“I have seen a lot of injustice.” Former NHL player Bernie Saunders turns the page with ‘Shut Out’ on life as a black hockey player

When he wrote “Shut Out: The Game That Didn’t Love Me Black,” Bernie Saunders realized that while there were various influences behind the book, he was doing it in part for himself.

Saunders, the fifth black player in NHL history, whose career ended prematurely after years of racist taunting and feeling ostracized, said he never had a complete shutdown after leaving hockey.

“I’m a very private person and I was hesitant to publish the book,” Saunders said in a telephone interview. “But I am 65 years old and I have seen many injustices in my life.”

His family recently moved from Myrtle Beach, SC to the larger city of Greenville and he says they feel more at home there. Recent racially charged incidents in the United States prompted him to write about his own experiences, on and off the ice.

“One of the things that motivated me was George Floyd, seeing what happened to him,” Saunders said of the murder of an unarmed black man by a Minneapolis police officer last year. “One (knee) in his neck, and it could have been any of us. Then I saw the Zoom bombing (by K’Andre Miller, a racist online attack targeting the New York Rangers prospect, who is black) and it broke my heart.

“I’ve been there as a hockey player, and I said, Hey Bernie, if you don’t talk, you never will.”

“Exclude,” Now in bookstores, Saunders is speaking.

The career he left at age 20 included signing with the Quebec Nordiques for their inaugural season in the National Hockey League in 1979-80. He had scored 69 goals in 106 games during his last three years at Western Michigan University before graduating from the NHL for 10 games in two seasons. Most of his professional playing days were spent at IHL with Kalamazoo and at AHL with Syracuse and Cincinnati, where he heard racist taunts “period by period.”

“The book is kind of an account of my life,” said Saunders, who went on a long career away from the hockey world in the pharmaceutical industry. “I’ve had a wonderful life and been very successful with most of the things I’ve done, but I just dealt with a lot of nonsense that most people don’t have to deal with. I know that for a white person there are difficulties and no one navigates this world with ease. But when you’re black, you have this extra headwind that you have to deal with, that most don’t understand.

“I use an example in the book where I was still in Myrtle Beach, and I came back from the beach with my friend and all my patio furniture was thrown into the pond behind me. And I knew immediately that it was a racial attack. But my friend, who was equally dismayed, said: Well, it could have been a whirlwind. I said: Yeah, it could have been a whirlwind, but 99 percent of the time in my life it’s been a racial attack that I’ve had to deal with.

Bernie Saunders scored 38 goals in 70 games with the IHL's Kalamazoo Wings in 1981-82, after two seasons with the NHL's Quebec Nordiques.

“That’s kind of an analogy from my hockey experience … it wasn’t all racially motivated, but 95 percent of them just were.”

Neil Smith, an NHL broadcaster and former general manager of the NHL Rangers, played with Saunders at Western Michigan.

“He’s one of my best friends … and even he wasn’t aware of what was going on at the time,” recalled Saunders. “For example, there was a team that only targeted me. Like every time we played, you knew there was a locker room bounty on my head. They basically beat me. And Neil said it could have been because you were our best player. And yes, that could have been the reason … but just knowing how brutal it was, I know that as a black person it wasn’t the reason.

“What’s really helpful in the book is that I support each of these points with evidence from the newspaper articles that I saved.”

Veteran sportswriter Barry Meisel is a co-author of “Shut Out,” and Saunders says sportswriters, including the late Bob Wagner of the Kalamazoo Gazette, were often his only outlet when he needed to talk about the racist attacks he faced. ice and in the stands.

Saunders – born in Montreal; Raised there and in Toronto with his brother John, the award-winning sportscaster who died in 2016, he was a hockey coach in high school while living in Michigan with mixed emotions from the start, especially when it came to his three children.

“I literally didn’t want my kids to play hockey because of my experiences,” he said. “I was drawn to coach a high school (team) when my son was born, because I lived in Michigan and there wasn’t much hockey experience there … My son went to practice and, like any kid, fell in love with him. . All I wanted to do was play hockey, so I allowed it, and for the most part it went well.

“He was a really trainable kid and I explained: Son, you’re going to hear a lot of racial abuse. You have to do what I learned to do. “

Saunders recalled one incident in particular.

“When I started playing, I would let go of my gloves every time I heard the N word, but I had to teach myself to play within the team concept, so that’s how I trained my son. He listened, but this time he just lost it and went after the boy. The linesman pulled him by the back of his neck, by the shoulder pad, and that caused a kicking motion, for which my son received a match penalty on top of everything else.

“When I got to the locker room, I just scolded everyone and everything. And then I found, like, a janitor’s closet and I just cried. It all came out of me. He hated hockey and he hated everything. But a couple of days later, when (the person who did the insult) called to apologize, I felt better, because I could see the world moving forward little by little …

“I never received an apology (as a player). So it was the worst day of my life, but it was also the most refreshing. “

Saunders says he is encouraged by recent progress to stamp out racism and hopes his voice will help. As for whether he still loves the game, he is in conflict.

“The answer is, I love hockey, it made me the man I am today, it is part of me, but I am happily removed from the game.

“The only time I see it is if it is a really significant event. When I left the game, I couldn’t see it. It was too painful for me because of my experiences. The only time I saw him was when he had a personal interest. I played for Jacques Demers (with the Nordiques), so when Jacques Demers won the Stanley Cup, of course, I saw it. I played Guy Carbonneau (AHL’s Nova Scotia Voyageurs) and when he won the Stanley Cup, I saw him … I coached two kids who played for the LA Kings (Scott Parse and Matt Greene), so when the Kings won the Cup I saw it. But for years it was too painful …

“I would have been the first person to know if I had run out of talent, and happily walked away from the game, but I never felt that way. I always felt like I had a lot of clues there, but a lot of crazy things happened to me.

“And it wasn’t just social injustice. It was that my experiences were so difficult. I had to turn the page. “


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