First black inductee pleased to be role model

Originally Published: November 3, 2003
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

TORONTO -- It is perhaps both fitting and surprising that Grant Fuhr entered the Hockey Hall of Fame as its first black player.

And that nobody -- including Fuhr -- made a big deal about it.

"To be honest with you, I've never thought much about it," Fuhr said Monday prior to his induction. "I grew up in a small town in Alberta and it wasn't about anything but how you played the game. I think it's different in some places, but it's not a big thing here [in Canada], and it's certainly not a big thing in the game."

It would be wrong to say that it has never been an issue in Fuhr's life. He acknowledged, grudgingly, that he has heard things from time to time. When he was a player in Buffalo, a suburban country club denied him admission, although many white players on the Sabres roster were members.

At the time, Fuhr never charged that race was an issue, but he did openly wonder why he was refused admission to Transit Valley County Club while others on the team were not. The club denied any allegations about race but acknowledged it had no black members. It since has admitted several.

Fuhr holds no grudges and sees himself as merely a player fortunate to have success, not a black player who has achieved unprecedented acclaim.

"Actually, Willie O'Ree [generally regarded as the NHL's first black player] opened the door in regards to all that," Fuhr said.

Fuhr does not dismiss his race and is flattered when it is suggested that he's a role model for several black players in the game, especially goaltenders. Still, it was never an issue during his childhood days in Canada.

"We were kids, we just played the game," he said. "Kids always accept you because you're like them, you're just a kid playing a game. That was always the way it was right through to the NHL.

"I did that for a very long time [19 seasons], and just like a kid I did it because it was fun."

Fuhr was moved nearly to tears in his induction speech, looking out into the Hall and seeing many of his teammates from the Edmonton years. He made a point of noting that the Oilers were more like family than team, and it was because of that bond that they had success and remained in close contact.

"He had that sense about him, I think, his whole career, certainly the time I knew and played with him." said fellow inductee Pat LaFontaine, a friend and teammate of Fuhr in Buffalo. "Grant had a way about him where he never let a whole lot of things going on around the game bother him. In all the time I knew him, I always thought he was happiest anytime he was just standing between those two red pipes and playing a game he loved.

"He was a guy who was just happy to be out on the ice playing. There was a lot of pressure at times, certainly for a goaltender, but I thought his approach was perfect. To Grant, it was the same game we always played, the game we played as kids.

"I always remember that about him."

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

ALSO SEE