Unlike Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut in 1947, Willie O’Ree’s breaking of the NHL color barrier more than a decade later didn’t seem to have quite the same splash in sports history. Perhaps it’s because Robinson represented just one of many countless black baseball players who were more than capable of competing at the big league level (in fact, some would argue that guys like Josh Gibson were better than most major leaguers), whereas, historically speaking, black hockey players have made up a tiny percentage of the league (although you might be surprised to learn that the difference between the percentage of black baseball players and black hockey players is only about 6.5 points).
After O’Ree played his final game in 1961, it would take another 13 years before another black player, Mike Marson, made his way onto another NHL roster, but since then, there have been many talented black players to enter the league, including: Anson Carter, Kevin Weeks, Donald Brashear, Georges Laraque, Mike Grier, Grant Fuhr, Jarome Iginla, and P.K. Subban. And the number continues to rise, to where it currently stands today at more than 30.
Here are the top 15 current black NHL players.
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15 Emerson Etem
Born in Long Beach, which isn’t exactly a hockey hotbed, Emerson Etem chose not to follow in the family tradition of water sports (his sister is a swimmer and his mother and brother were rowers). Instead, he chose to play on water of the frozen variety. And it’s a good thing, too, because he would go on to make the U.S. National Under-18 Team. From there he was drafted into the WHL, putting up 107 points in 65 games in his final season before being taken in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks.
He’s still looking to find his scoring touch in the NHL, but he managed to net 24 goals in just 50 games with Anaheim’s AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, in 2013-14. After a brief stint with the Canucks, scoring 7 goals in 39 games last year, he is now back with his original team, the Ducks, and looking to break into the everyday roster.
14 Devante Smith-Pelly
Devante Smith-Pelly is onto his third NHL team in six seasons. In that time, he’s collected 71 points in 223 games. But his game isn’t scoring; it’s hitting and forechecking. He’s been described as a “hard-hitter who can score big goals.” For the most part, however, the offensive output has been lacking at the NHL level, but he saw an uptick in points last season, especially after being traded to the New Jersey Devils. In just 18 games, he tallied 13 points on 8 goals, finishing with 14 goals total on the year, double his previous highest, which he accomplished his first year in the league.
13 Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart can do a bit of everything: score, assist, and fight. He recorded his first Gordie Howe hat trick in 2009, and quickly followed it up with another one during a three-point game the following season.
In 2009-10, however, the scoring far outweighed the fighting, as he picked up 64 points on 28 goals. Unfortunately, he hasn’t come close to replicating those numbers in following seasons, due in large part to injuries, but he still remains a threat, both with the stick and the fists.
So far this season with the Minnesota Wild (his second stint with the team), he has 5 points on 2 goals and 19 penalty minutes in 11 games.
12 Trevor Daley
After 10 years in the NHL, never so much as registering double-digits in goals, Dallas defenseman Trevor Daley snuck up on everyone in the league during the 2014-15 season and scored 38 points on 16 goals in just 68 games. His sudden offensive outbreak shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, however. As a junior player with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he averaged nearly a point per game his final two seasons.
SB Nation described the stay-at-home defenseman as a “minute-munching blueliner,” because since 2004-05 he ranks 19th in total ice time, averaging more than 20 minutes per game for the Pittsburgh Penguins last year while registering 28 points.
11 Johnny Oduya
Now in his second season with the Dallas Stars, defenseman Johnny Oduya has quietly carved out a decent career for himself in the NHL after spending four years in Sweden, with 177 points in 11 seasons while playing for five different teams.
His best season came with the Devils in 2009-10 when he collected 22 assists and 29 points, but he has been a steady defender his entire career, playing an important role in the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup championships in 2013 and 2015.
Born in Stockholm to a Kenyan father, Oduya is unique in that he is one of only two Swedish-born black players in the history of the sport, with the other being fellow Stockholmer Oliver Kylington, who played one game for the Flames last year.
10 Darnell Nurse
Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse is looking to turn his OHL success into NHL success. Drafted 7th overall by the Oilers, he averaged nearly a point per game while playing shutdown defense his last season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, leading his team to a West Division championship.
Now in his third season in the NHL, after scoring 10 points in 69 games last year, Nurse will be looked upon to help turn around the franchise with the help of fellow young stars, like Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Leon Draisaiti. Thanks to the addition of veteran Milan Lucic, the team’s off to a great start, currently sitting atop the Pacific Division.
9 Seth Jones
After being traded to Columbus midway through the season last year, defenseman Seth Jones saw a significant improvement to his play, registering 20 points in just 41 games with the Blue Jackets. And he’s picking up from where he left off last year this season, having already scored 6 points on 3 goals in just 10 games.
At this rate, the former 4th overall pick from Arlington, Texas, is shaping up to be one of the most promising young defenders in the league, which is why Columbus locked him in to a 6-year, $32.4 million contract this summer.
Unfortunately, his ascent to superstardom will have to wait until he returns from the injured reserve list after suffering a hairline fracture in his foot, but at just 22 years of age, there’s still plenty of time for him to further develop.
