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Comment: Tribute to a Black trailblazer, John Utendale

He was the first Black man to sign an NHL contract, in 1955 with the Detroit Red Wings (the era of Gordie Howe, TedLindsay, Alex Delvecchio).
John Utendale, originally from Edmonton, Alberta, was the first Black man to sign an NHL contract. VIA ALBERTA HOCKEY

A commentary by an Oak Bay resident.

In Canada, we once again acknowledge February as Black History Month. We share a variety of stories noting the history of Black people in order to preserve and honour their richly deserved legacy.

These individuals and their families possessed strength of character and humble spirits throughout their lives. Such strength of character is synonymous with Black athletes seeking careers in professional sports. Many attempted to be trailblazers in their athletic endeavours.

John Utendale, originally from Edmonton, Alberta, epitomizes such strength and humility. He was the first Black man to sign an NHL contract, in 1955 with the Detroit Red Wings (the era of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Alex Delvecchio).

He never played in the NHL; that legacy is owned by his former line-mate, Willie O’Ree.

A widely recognized reason for Utendale never playing in the NHL was thought to be his relationship and eventual marriage to a Caucasian woman

After his playing days with minor league affiliates the Edmonton Flyers and Quebec Aces, Utendale set his sights on post-secondary education. During his pursuit of a university education he played hockey at the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta.

He continued to play semi-professionally and with minor hockey teams in addition to pursuing coaching. Utendale’s ambition for higher learning eventually propelled him to earn a Master’s Degree and Doctorate.

My encounter with Utendale was at Western Washington University in Bellingham. He coached the inaugural season of university club hockey at WWU, while also being a tenured professor.

Despite all the players being Canadian, we were unaware of his rather intriguing background in hockey. He never shared his story nor did his wife, Maryan (known as Mickey) refer to his journey in the game.

Eventually rumours spread about this legendary educator and coach among the players and we were duly inspired. In all the time shared on the ice and even registering in a class he offered, we never learned that Utendale was being sought after by the U.S.A. Olympic hockey team that won gold in 1980.

Sadly, he succumbed to cancer, passing away in Bellingham in 2006. In February 2022 the Seattle Kraken honoured Utendale as a part of Black History Month.

This recognition preserved his legacy and honoured his storied hockey career and his life’s devotion to education. It was a remarkable journey for a humble Canadian with whom I unwittingly crossed paths and came to know ever so briefly.

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