Review by Budd Bailey
There is a great deal to unpack in “Shut Out,” a book that reviews the hockey life of Bernie Saunders.
You get the idea immediately after glancing at the cover and reading the subtitle. Saunders is Black, which naturally is obvious in the cover photo, and the subtitle is “The Game That Did Not Love Me Black.” (Barry Meisel takes a bow as co-author.)
It’s been 40 years or so since Saunders laced up his skates as a pro hockey player, and it’s clear that he’s quite angry about parts of the experience. Bernie is still angry about the racism that existed at the time, which he experienced first-hand. It sometimes came in the form of remarks from opposing players, teammates, coaches (including, on one occasion, Herb Brooks), and – almost constantly – fans.
As he outlines here, some of the other portions of his life didn’t go down the usual path. It sounds as if fate didn’t do a particularly good job of picking his parents. His father wasn’t around much; when Bernie drove from Canada to the United States one time to visit his father, he discovered that his father had something of a second family there – which was news to him. His mother forged signatures on checks from his bank account to pull out $2,000.
Saunders even did some reading as part of an investigation about the problems of being a “middle child.” Bernie’s older brother was John Saunders, the ESPN sportscaster and the author of the book “Playing Hurt,” which is definitely worth your time. Younger sister Gail had to rely on her older brothers to provide some sense of normalcy.
Still, Bernie was a good enough hockey player that he managed to earn a college scholarship at Western Michigan. He played four seasons there and averaged more than a point per game in the last three of them. From there it was on to the pros, soon signing with the Quebec Nordiques. He divided 1979-80 between Syracuse and Cincinnati in minor leagues, but did get a four-game call-up to the NHL along the way. That made him the fifth Black to play in an NHL game. It was a similar story in 1980-81. Saunders’ scoring dropped off a bit in 1980-81 for Nova Scotia, in part because Montreal controlled that AHL team and gave its own players the most playing time. He did get six more NHL games to add to his resume, recording his only assist.
Saunders was feeling a bit beaten down at that point, and opted to play one more year of pro hockey in Kalamazoo of the International Hockey League, almost intentionally kissing his hopes of playing in the NHL again goodbye. After one last good season, Bernie retired from hockey to enter the business world and had a successful business career.
Let’s try to take a logical and unemotional look back at that era. First of all, most pro hockey players in that era came from Canada; the numbers from the United States and other countries were a fraction of Canada’s contribution. Canada hadn’t let many Black immigrate through its borders until after 1960, and the Black population only started to grow in the 1970s (34,000 in 1971, 239,000 in 1981). Throw in some economic barriers – hockey is an expensive sport to play – and you could see why Blacks were an unusual sight in a pro hockey game around the end of the 1970s. It should be mentioned that some people whispered that the NBA was “too Black” in that era, and such fans would have been more comfortable watching a sport that was “too white.”
Let’s mix in another part of the equation. I was around hockey as a reporter and a front-office staffer during the 1980s and 1990s. I was constantly surprised at how “unenlightened” hockey was, at least as compared to other circles I encountered in my travels. I certainly would not be surprised if Saunders was the target of racism in terms of how his career proceeded.
It’s also important to remember that Saunders played in a time when almost anything was allowed in terms of verbal abuse. The logic at the time was that any subject was fair game if it could distract the opposing player, no matter how vile it might be. Homosexual slurs probably were at least as frequent as racial taunts as far as I could tell, with the added bonus that anyone could be the subject of such a label. Happily, hockey is going a better job of policing such actions these days. As for the fans, well, a percentage of them will say anything in their zest to help the home team. We can only hope behavior has improved there too.
If I were looking at the Saunders’ stats without a photo, I’d see an undrafted free agent who was something of a pleasant surprise after joining minor-league hockey at the age of 23. Bernie was never going to win a tiebreaker with a high draft choice when it came to moving up the ladder. That’s just the way pro sports are. Saunders also caught a couple of bad breaks along the way. He suffered a groin injury that essentially caused permanent damage early in his pro career. Saunders was able to keep playing, but he never was the same player. He also was competing for a roster spot at same time (1980-81) as when the Stastny brothers – all three of them – arrived from Europe to play for the Nordiques. They took a lot of the available ice time.
Saunders had established himself as a good minor leaguer by 1981. If he hung around a little bit longer, maybe he would have received another chance or two at the NHL. But no one can blame him for feeling beaten down at that point. It’s tough to imagine what it’s like to hear the n-word directed at you from the stands every time you played a road game.
Could he have done better in a better world? Probably. Could he have done much better in different circumstances? That’s impossible to say. Saunders still thinks so. He uses some newspaper clippings and anecdotes to make the case, but it’s still a heavy lift.
“Shut Out” no doubt would have caused something of a stir if it had been written in, say, 1990. But the book covers an era from long ago that thus may not carry the punch it would have had then. A lot of the names have faded at this point. It’s still worth a read if you are interested in the subject and the accompanying era, but at this point the story is more of a curiosity than a call to action.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)