card in his small fingers, tracing the outline of his idol again and again.

He was only 9 years old then. But he saw his future in Willie O'Ree's eyes.

"I was floored by it," said Townshend, who stumbled upon the card in his friend's basement. "I didn't know there were black players in the league."

Townshend looked at O'Ree - the Boston Bruins winger who made history in 1958 by becoming the National Hockey League's first black player - and dreamed of a similar path. That path eventually would take Townshend from the minor leagues to the NHL, as he became the first black player to wear an Islanders uniform. He was a big right winger, a touch over 6 feet and more than 200 pounds.

"A lot of people would tell me black people couldn't play professional hockey because we had weak ankles," said Townshend, who moved with his family from Jamaica to Toronto, Canada, when he was 3.

But he ignored the skeptics and proudly referenced the men who came before him, such as O'Ree, Tony McKegney and Bill Riley.

"I said, 'Those guys are doing it, why can't I?' " Townshend said by phone this past week. "That's why I never believed any of that negativity."

Especially on the ice.

In 1990, during his first NHL stint with the Boston Bruins, Townshend attacked Kris King of the Rangers at center ice after King allegedly shouted a racial remark. Townshend was suspended for six games.

Two years later, during a game on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, Townshend, then playing for the AHL's Capital District Islanders, exchanged words and made a threatening gesture toward Adirondack Red Wings defenseman Gord Kruppke over an alleged racial slur.

Townshend confronted Kruppke after the game and demanded an apology. He didn't get one that day.

He said the media blew those events "out of proportion."

"It was in the heat of the battle," said Townshend, who later became best friends with Kruppke during their time with the Houston Aeros of the IHL. "The way I played and those other guys played, it was vicious. People don't understand how vicious hockey is. You're going to say things - believe me, I've said things I shouldn't have said. That's why I never got involved with media. I've said things before to people that I can't repeat, and I wouldn't want to. If the media heard what I said, you would think I was a really bad person."

Townshend also ignored the taunts of fans, finding some of their antics funny. Such as the time he was sitting in the penalty box with black teammate Ray Neufeld during a road game in New Haven and 30 nearby students stood up, started swaying side to side and sang an old slave song.

"I just felt that if people were giving me a hard time, it was because I was doing a good job and the opposing fans tried to do whatever they could to get me out of my game," he said. "And it never worked."

Townshend was too wrapped up in the game to notice.

It was the pace of hockey that caught his eye first.

"Just the speed of the game, being on the ice, it's a free feeling," he said. "There's nothing better than being on the ice for me in the world."

When he was about 10 or 11, he and a childhood friend received tickets to a Washington Capitals preseason game. There, on the ice during warm-ups, he saw the Caps' Mike Marson, the second black man to play in the NHL.

"It inspired me," said Townshend, who became the first Jamaican-born player to play in the NHL.

His journey, however, was far from glamorous. Despite receiving a full scholarship to then-No. 1 and defending NCAA champion Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he spent most of his 10-year career as a role player, shuttling between the minors and the NHL.

Townshend spent a full season with the AHL Maine Mariners before the Bruins signed him as a free agent in 1989. On Sept. 3, 1991, he was signed by the Islanders.

"The first thing I noticed was just the aura of that dynasty," Townshend said. "Al Arbour, he was the architect of the dynasty. Boss [Mike Bossy], [Bobby] Nystrom, Clark [Gillies] - they would hang around. Butch Goring, he was my minor-league coach for two years and he was well known as the missing link to their Stanley Cup days. It was neat being a part of that."

Townshend signed with Ottawa during 1993-94 before being sent to the minors the following year. He retired in 1999.

Though he competed in only 45 NHL games, he played a total of 686 games, compiling 227 goals and 208 assists during his time in the NHL, AHL, IHL and WPHL. He had three 20-goal seasons in the minors.

Upon retirement, he coached minor-league hockey, owned and operated the GTP (Graeme Townshend Professional) Hockey Schools and founded Townshend Hockey, a skating instructional program for hockey players of all ages. He currently is the Toronto Maple Leafs' skating and skills coach.

In 2006, he was inducted into the Canadian Black Hockey Hall of Fame, joining his idol, O'Ree.

The Maine resident, who hosts boarding camps at The Governor's Academy in Massachusetts, also works with several programs, including Score Boston, a not-for-profit organization that provides inner-city youth with hockey equipment.

"I couldn't afford to go to hockey school," Townshend said. "If I had, I would've been better at a younger age."

When he was growing up, black kids scoffed at the idea of playing in the NHL. But that, Townshend now reasons, stemmed from their feelings of exclusion.

"A lot of my friends didn't watch hockey, or just assumed it was a white sport. I took it upon myself to learn and find out," he said. "Don't limit yourself . . . But don't let anyone tell you you can't do something."

Townshend, however, doesn't see himself as a pioneer like O'Ree, Marson, McKegney or Riley.

"For me, those guys were trailblazers. They actually went through hell," he said before sharing McKegney's story of being released by the Birmingham Bulls after fans threatened the organization for signing him.

"I was just a kid who loved the game."

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