Bernie Saunders, one of the NHL’s first black players, never thought he would find himself coaching youth hockey. He vowed his sons would never play, but his eldest, Jonathan, had other plans.
From the time he was in the crib, Jonathan was obsessed with the sport, and so he followed in his father’s footsteps.
They had talks about what to do when the racist taunts would inevitably begin — don’t react, don’t let them get to you — but sure enough, when his son was a teenager, in the late ’90s, an opponent called him the N-word on the ice. Jonathan freaked out.
One referee, trying to break up the scuffle, grabbed Jonathan from behind. Caught off balance, his foot went flying in the air. Another referee determined he made a kicking motion and gave him a match penalty.
“I literally got through the game, went into this closet, and I just cried. It was like, all the emotions from my career, my life: it was too much for me,” the elder Saunders said. “I could deal with it individually, but to see my son go through it was just overwhelming.”
The next day, the other team’s coach called to apologize for what had happened, which Saunders found promising — a sign that things were changing, albeit slowly.
The sport that Saunders loved so much, the sport he says shaped him into the person he has become, has also broken his heart many times. Saunders was part of a wave of black players who debuted after Willie O’Ree became the first black player in the National Hockey League in 1958.
Saunders, a right-winger, played 10 games for the Quebec Nordiques in 1979-80 and 1980-81.
He believes he could have had a 10-year career in the NHL if he had been given a proper shot. He believes the colour of his skin is part of the reason he didn’t.
Saunders doesn’t want to come off as someone lamenting what could have been. He says he has moved on. At the same time, he’s disappointed that he’s been excluded from conversations about the first black players in the NHL. He was the fifth black man to play in the league.
“People just forget me because I didn’t play. It’s like a catch-22.”
‘Influenced by Hockey Night in Canada’
Saunders was born in Montreal in 1956. When he was still a toddler, his family moved to the Toronto area.
His older brother John was the first to lace up skates. The coach noticed Saunders crying in the stands, wanting to be with John, and invited him to play, too. They were around five and six years old.
Bernie was smitten with the game.
“We were so influenced by Hockey Night in Canada,” he said, of himself and John. “We just felt like other Canadian boys and wanted to play hockey.”
When Saunders was still a teenager, the family moved back to Quebec, to Châteauguay — a town on Montreal’s South Shore with a strong hockey tradition.
While in Châteauguay, he played for Jacques Demers, who went on to coach the Nordiques and Montreal Canadiens. Saunders says Demers is one of the people who taught him the work ethic and discipline that carried him until he lost his enthusiasm for the game.
His first encounter with racism happened while he was playing junior hockey after his family moved to Ajax, Ont., during his senior year of high school.
He heard the N-word on the ice and from fans in the stands, and opponents always made sure to finish their checks on him.
“They always came up with their hardest stuff, their elbows and what-not, and tried to punish me.”
He learned to fight, to defend himself, but mainly he tried to keep scoring.
Sherry Bassin, 80, is a former junior hockey executive and another person who helped shape Saunders as a hockey player and a person.
He was coaching the Pickering Panthers, a Junior B team, when he suspended four players for breaking a rule and got four replacements from a lower-level team. One was Saunders.
Saunders was a shy, quiet kid with a remarkable work ethic, Bassin recalls. Saunders scored twice in his debut, and it quickly became clear to Bassin he should have been playing at a higher level.
He has no evidence, he says, but he figures race had something to do with it.
“I could not imagine [why] this guy wasn’t given a better opportunity,” Bassin said.
So Bassin gave him that chance. He still remembers, almost 50 years later, the smile on Saunders’s face when he was told he wasn’t going back to his old team.
There weren’t many black players in the junior league at the time. Bassin knew Saunders was getting racist taunts, but said Saunders always handled it in stride and never let it get to him.
“Everything Bernie Saunders has, he earned, in spite of [whether] there’s been prejudice along the way.”
An oddity on the ice
After playing for Pickering, Saunders got a full scholarship to Western Michigan University and played there for four years.
When he left, he was the all-time leading scorer. He was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 1994.
Saunders said he knew O’Ree from seeing him play on TV with the Boston Bruins, but he spent most of his career thinking he was the only black player out there.
Right before he went to college, Mike Marson and Bill Riley, the second and third black men in the NHL, made their debuts. (Tony McKegney, the fourth black player, debuted in 1978). But on the ice, Saunders was still alone.
