In honor of Black History Month, TheFHN will be featuring bios on all the black hockey players who have played in the NHL each day throughout the month.
Bernie Saunders played professional hockey from 1978-1984. During that time, Saunders played in the minors for the Kalamazoo Wings, Cincinnati Stingers, Syracuse Firebirds, Nova Scotia Voyageurs of the IHL, CHL, and AHL leagues. During his time in the minor leagues, Saunders would score over 180 points, including a 75 point season during the 1981-82 campaign with Kalamazoo in the IHL.
Saunders would play in the NHL for two seasons with the Quebec Nordiques starting with the team’s inaugural NHL season in 1979-80.
While on the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, Saunders recounted an racial incident with Sportsnet Peter Mendelsohn and paired with the barrage of incidents he faced during his time with Quebec talks about how he walked away from the game.
Bernie Saunders, the only Black player on the 1980–81 Nova Scotia Voyageurs, was sitting with his teammates in the visitors’ dressing room. There had just been a bench-clearing brawl, and the referees had sent both teams off the ice.
Suddenly, one of Saunders’ teammates who had fought a Black player on the opposing team started yelling the N-word. Saunders was enraged and stepped toward his teammate, but the two were separated before they could come to blows. Saunders was then ushered into the hallway where a coach tried to explain that he hadn’t been the target of the slur.
“‘He didn’t mean that you’re an N-word. He meant the other guy’s an N-word,’” Saunders told me in a phone conversation, recalling his former coach’s justification.
“My head just wanted to explode.”https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/bernie-saunders-nhls-fifth-black-player-opens-racial-discrimination/
Ray Neufeld’s profesional hockey career began in 1979 with the Hartford Whalers. He would spend time periodically with AHL affiliate Springfield Indians and Binghamton Whalers.
Neufeld would spend parts of 7 seasons with the Hartford Whalers before being traded to the Winnipeg Jets in 1985. He would finish out the ’85 season with the Jets and would play there until he was traded in ’88 to the Boston Bruins. Neufeld would finish out his NHL career playing in 15 games for the Bruins before going to the Maine Mariners of the AHL.
Neufeld would go on to score 357 points in 595 NHL games while racking up 816 penalty minutes. While in Hartford from 1982-1986 he would finish north of 50 points each year, clipping north of 25 goals each season.
Valmore “Val” James was the first African-American hockey player in NHL history decades after Willie O’Ree broke the color barrier. Drafted in 1977 by the Detroit Red Wings in the 16th round, James would never suit up for the Red Wings. James would debut in the NHL during the 1981-82 season with the Buffalo Sabres. James would play two seasons in the NHL and finished his NHL career with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1986-’87 season. His time on the ice would be dominated as a feared enforcer, racking up penalty minutes and spirited bouts throughout his career.
In Between his NHL playing time, James would play in the AHL for the Rochester Americans where he scored the Calder Cup clinching goal in 1983. James would go on to play for St. Catharines Saints, Newmarkets Saints and after with the Baltimore Skipjacks. James would retire from professional hockey after spending time with the Flint Spirits of the IHL in the 1987-’88 season.
James would step away from the game after suffering a shoulder injury and walked away from the game seemingly for good. After suffering from years of racial abuse, slurs and taunts from crowds across his playing career and young hockey life.
In 2015 Val returned to the game when his autobiography Black Ice: The Val James Story was published. During an interview with Pat Borzi of the New York Times, Val discussed incidents like the below that plauged him during this playing career.
After a game in Boston in 1982, angry fans blocked the team bus of the Sabres, who had two black players that season. The fans fired a beer bottle into the windshield, called James a vile name and demanded he come out. James headed for the door until Coach Scotty Bowman ordered him back to his seat. James also described the first time he heard the nastiest of slurs, from an adult at a youth tournament in Michigan. He was 13.https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/04/sports/hockey/val-james-first-us-born-black-player-in-nhl-publishes-autobiography.html