A former player of the national hockey League (NHL), a native of Montreal, is convinced that the color of his skin has cost him his career.
In an interview to the network, Sportsnet, Bernie Saunders, a black man, recounted several episodes troubling about his brief career in the world of hockey.
According to his memories, Saunders has first been the target of racist remarks towards the age of 15 years, while he was in the category of midget AAA Chateauguay.
“At the beginning, it was more like taunting an athlete that is said in the heat of the moment”, remembered the old right wing.
The intensity rises
Montreal then moved to Toronto at the age of 17 years and has spent two seasons with the Panthers Pickering. Racial slurs are then intensified.
At the outset, Saunders dropped his gloves every time he heard an opponent say derogatory comments to her place.
However, as one of the best scorers in the league, he quickly realized that he was helping his rivals by spending time in the penalty box.
“I had to learn to put the concept of team first, even if I was frustrated.”
Saunders then spent four seasons playing at the University of Western Michigan, and he remembers that at this time, the journalists told him that they were shocked by the abuse that he had been the victim.
But the former player has always downplayed the taunts to which he was subjected, and the emotional burden he bore.
“I thought that if I talked about it, I was going to attract negative attention on me. I didn’t want a controversy. I didn’t want to hinder my chances of moving up the ranks.”
Despite the abuse, Saunders is able to maintain his level of play at a high level, so well that he was eventually noticed.
In 1979, he signed a contract with the Quebec Nordiques. After riding at a pace of over a point per game in the american League, he was recalled by the Nordic in march 1980.
“This was probably one of the most exciting days of my life,” said Saunders. But I also felt that it was where I was supposed to be.”
Saunders has finally played four games with the Nords at the end of the season 1979-1980, and worked so obsessively that summer to become a pillar of the team the following season.
“The Nords had me basically said that I was part of the team”.
During the training camp of the club in 1980 and 1981, the Nordic organized a tournament preparatory, assessing the players. Saunders led all the markers in the tournament with eight goals, and he finished tied for second on the team for points with a certain… Michel Goulet.
In spite of its tremendous output, the attacker of six feet has been cut away, and this, even before the Nords do not play a single tough game.
“It tore me to the heart,” acknowledged Saunders with sadness.
Many of the players and members of the media were shocked by the demotion of the only black player who was present at the camp. The late journalist Albert Ladouceur had, at the time, published an article entitled “The dismissal of Saunders: as a surprise,” in The Journal de Québec, where he wrote that some of the teammates of Saunders thought that he was the victim of an injustice.
With the benefit of hindsight, Saunders can’t help but believe that the color of his skin has played a role in his relegation.
“I feel that if I had been white and that I had delivered exactly the same performance, I would not be back in the american League.”
No decent chance
As the club-school of the Northern had been dissolved in the meantime, Saunders was loaned to the Montreal canadiens, then located in Nova Scotia. And because the Nords still held the rights to Saunders, Montreal was not at all interested to give him ice time.
“To me, they were immediately placed on the fourth line,” explained Saunders.
“I got the worst statistics in my career because I was sitting on the bench.”
In addition to a role greatly reduced, Saunders continued to be the object of discrimination. He is said to have endured about five racist incidents between 1979-1980 and 1980-1981.
When the Nordics have reduced their training camp in the fall of 1981, Saunders decided that he had had enough and asked the club to buy back his contract.
He played one last season with the Wings of Kalamazoo in the ECHL, scoring 75 points in 70 games during the season 1981-1982. It has lifted a fist after each goal scored this year, running the “raised fist of Black Power”.
After the season, Saunders has organized a ceremony with friends, mourning his departure from hockey. It was just 25 years old.
During the “service”, Saunders has burned up his skates and threw them in a pond.
“I loved him so much the game, and that meant so much to me. I felt that I had to spend a little time to cry to continue to move forward”.
Today, the former player rolls his hump in the pharmaceutical industry and he tries not to think about the career he could have in the NHL.
“I was going to survive. I had a woman at the time and children shortly after. I just couldn’t wallow in self-pity.”
Sometimes, he shares anecdotes about the game of hockey with friends. But most of the time, it is too painful.
Despite the adversity with which he was confronted, Saunders wants people to understand that he is not looking for pity. It is he who has asked the Nordic redeem his contract, and it was his choice, he said, to leave the hockey.
“I’ve evolved and I’ve had a beautiful life. I’m a happy person,” said Saunders.
He thinks that the environment of black players has improved to a certain extent. But he also thinks that racism is so deeply rooted in the culture of hockey that it will take a lot of time before the discrimination is completely eliminated from the sport.
“We just have to continue to fight. I don’t see certainly not a ” victory against racism in my lifetime, but I hope that this will one day be completely eradicated.”