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William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past eight years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles Bernie Saunders, who was the fifth black player to reach the NHL.
Bernie Saunders wants to get back into the game.
Saunders, who became the NHL’s fifth black player in 1979-80, walked away from hockey nearly four decades ago, frustrated by a lack of opportunity and tired from the vitriol he sometimes encountered as a player of color.
Now the former Quebec Nordiques forward wants to find a way to reengage with the hockey community, in hopes of sharing his experiences to help increase diversity and inclusion in the game. He’d been contemplating the idea for months, but the racial harassment that New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller endured during an online chat in April reinforced the idea.
“Overlying what happened to Miller, I’m starting to feel maybe it’s time to tell my story,” said Saunders, who’s retired and lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “I’d have to put myself out there, but if I can help a guy like Miller or other guys in the League to kind of soften the blow or whatever, I think I would enjoy that. It really incenses me that things like this still exist.”
Saunders, now 63, had a brief NHL career. A free agent signing, he played in 10 games for the Nordiques, four in 1979-80 and six in 1980-81, and registered one assist. He also spent parts of five seasons playing in the American Hockey League, the International Hockey League and the Central Hockey League, where scored a combined 181 points (92 goals, 89 assists) in 210 games.
Before that, Saunders starred at Western Michigan University, where he was team captain in 1978-79, his senior season. Saunders finished among the university’s all-time top 20 with 154 points (76 goals, 78 assists) in 140 games. He was inducted into the university’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1994 and into its Hockey Ring of Honor in 2013.
Hockey was a Saunders family passion. He played at Western Michigan with older brother John Saunders, who later become a popular broadcaster and hockey analyst for ABC and ESPN. John died in August 2016.
“For both me and my brother, we didn’t just play hockey — we were hockey,” Bernie Saunders said. “Hockey made us the people that we were and the successes that we were.”
Saunders has two sons who also played NCAA hockey: Jonathan, a defenseman who appeared in 23 games for Miami University from 2003-05, and Shawn, a forward who played in 61 games for the University of Massachusetts from 2007-11.
“The big thing about Bernie, he did so many things so well, he was such a well-rounded player, a combination guy,” said Craig Laughlin, a TV analyst for the Washington Capitals and former NHL forward who played with Saunders at Nova Scotia of the AHL. “He would never take a shift off, never take a game off, never take a practice off and he always had an infectious smile.”
Neil Smith, a former New York Rangers general manager and a teammate of Saunders at Western Michigan, said the Montreal-born forward was a skilled player and goal-scorer who “I don’t think at that time got a shot that he should have gotten.
“You could have had a similar story with Inge Hammarstrom and Borje Salming, two of the pioneers from Sweden who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Smith said. “You might have a similar story for the first French guys who tried to play in the Original Six [era] on any team other than Montreal. The people who are different, the first wave, are always going to have it more difficult than later on to break the barrier, whatever stupidity barrier there is.”
Saunders is reluctant to venture an opinion about whether race hampered his pro career, though he said that he did endure slurs. But said he also received support from fans and, in one instance, that support came in an unlikely place.
When Saunders played a game for Cincinnati’s CHL team in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1979-80 season, there were fears that he might be shot.
The game occurred one season after the Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association voided a deal with rookie forward Tony McKegney after some fans threatened a boycott if the team had a black player. McKegney went on to score 639 points (320 goals, 319 assists) in 912 NHL games for the Buffalo Sabres, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota North Stars, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and Quebec.
Saunders scored a goal in Birmingham that game, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
“After the game I talked to people and they were appalled at the way Tony McKegney thing was handled and wanted me to feel at home,” Saunders told Western Michigan’s athletic website.
But after the two brief call-ups by the Nordiques and playing 69 games on loan to Nova Scotia, the Montreal Canadiens AHL affiliate, in 1980-81, Saunders had had enough. He signed with Kalamazoo of the IHL in 1981-82, intent on winding down his playing career and finding work in the city where he played college hockey.
Saunders joined Upjohn, a Kalamazoo-based pharmaceutical company, after playing his last game in 1983-84 at age 27.
“I literally walked away from the game and went on with my life,” he said. “If I obsessed over my hockey career, I don’t think I would have been successful in other things. When you turn the page, you’ve got to truly turn the page. I didn’t wallow in pity or anything like that. It was kind of over and I put that chapter on the backburner.”
Or so he thought.
A story about Saunders on CBC’s website during Black History Month in February rekindled interest in the former player, who is often overlooked in minority hockey history.
Jonathan Saunders, who helps coach the Kenya Ice Lions in Nairobi, suggested to his father that maybe it was time for him to get back into hockey beyond occasionally watching games on TV at playoff time.
The elder Saunders had coached his son’s youth hockey team, which included former NHL players Matt Green, Scott Parse and a few others who played NCAA Division I hockey.
“He said, ‘You know, dad, you should get more involved because wouldn’t it be great to end the final chapter of your life where it started?'” the elder Saunders said. “So, yes, the idea of coming back to the game at this stage in my life is rather appealing.”
Photos courtesy: Bernie Saunders, Western Michigan University Athletics and Hockey Hall of Fame