In honor of Black History Month, I'd like to write an article on something that's been an interesting observation of mine for sometime and ask the question of whether or not it's nature or nurture.
Now, dedicated hockey fans know that Willie O'Ree was the first black hockey player to reach the NHL. What people may not realize is that after O'Ree's 43 game appearance with the Bruins, there wouldn't be another black hockey player for almost 15 years, when the expansion Washington Capitals thrust Mike Marson (and Bill Riley to a far, far lesser degree) into the league hoping that his success in the juniors would carry over into the NHL (it didn't, but it never does for players who are rushed into the league by the teams that draft them.) And while Grant Fuhr became the first black hockey superstar during his time with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980's, it wouldn't be until the mid-1990's that the teams in the league began to seriously consider the advantages that black hockey players could bring to their team.
This brings us to where we're at today.
How many black goaltenders are currently playing in the NHL? One. Ray Emery, who spent last season in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League, returned after to the league after signing a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. Had Kevin Weekes not retired this season, there'd be two.
How many black defensemen are currently playing in the NHL? Not many. Bryce Salvador has established himself as a solid stay-at-home defender with the New Jersey Devils while Trevor Daley is starting to stand out on the Dallas Stars roster as a mobile defenseman who can be relied upon in key situations. However, outside of those two players there aren't any notable black NHL defenders. The best prospect on the horizon is P.K. Subban, a Montreal Canadiens prospect who's currently playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs for the American Hockey League.
So what about forwards? How many black centers are currently in the NHL? None. There are no black centers in the league. That's kinda unbelievable but it's true. At lower levels that's probably not the case but it is as far as the NHL goes.
So how many black wingers are currently in the NHL? More than a few. In fact, not only are black players starting to line up as wingers in the NHL, but most of them are doing a damn fine job for what's being asked of them. From grinders and energy players to franchise players, NHL rosters are filling themselves out with talented black athletes at wing who're helping transform their teams into winning organizations that fans want to support.
Sure you have your old-school enforcers who are nearing the end of their careers (Don Brashear of the New York Rangers is skating into the twilight of his career while George Laraque was suspended from the Canadiens for, well, not enforcing), but you also have a plethora of black wingers who are adept to being solid role players for their teams. Both Mike Grier (Buffalo Sabres) and Jamal Meyers (Calgary Flames) have established solid reputations as hard-hitting defensive wingers while Nigel Dawes (Calgary Flames) and Joel Ward (Nashville Predators) are establishing themselves as forwards who can provide complementary scoring. While they may not be household names, they still provide their teams with the ingredients necessary to remain competitive.
Unlike the days of the past where black forwards were limited to being role players, they are now starting to become dynamic game-changers who provide top-line talent to their team. Jarome Iginla (Calgary Flames) is by far the most successful black player currently in the NHL, becoming synonymous with the Flames as their franchise player. Dustin Byfuglien (Chicago Blackhawks) transformed himself from a depth defenseman into a bruising power forward with the size (and scoring ability) all teams crave for that position. Kyle Okposo (New York Islanders) is giving the fans on Long Island something to look forward to as he continues to take positive strides in his development. And in Atlanta, the Thrashers are putting Evander Kane into battle as a diligent and emerging power forward who has yet to realize his potential. These are the players who can be marketed to attract new fans to the game and hopefully give youths who are interested in hockey something to strive for.
So who's my favorite? That would be Wayne Simmonds (Los Angeles Kings). While his first season in the NHL saw him put up respectable numbers on a rebuilding team, he's blown the lid off of everyone's expectations this season. In 54 games this season, Simmonds has recorded 35 points and a team-best +19 rating to go along with 85 PIM, which goes to show how well rounded Simmonds is at all aspects of his game. He may have been tabbed to be on a depth line at the start of this season, but his level of play catapulted him into a top-six forward role once injuries occurred. Unless he starts to fail massively, he'll be a fixture in the NHL for a long time as a scoring two-way forward with fighting upside!
With all that said, why are black players so well represented at the wing position but so poorly represented elsewhere on the depth chart? Is it nature or nurture? In the argument of goaltenders, one might be inclined to say "nurture" when you consider the economic disadvantages blacks have historically had in the western hemisphere. But what can be said about the lack of black players at the defense position? Equipment is just as affordable (or as expensive) for defensemen as it is for forwards, so why the disparity? It's even more mindboggling when you consider that out of all of the black NHL forwards, none of them play center! Could there be something genetically different with black players that affects their ability to win faceoffs? Or do those players have a certain level of speed, size, vision, ability, or any combination of the above that make them more effective on wing than they would be on center?
I don't have an answer. I'd just like to hear what you think about it.