Alton White broke color barrier with Komets, pro hockey

Alton White was the first black player to play for the Komets. (Courtesy photo)

As a kid growing up in Winnipeg, Alton White never experienced racism, though his was the only black family in the neighborhood. It was a cosmopolitan area full of immigrants.

“We read about it in the paper, but you’d say, ‘Does that really happen?'” White said. “I always hung around with my buddies who were all white kids and never thought anything of it. I was always treated pretty well.”

White came to Fort Wayne as a rookie in 1965 to play for the Komets. He was the first black player to play for the Komets, though there had been a couple in the International Hockey League before, including Ray Leacock with Cincinnati and Art Dorrington with Johnstown in the early 1950s.

But the Komets had never integrated before. General Manager Ken Ullyot recruited White and his buddy Ken Sutyla out of a New York Rangers prospect camp in St. Paul, Minn.

“I had to go out and look for a place to live, and that was the first time I ever ran into discrimination,” White recalled. “Hank Kernohan was a real hockey fan and a good guy, and he took us under his wing and was showing us around. The first place he took us to, we really liked the apartment and were really eager, but the lady kind of backed around the corner so I couldn’t hear, and she told them no, I couldn’t live there because I was black.

“That just hurt.”

It was a rude introduction to professional hockey, but White and Sutyla eventually found a house on South Anthony Boulevard between Pontiac Street and Creighton Avenue with goaltender Gerry Randall.

“There were some problems I found sometimes when people looked at him a bit funny, but he didn’t understand it because it was his first time out of Canada,” Sutyla said. “We just ignored it.”

Besides finding housing, and despite some early homesickness, White also found a hockey home with the Komets, where he scored 17 goals and 42 points in 62 games. His teammates never thought anything about the color of his skin.

“It was not a big deal for us because we had all played with him in Canada,” all-time Komets scoring leader Len Thornson said.

Eddie Long, who coached the team that season, described White as “a real gentleman, really a nice guy who was a hard worker. He didn’t want anything he didn’t earn.”

It helped that Sutyla was also on the team, at least for the first half of the season. They teamed with Chick Balon on a forward line. After Sutyla left, White spent time on a line with Thornson and Colin Longmuir.

“It was really a great experience for me to see how everybody handled themselves,” White said. “Lionel Repka took us under his wing and taught us all the time to help us get better. My Fort Wayne teammates were wonderful, and I learned a lot from them about being a pro, and I grew up a little, too.”

The funny thing? In 1971, the movie Brian’s Song highlighted the fact that Gale Sayers and Brian Piccalo were supposedly among the first interracial roommates. But White and Sutyla, who had been friends since they were 14 or 15 in Winnipeg, had roomed together years earlier.

“We never thought anything of it,” White said.

White stood up in Sutyla’s wedding, and they are still good friends today.

“He was such a nice guy and got along with everybody,” Sutyla said. “He was just a great athlete and a very likable guy.”

After the 1965-66 season, the Komets lost White to Des Moines in the intra-league draft, but White’s career was about to take off. He bounced to the Columbus Checkers for three seasons before signing with Providence from the American Hockey League.

That’s when White got his big break as he was drafted in the first round by the new World Hockey Association’s New York Raiders. On Oct. 12, 1972, White became the second black player to play in a major league game (after Willie O’Ree, who played two games with the Boston Bruins in 1957-58 and 43 with the Bruins in 1960-61).

After 13 games, White was traded to the Los Angeles Sharks, where he became the first black player to score 20 goals in a season and the first to score a hat trick, notching three goals in seven minutes against the Minnesota Fighting Saints on March 1, 1973. He finished with 21 goals and 42 points in 60 games.

The next season, he was troubled by a cut on his leg and was limited to eight goals and 21 points in 48 games. In the season that followed, he bounced between the North American Hockey League’s Syracuse Blazers and the WHA’s Michigan Stags/Baltimore Blades.

And then White retired. He went home to Winnipeg and then moved to Vancouver where he joined his three brothers’ construction business. He’s still there today. He and Linda will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 2019.

The only thing White didn’t get to accomplish was playing in the NHL. While he played with Providence of the AHL, other players got called up, but he never did.

“When I was in Providence, we were affiliated with Oakland, and I’d have a pretty good training camp, but I always got sent down,” White said. “I just never got the call. There were a lot of guys up there who I was a better hockey player than, but I never rocked the boat. I just played as well as I could.”

Was it because of racism?

“I hate to say that, but…” he said.

At one time, White had a discussion with two well-respected and long-time hockey front-office officials who told him, “If we called you up and something happened, we’d feel real bad if we had to send you back down. Don’t think we’re not calling you up because of this or that.”

That was the only discussion he ever had with an NHL front-office person.

“I’m not bitter,” he said. “I met some great people, and hockey has benefited me big-time. When I quit hockey, I was pretty well-known around Vancouver, and when it came to business, it opened a lot of doors for me and for our company. My career started a lot of conversations.”