Soul On Ice

Most people are happy knowing they’ll never have a slice of vulcanized rubber slapped toward them at velocities above highway speed limits. William Douglas isn’t one of them. He’s a hockey aficionado. Not just a fan -a player. And not just any player: a goalie.

Douglas has wanted to tend goal since he saw his first hockey game on television as a bored child confined indoors with strep throat. Despite the lack of African American representation in the game and in the crowd, the pace of the game piqued his interest. “It was fast, [and] there was so much to do,” he says. He saved his allowance to buy a pair of cheap skates and taught himself to skate, finding pickup games at ice rinks near his home in Philadelphia.

His parents, who weren’t always greeted warmly at practice sessions and games, supported his interest with “great reluctance,” he says. Douglas, today a political reporter for Knight Ridder, was usually the only African American on the ice. He’s heard all the jokes (the only black thing on the ice is the puck) and endured insults, glares, and stereotypes. “That’s to be expected in that environment, where you’re one of the few African Americans,” he responds. “I didn’t want it to get me off my game.” He also points out that the prejudice of players often distracted them and worked to his advantage. “Their own bias cost them in the end,” he says.

Douglas has been on the ice his entire adult life -even once playing with presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, a fellow hockey lover. At 46, his love for the game hasn’t cooled. He’ll continue to play, he says, “as long as my knees hold up.”

Know the costs. Goalie equipment can be expensive. A good pair of skates can cost $150 to $400; padding, a mask, and stick can bring the total cost to $3,000 for a child and $4,000 for an adult.
Do some reading. Cecil Harris’ Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey (National Book Network; $22.95) chronicles how black hockey players have overcome racial prejudices to succeed in the sport.

Don’t feel intimidated. African Americans’ relationship with ice hockey has been frosty. Harris notes several deterrents: lack of access to rinks, expensive gear, as well as peer pressure. There are signs, however, of a thaw. The NHL has a diversity task force that helps fund programs, such as Ice Hockey in Harlem. Douglas has noticed more African Americans attending NHL games. There are also more black athletes on the ice. Seventeen of the NHL’s players are black. -L.E.