The moisture was running in rivulets, beads dripping and mingling to form capillaries of sweat down Anson Carter's back. He was in the midst of circuit training last month at a gym in Venice, Calif., and the workout was a relentless hour of steps and hops and weights that made his heart pound up to 184 beats per minute and reduced his usually cool and carefully shaped thoughts to ellipses: third period...playoffs...fresh...Stanley Cup.
Carter—showered, massaged, fed—would connect the dots later. In soft words sometimes muffled by the sound of the Pacific breakers in the distance, he explained that the torturous workouts might provide him with the will and strength to help push the Boston Bruins, for whom he is a right wing, closer to a Stanley Cup. The temperature was in the low 70s and a mild breeze blew off the ocean, but Carter, whose percentage of body fat is so low it could almost pass as the interest rate on a savings account, was shivering. "I'll walk along the beach, but I don't go in the water," he said. "Too cold." Anyway, he doesn't summer in California for the waves. He is the wave.
In a sport in which, for much of its history, only the puck has been black, Carter is one of hockey's emerging black stars. He and other black players, such as wingers Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames and Mike Grier of the Edmonton Oilers, can shatter the NHL's image as a white sport, a niche sport, the NASCAR of the north. Their success could broaden the sport's fan base and talent pool and open new vistas for the league. Hockey won't be Everyman's game until skates are as common as Air Jordans, until equipment becomes affordable for families with less than middle-class incomes, until the sport becomes as comprehensible in Brownsville, Texas, as it is in Boston. These players can help nudge it in that direction.
By its own count the NHL had 18 black players between the 1917-18 and the 1990-91 seasons. This year the league will have about 20 blacks among its nearly 650 players. While theirs is not the face of hockey—there are roughly as many Finns in the NHL as blacks—neither is the black player a fly in a pail of milk, to borrow the title of the memoir of Herb Carnegie, a Quebec senior league star of the 1940s and '50s who was denied a spot in the NHL because of his race. But Carter, Iginla and Grier are destined to be forces, not footnotes.
For many black players of the past 25 years, their careers have been wham (fighter Val James, 11 games with the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1981-82 and '86-87), bam (former first-round draft choice Reggie Savage, 34 games with the Washington Capitals and Quebec Nordiques from 1990-91 through '93-94), thank you, Graeme (enforcer Graeme Townshend, 45 games with the Bruins, the New York Islanders and the Ottawa Senators from 1989-90 through '93-94). Only goalie Grant Fuhr, a Vezina Trophy winner who played on five Stanley Cup champions with Edmonton between 1983-84 and '89-90, and left wing Tony McKegney, who scored 320 goals before leaving the NHL after the 1990-91 season, had long, distinguished careers. Even so, circumstances skewed their imprint on the game. That the 37-year-old Fuhr, now with Calgary, is a minority player has been rendered almost invisible, despite 398 career wins, because he's a light-skinned man who has been camouflaged by a mask. McKegney had the misfortune of following a journeyman's itinerary through seven teams in 13 seasons although his statistics say he deserved better.
It will be hard for any black player to match Fuhr's accomplishments, but several in their 20's are on the cusp of prominence. Grier, 24, an effective hitter whose once stevedorelike hands are getting softer, hit the 20-goal plateau for the first time last season. (At press time Grier was holding out in a contract dispute.) "Mike's got good speed and intelligence, but he's also a great guy, full of personality, outgoing," Oilers general manager Glen Sather says. "He could be captain material." Iginla, 22, whose impact as a rookie in 1996-97 made him a finalist for the Calder Trophy, was second on the Flames in goals with 28 last season and had 62 in his first three seasons—three more than Detroit Red Wings star forward Brendan Shanahan had at the same stage of his career. Canucks goaltender Kevin Weekes, 24, a key figure in the trade that sent scoring star Pavel Bure to the Florida Panthers last season, has yet to win an NHL game in 15 starts. He will open the year as Garth Snow's backup, but he'll grow into a first-stringer if he can build upon a sound technical base. Three of the top seven NHL heavyweights are black: Edmonton winger Georges Laraque, 22, who scored a TKO over Sabres enforcer Rob Ray last year; Vancouver Canucks forward Donald Brashear, 27, who has matured from a pug into a bona fide bruiser and has earned about 12 minutes playing time per game; and Florida wing Peter Worrell, 22, who could barely skate backwards five years ago but has improved to the point where Panthers general manager Bryan Murray envisions him becoming a second-line player.
The 25-year-old Carter might be the best of them all (page 70). Despite playing in only 55 regular-season games in 1998-99 because of a contract dispute and an ankle injury, he scored 24 goals, including 12 in the last 18 games. He also had the winning goal in double overtime of Game 5 against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals and iced that series by scoring the second goal in a 2-0 win in Game 6. Like Grier, he's entering his fourth season in the NHL—the year elite forwards such as the Hurricanes' Keith Primeau and the Philadelphia Flyers' John LeClair became standouts. "I really like Carter," Montreal Canadiens forward Trevor Linden says. "Explosive speed, tough kid, a guy who can score. You can see he really thinks out there."
Says Carter, "Black players are scorers. Black players are checkers [the St. Louis Blues' Jamal Mayers]. Black players are enforcers. Black players are tough stay-at-home defensemen [Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre of the Sabres]. We have different roles on a hockey club. Black players are bringing different things to the table,
which means that black players are the same as everyone else."
The emerging black player won't reshape hockey the way Europeans transformed the NHL over the last two decades, he won't rack up Gretzky-like numbers, and he won't turn the crowds from a sea of white faces to a Def Comedy Jam. But he already has started a revolution. In 1999-2000 the NHL will begin diversity training. The black player has made the league sensitive to its insensitivity.
At a rink in West Orange, N.J., last month a troupe of actors who could skate assembled to make a video and a little history. The actors performed five skits; the scenes involved two players questioning a teammate's sexuality, a black player being called a gorilla by an opponent, players dropping their towels in front of a female reporter, a misunderstanding between Russian and North American teammates, and a crowd of fans chanting, "Chicken Swede!" Every NHL team will be shown the video either during training camp or early in the season as part of the league's diversity training.