If you ever asked yourself the question, “Who was the first black player for the Montreal Canadiens?,” you wouldn’t be wrong if you answered Donald Brashear. He was the first to play a regular-season game for the storied franchise, during the 1993-94 season.
But you would have to go back nearly 20 years to answer the question more accurately as to who was the first black player in the organization. The answer can be found in the 1974 NHL Amateur Draft when the Canadiens selected Mike McKegney in the fourth round.
“Scotty Bowman called my parents’ house. I remember talking to him on the phone: ‘Mike, we’re going to draft you tomorrow.’ I look back at it now, and it was such a surreal moment. Here’s Bowman, the winningest coach in history, and he was calling me,” recalled McKegney when he spoke with Eyes on the Prize about his time with the Canadiens.
In 1974, black athletes were making headlines in most professional sports. Frank Robinson was being named the first black manager in baseball while Hank Aaron was chasing the home-run record held by Babe Ruth. Muhammad Ali and George Foreman were making headlines for their highly publicized heavyweight championship super fight in Kinshasa. Wilt Chamberlain was retiring from professional basketball as one of the greatest players in the sport’s history.
Professional hockey, meanwhile, remained a sport played exclusively by white athletes, although Willie O’Ree broke the colour barrier in 1958 when he played a few games for the Boston Bruins. His first match coincidentally was against the Canadiens at the Montreal Forum. O’Ree was preceded by Herb Carnegie, who played in the Quebec Senior League in the 40s and 50s, but turned down multiple contract offers from the New York Rangers because his pay would have been inferior to what he was currently making.
“I knew about those guys, but it was not a driving force. I just liked playing hockey,” said McKegney. “My adopted parents already had three children of their own — I was the first one adopted in December of 1954 — and I started to skate when I was three. My adoptive dad always made a rink in the backyard, and that’s where we learned how to skate. That was just something that we did. I don’t think that there was anything more planned than that.
“That’s what you did in Sarnia: you played hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer. It was always a hockey stick at Christmas time. I spent more time outside than I did in my house, basically. We were always skating in the backyard.”
McKegney was born in Halifax, but adopted by Sarnia resident Lowrey McKegney and his wife. His adoptive father, a former Canadian Air Force officer, had returned from World War II with a newfound determination to help orphans, and Mike was the first of three to find a home with the family. The patriarch used to say, “There is absolutely no excuse for being rude to anybody,” and, as a result, Mike McKegney was soft-spoken in our conversation, but gleefully recounting his hockey-playing days.
“It was never something that I thought of, it was just always something that I did,” said McKegney about when he decided to make a go of a career in hockey. “Back then in the minor hockey system it was never about going to the NHL. That never came up. Those conversations didn’t really come up until Junior. As a kid we just played hockey. You knew where you were going to be every Saturday night for five hours: the hockey rink. I never consciously had to think about making it to the NHL. That didn’t resonate with me at all.”
As to whether he ever faced any racism playing hockey, he said that there were never any problems in minor hockey, but there would be an occasional incident in Junior when he began playing for the Kitchener Rangers.
“Here in Sarnia I was accepted quite well. That was not a problem. Sometimes other cities ... the one I will say I remember quite clearly is London, Ontario. There’d be signs up ... I don’t remember what they were saying. I’m a pretty easy-going guy. I wasn’t going to let that bother me. The way I looked at it is that if they are putting up signs that they don’t like you, you must be a pretty good hockey player.”
In fact, from the discussion with McKegney, the major takeaway was that he was able to enjoy his career as a hockey player plain and simple. He fondly reminisced about being able to play with a lot of great up-and-coming players.
“I looked back at Junior, when I played there. There were so many good hockey players. Some phenomenal hockey players. I look at Junior hockey now and they have nothing on what we had back then. Now you get drafted at 18; back in 1974, you didn’t get drafted until you were 20. Big difference. What it does is that it dilutes minor-league teams. There are guys in the NHL that shouldn’t be there. They should be playing in the minor leagues. And there are guys who should still be playing in the Junior leagues.”
There was of course a big uproar at the time of McKegney’s selection about Mario Tremblay being drafted at 18, as part of the same draft class with the Canadiens. The main focus for that draft class was to get tougher, more physical players in order to compete with the Philadelphia Flyers. McKegney didn’t necessarily fit the mould of the fighter, but he was not shy to mix it up.
“My first couple of years I had to prove myself. That’s not in a context of being black or white, you just had to prove yourself. And I did have several fights in my first couple of years in Junior. It’s just something that you had to do, and I did.
“My very first fight in Junior in my first year with Kitchener, we were playing the Peterborough Petes in Stratford, was against Colin Campbell. You had to fight every once in a while. I didn’t consider myself a tough guy. I didn’t go looking for it. But if it came along, you had to do what you had to do.”
In his draft year with the Kitchener Rangers, McKegney put up 87 points, with 38 goals and 49 assists. The Canadiens clearly scouted the Rangers that season, although McKegney said that he not once spoke to team personnel prior to the draft, although he was exposed to the city of Montreal.
“When I played in Kitchener, the Montreal Junior Canadiens were in the league. We would go to Montreal to play at the Forum. It was a big deal to play there.”