8 Anthony Duclair
Playing in his first full season last year, Coyotes forward Anthony Duclair proved that he is a player to watch, scoring 44 points on 22 goals, thanks in part to the chemistry he developed with teammate and fellow young gun Max Domi, leading fans to label them the “Killer Ds.” As Dhiren Mahiban of Vice Sports put it, “Max Domi and Anthony Duclair are turning heads and front and centre in the thick of the rookie-scoring race.”
Duclair’s sudden surge has come as a bit of a surprise to many around the league. Drafted in the third round by the Rangers, he was quickly traded away, much to the satisfaction of Arizona, who finished in 4th place in the Pacific Division last year.
7 Kyle Okposo
After being named the most valuable player on his junior team, Kyle Okposo would go on to have success at the collegiate level with his home state University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, scoring 40 points in 40 games his freshman season, which led to him being drafted 7th overall by the New York Islanders in 2006.
Okposo had success right away in the NHL, scoring 18 goals his first season, but he broke out in 2013-14, averaging nearly a point per game with a career-best 27 goals.
After being considered one of the top free agents on the market this offseason, he signed with the Buffalo Sabres to a seven-year, $42 million contract, and so far he has rewarded them with a team-best 8 points in 11 games.
6 Joel Ward
After a decade in the league, last season 35-year-old Joel Ward was hoping to win his first Stanley Cup, but his San Jose Sharks fell just short, despite his best efforts, scoring 13 points in 24 games in the playoffs.
Call him a late bloomer, because Ward’s best seasons have come within the last few years, scoring at least 19 goals in each of the last three seasons, including a career-high 24 (with 49 points, another career-high) with the Capitals in 2013-14.
Ward is more than aware of the significance of being one of the few black players in the history of the sport, as he recently petitioned to have Willie O’Ree’s number 22 retired throughout the league, just as Jackie Robinson’s number 42 is retired throughout the MLB.
5 Evander Kane
Character issues aside—like asking for a trade from Winnipeg, or posing on social media with stacks of money, or the recent sexual assault allegations—Buffalo forward Evander Kane is one of the most promising young players in the league, even if he is already in his eighth season.
Drafted fourth overall by the Atlanta Thrashers, Kane would quickly make his presence known by knocking out Matt Cooke in a fight. And he would go on to score 57 points on 30 goals in his third season.
Unfortunately, he cracked three ribs in the opening game of the 2016-17 season, leaving him out of action indefinitely, and he’s struggled with injuries for much of the last few years. But given a full season, Kane has the potential to be one of the best all-around players in the league.
4 Wayne Simmonds
Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds is the kind of player who seems to get better as he goes along. He had a career year last season, putting up personal bests in goals (32), points (60, tied with 2013-14), and penalty minutes (147).
Like Evander Kane, Simmonds uses his hands for more than just scoring. Last season, he dropped the gloves five times, coming out on the winning end of his fights 60% of the time, according to hockeyfights.com. In 2011-12, he had his most physical season, fighting 10 times, skating away with five Ws and one draw—not bad for someone who led his team in goals.
Simmonds is off to his best start yet this year, with 12 points in 13 games.
3 Dustin Byfuglien
Drafted in the 8th round, Minnesota native Dustin Byfuglien wasn’t necessarily expected to be a star player in the NHL, but after a breakout season with the Blackhawks in 2010, wherein he played a big role in the team’s Stanley Cup win by scoring 16 points on 11 goals, he broke out in a big way and is now considered one of the league’s top defensemen.
Since leaving Chicago in 2010, he has put up at least 50 points in four out of six seasons (not including the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season).
Now with the Jets, Byfuglien was named the 20th best defenseman in the entire league, and the third-best American-born defenseman, by Sportsnet at the start of the season.
2 Jarome Iginla
Although he’s gotten off to a slow start this season, even at 39 years of age, Jarome Iginla remains one of the top players in the league, coming off a 22-goal, 47-point season last year with the Colorado Avalanche.
At the peak of his career with the Calgary Flames, Iggy was the best goal-scorer in the league, with two Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophies to his name and two 50-goal seasons. As it stands, he is 16th all time in goals, with over 600, and given that he’s showing very little signs of aging, he could very well end up a few spots higher on the list by the time he’s done. Who knows, he might even end up having the kind of longevity that Jagr has had.
1 P.K. Subban
P.K. Subban’s time in Montreal came to a tumultuous end this summer after a disappointing season, some locker room drama, and a surprising trade to the Predators for Shea Weber, but regardless of what you think of the controversial defenseman, there’s no denying that he’s one of the best in the league.
He took home the Norris Trophy for the league’s top defenseman in 2012-13 when he finished with 38 points in 42 games, leading the Habs to a first place finish in the Northeast Conference.
Subban’s electrifying play earned him acclaim throughout much of his seven seasons with the Canadiens, but it also drew the ire of the team’s coaching staff and critics around the league, like Don Cherry, who felt at times that he was “acting like a hot dog.” Still, when he’s not coughing up the puck while trying to skate around the entire opposing team, he is one of the best all-around players in the game, and he should only improve now that he’s out of the eye of the Montreal media.
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