I’m black and a Detroit Red Wings fan, but I’ve adopted the Capitals
Growing up in Detroit, I got my love for hockey from my dad
I love hockey … professional hockey, college hockey, pickup games. I grew up in Detroit — a long-standing, bona fide hockey town. Since hockey is widely considered a “white sport” and I am black, I often surprise people with my knowledge of the sport. Black people tend to tune me out when I talk about it, and white people tilt their heads sideways. Maybe they’re all confounded I even know what it is.
But I do. I know hockey in all its flavors.
A few years ago on an airport shuttle in Baltimore, I met a guy on the U.S. national sled hockey team. This Olympian was from Chicago and was headed to training in North Carolina. We talked at length about the Blackhawks and his service in Iraq (where he’d lost his legs) as we made our way to the terminal and gates. Not once did it ever occur to me I might have seemed like a Martian to him, a black woman talking about hockey and his hometown team.
I remember watching a game 10 years ago on television. It was a team from Kazakhstan. They were playing outside, on open ice … no protection for the players or crowd. I thought, “Wow, they know how to do it.” Pucks were flyin’. And that’s how professional hockey was played when I was a kid, watching TV with my dad in Detroit. There were neither helmets nor face masks.
I learned everything I know about the sport from my dad. He is my best friend and he was never orthodox, but he could skate.
My dad and mom were camping in rural Michigan during Detroit’s five-day riot in the summer of 1967. He told me how they were driving back to the city and saw flames as they approached Grand River Avenue, a major thoroughfare and site of the Detroit Red Wings’ Olympia Stadium. They had to show identification to the National Guard to get to their home north of 8 Mile. So Detroit was burning and my black, hippie-progressive family was miles away roasting marshmallows and hot dogs outside Mason, Michigan, near the state capital of Lansing.
Little did I know what that upheaval would mean for the city. Whites fled en masse after the riots and Detroit became a doughnut. The center was empty, black and void of business. However, the Red Wings stayed.
Detroit, besides being a doughnut, was also a “shift” town. Life was based on days, afternoons and midnights.
My favorite shift was Friday evenings with my dad. He worked at Ford’s Dearborn Stamping Plant. Mass layoffs and closings hit the auto industry in the 1980s. We needed our sports teams. We’d sit in the living room of our bungalow on Detroit’s west side and watch hockey on black-and-white TV. I was telling my daughter, whose first jersey was for the University of Michigan hockey team, that my dad and I would share Jiffy Pop. She was amazed we made popcorn on the stove. I told her we didn’t have microwaves then.
My dad was part of a generation that prompted Southern blacks to seek the warmth of other suns and migrate north. Along with that came the acculturation of so many things — including, for us, hockey. I was a black girl 15 minutes from the Canadian border. My family bought gasoline from our northern neighbors during the 1970s oil crisis, shopped during the recession and mastered an icy sport. Hockey was a sport dominated by the Canadians, and by sheer proximity, we were bicultural.
My dad said, “I just like hockey. I followed a lot of the guys on the Red Wings for years.”
I wondered why Detroit-area whites after the riots would come into our city’s most blighted neighborhood to watch the Red Wings live at Olympia Stadium. Maybe hockey was worth it? I’d watch fans throw the ceremonial octopus onto the ice and wonder, “Where do you get an octopus in Detroit?” And, yes, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals decried this practice.
My dad, via our hockey nights, exposed me to the tenacity, agility and strength of the game, regardless of color. Because of this, I have pondered starting a youth, black-girl hockey team — and still might.
Yes. I respect Wayne Gretzky, but Gordie Howe was a phenom in those days. I mourned his 2016 death. Dad and I would watch games on American or Canadian television. I never noticed most of the players were white. I remember they had no teeth and could skate like the devil not just forward but also backward and sideways. The hand-eye coordination was amazing. What frustrated me the most was amid all that effort, I rarely saw a game exceed four goals! Hockey is a sport that requires a high level of effort for few points.
Our house was screaming when the Washington Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly, a checker, scored a goal. It was so amazing to see a black man make a significant goal in a white-dominated game. For those who don’t know checking, that’s similar to a guard in basketball who didn’t just protect his teammate but also scored a phenomenal basket.
An anthropologist friend of mine asked me if I’d ever dissected what it meant to be a black woman from Detroit and a hockey fan. I replied, “Dissect? I didn’t know they were separate.”
I was adopted into my unconventional family after I spent almost a year in the state’s foster care system, and I’ve adopted the Caps. My home team, the Red Wings, won 11 Stanley Cups, the most of any NHL franchise, and my adopted Caps have now won their first.
This sport spans generations. My daughter’s father is from New York and her “family” team is the Yankees. Her mother is from Michigan and her “family” team is the Red Wings.
I am proud to say I come from one hockey town and have migrated to another. I can rock my red for both my teams.