Under the direction of Sam Pollock, Ron Caron, Claude Ruel, and Bowman, the Canadiens drafted four players from the Rangers, including McKegney, Doug Risebrough (first round, seventh overall), Rick Chartraw (first round, 10th overall), and Chuck Luksa (10th round, 172nd overall). In general, the Rangers produced 13 draft picks that season, the most of any Junior team that year.
“It was a pretty good hockey club. We had a good team. Eddie Bush was our coach. We learned a lot from him. As tough as he could have been, he knew his hockey. I think that’s why we got as far as we did. In the playoffs we got beat out by Peterborough, Roger Neilson’s team.”
On June 20, 1974, McKegney signed a multi-year contract with Montreal. The signing was attended by Caron, McKegney, his father, and McKegney’s lawyer Ron Roberts. Ironically, Roberts was also the Executive Director of the WHA Players’ Association, and McKegney was also holding a competing offer from the WHA’s San Diego Mariners, who drafted him in the eighth round of the WHA amateur draft. McKegney chose the Canadiens. “I’m really happy about the contract and I’m happy to be going to Montreal,” said McKegney at the time of the signing to the Canadian Press.
As a result, he became the first black player contracted by the Canadiens organization, and just the second black player with an NHL contract after Willie O’Ree. “Things like that never crossed my mind. It wasn’t a black or white thing. I was just playing. I loved the game and I wanted to play it.”
McKegney’s first experience with the franchise that drafted him was memorable. “In July they had a golf tournament in Montreal, and they flew down all the draftees. I went to play my golf, and then after the tournament I was just sitting there having a beer, and I get a tap on the shoulder and it’s Guy Lafleur. ‘Hey Mike, do you want a ride back to the hotel?’ Everyone was staying at the hotel. I stared at him, and just said, ‘Sure’. I look back at this, and that was pretty cool. How many guys can say that?”
McKegney would go on to the Canadiens training camp that fall. “Before 1974, the Canadiens and the rookie training camp were separate, but my year they put the two camps together, which was very cool. A lot of good hockey players. Going into training camp your’re doing the physical, and then you’re walking around and you see all these great players who I watched play on TV. Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Yvan Cournoyer, Peter Mahovlich, Henri Richard, and the list goes on and on and on. At the time I didn’t think too much of it. Thinking back, I guess I must have been a pretty good hockey player to get to this point. Or I wouldn’t have been there.”
“Wearing the Habs jersey was something very cool. I sit back and think, I don’t remember too many things from training camp, but I remember all these guys that are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and I am sitting in the same dressing room as them. That is very surreal to me. I am humbled by it.”
McKegney was quickly assigned to the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, and didn’t play in any of the Canadiens’ pre-season games, unlike Chartraw, Tremblay, and Risebrough who immediately starting making their names with the Canadiens in the main camp.
As the first black player, McKegney never felt like he wasn’t accepted in Nova Scotia. He was made to feel quite comfortable. “Absolutely. You were part of the team. That was it.”
“It was cool in Nova Scotia as well, as you had some guys there that would eventually make it up to the Canadiens. Gilles Lupien was there. I remember ‘Loopy’ would inevitably always say before every game: ‘Don’t take shit from nobody’. That was his line. Every game. He was a good hockey player. Pierre Mondou, Doug Risebrough, Mario Tremblay, Rick Chartraw, Peter Sullivan ... a lot of good hockey players.”
Tremblay, most notably, was already starting to stand out. “His nickname in Nova Scotia was ‘Squarehead’. That’s what the boys called him back. You could just see how good he was going to be. He was a go-getter all the time.”
“I didn’t play a lot in my first year in Nova Scotia. Here and there. I think that they had their agenda of who they needed to play.”
McKegney played in 41 games, scoring 12 goals and adding 12 assists, and only four penalty minutes in that time which was quite remarkable, especially when compared to Lupien’s 316 in 73 games. McKegney’s season came to an end early when he was injured and missed the playoffs.
“I separated my shoulder about a week and a half before the playoffs. That sort of bothered me. I know I was going to be on the power play in the playoffs because Al MacNeil had told me that. I guess it wasn’t supposed to be.”
The following year, McKegney returned to Habs training camp, but the Canadiens had decided to turn the page on him by that point.
“That was it. I went to Nova Scotia. I wasn’t in very good shape. I can admit this now. I just wasn’t. Growing up playing hockey I had a real easy time of it because I was always the best hockey player. But when push came to shove, I thought I could just keep doing what I was doing, but that’s just not how it worked. I didn’t come to camp in good shape. My roommate at training camp was Doug Risebrough, and he was in great shape. I just wasn’t.”
There were no off-season training plans for players back then. “It was all up to yourself”
With a year left on his contract, the Canadiens sent McKegney to the North American Hockey League to play for the Jaros in St-George-de-Beauce. “They had some pretty crazy hockey players down there. Anything went. We had a goon squad, there was no doubt about that. Gilles Bilodeau, he was there. He was one of the strongest people I had ever seen in my life. 20 years old, couldn’t skate 10 feet, but he could fight, that’s why he was there. The Canadiens continued to pay me, but that was it. They passed on the option for the following season.”
“I look back at this, it’s almost surreal that I was there. The year Rick, Chucky, and Dougie got drafted that was the year they started winning five Cups in a row. That was the year it started. For you to say that I was the first black player signed by the Canadiens, I did not know that. I didn’t realize it. It’s nice to know. That’s nice to be part of that. It’s not defining me, but it’s part of me.”
“It was short and sweet, but I am happy that it all happened.”