The year after he graduated, he had offers from a few teams. He decided to sign as a free agent with the Nordiques because he felt they would give him the best opportunity to play right away — plus, he would be reunited with Demers.
He was assigned to the Syracuse Firebirds, one of the Nordiques’ farm teams, where he became a fan favourite. His supporters created a fan club.
He has a copy of a newspaper article following a game in Rochester, N.Y., that mentions a fan who heard people yelling the N-word at him all night.
That year, he also played against a team from Birmingham, Ala. His first game there, team executives told him he might be shot, so he went into the arena with extra protection.
He scored a goal in that game and got a standing ovation from the crowd.
He played four games with the Nordiques at the end of the 1979-80 season, the team’s first season in the NHL. He believes his call up was a reward for his performance in the minors.
Coming into the next season, he thought he was a shoo-in to make the team. Saunders was the third highest-scorer at training camp. But he was reassigned to the minors.
“I was incredulous. Even reporters, players were coming up to me saying, ‘What’s going on, Bernie?'”
The Nordiques didn’t have a farm team that year, so he was sent to play for the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, one of the Montreal Canadiens’ farm teams. That’s where he met Guy Carbonneau, who was in his first full professional season.
Carbonneau, a Hall of Famer who played and coached for the Canadiens and now works as an analyst, remembers Saunders as an honest player and hard worker — someone who could do pretty much anything on the ice and served as a veteran presence on the team.
“I think for us growing and trying to make it into the NHL, guys like [Bernie], who help you and calm you at the right time, it was huge.”
But while Saunders was playing the role of helping others, he believes the Habs didn’t really have any incentive to help him, since the team had its own players to develop.
His point production dropped off, but he was still eventually called up to the big club. He played six games and didn’t score, but played well. One of his teammates even offered to rent his apartment to Saunders, thinking he would need one since he’d be there long term.
But it wasn’t to be. Saunders was sent back to the minors, without any explanation.
He was told teams were interested in trading for him, but the Nordiques didn’t let him go. The next season, his agent Art Kaminsky told him that must have meant the Nordiques wanted to keep him, so he went into training camp intent on making an impression.
However, the team now had a new farm team, the Fredericton Express, and the organization wanted Saunders to play there.
It felt like they were ripping out my heart. I’ve always been a player that plays on enthusiasm, and I was just losing my zest for the game.– Bernie Saunders
“It felt like they were ripping out my heart. I’ve always been a player that plays on enthusiasm, and I was just losing my zest for the game.”
He went to New Brunswick, feeling discouraged but not ready to give up.
While in Fredericton, he says the coach told him he may play a couple dozen games at the NHL level, but his main role would be to tutor the other players.
Saunders decided that was it. He got out of his contract, went back to Michigan and started playing for the Kalamazoo Wings, an International Hockey League team, while establishing himself at Upjohn, a pharmaceutical company.
“It was just time. I just felt defeated,” he said.
“I loved the game, but the game didn’t love me.”
Brent Jarrett played with him in Kalamazoo, Mich., that season. A centre, he said the way they clicked on the ice was as though they’d been playing together forever. Jarrett won the scoring title and says he couldn’t have done it without Saunders at his side.
Saunders didn’t seem bitter or disappointed about not quite making it in the NHL, Jarrett said. But Jarrett believes Saunders deserved to be there.
I believe if he wasn’t a black individual he would have played [more] in the NHL. That’s how good he was.”– Brent Jarrett, Kalamazoo Wings centre
“I believe if he wasn’t a black individual he would have played [more] in the NHL. That’s how good he was.”
Life after hockey
One of his greatest disappointments is not being included in conversations about the first black NHL hockey players, but he insists he feels no animosity.
He is vaguely aware of the recent push to change hockey culture. He says he doesn’t watch much anymore.
There have been 93 black players in the NHL. Some may find that number low. Saunders says it’s tremendous.
It takes time to grow a sport, he says, and now young black kids have something he didn’t: the opportunity to play the game they love with people who look like them, and to see more than one black person playing it at the highest level.
Saunders says he is happy and has had a good life, thanks in large part to the sport that broke his heart.
“I was just this shy, quiet kid in Châteauguay. I was scared to say a peep in class. I was too timid to talk to a girl. Hockey made me — gave me all the confidence in the world.”