It has been exactly 50 years since the world of ice hockey was forever changed.
In January 1958, the National Hockey League was introduced to its first Black player, Canadian born William (Willie) O’Ree. Though the former Boston Bruin’s impact on the ice was minimal that inaugural year, his impact on the sport itself is still felt to this day.
While the NHL celebrates this historic moment this season, the significance of this achievement is one that remains relatively unknown in a community predisposed to traditionally Black dominated sports such as basketball or football.
However, this little known Black history fact has not eluded a talented trio of athletes that are demanding recognition for their skills on the ice rather than their color.
Among Chris Shores, 18, Vincent Culpepper, 17, and his 13-year-old sister Carmen lies a passion for the sport that far exceeds any notion one may have of their place in it. Minorities in every sense on the rink, the three are making significant impacts for their respective teams, and in turn helping to change a local culture that remains slow to change.
Even now 50 years since the hockey’s color barrier was broken, the three have experienced the lowest form of racism and sexism during games. But young pioneers in their own right, the attacks have motivated each of them to excel.
“When I walk into a game, I feel like all eyes are on me, but my abilities on the ice speak to what I can do,” said Shores, a Cardinal Ritter High School senior and forward for the North Central Hockey Club. “Once people realize that I have some talent, it’s different. As long as you have fun, what other people say really shouldn’t matter.”
Though the senior’s final high school season has not gone the way his team hoped, Shores’ presence has been felt for the 9-18-1 Panthers, amassing 8 goals and 9 assists to date this season. The record is a hard pill to swallow for Shores, who scored the game winning goal his freshman year to give North Central the Indiana State High School Hockey Association Championship.
While Shores has displayed all around skills throughout his young career, his long time friend and partner Culpepper is evolving into a lethal scoring machine. The junior center and assistant captain of the Cathedral Chatard Hockey Club (CCHC) has racked up three hat tricks this season for the 15-13-4 squad. The club enters this weekend’s Hoosier League Tournament with momentum, having dispatched the rival Blue Division Carmel Gold in an impressive 4-0 shutout.
An admitted fanatic, Culpepper has been obsessed with the game since his father, CCHC President Warren Culpepper, took him and his sister to a family night skate at the Pepsi Coliseum 10 years ago. That devotion to the game, he said, keeps him motivated to set an example, while making examples of those that underestimate his talent.
“Sometimes, you do feel some pressure, but I love hockey, I hate not playing,” he said. “I’ve heard (negativity) all my life, it doesn’t matter. It drives me to keep going. I just try to go out there and show them that I’m no different than anybody else, and I might even be better than you. You have to have the mindset that you have to be the best.”
With a level of confidence that is practically mandatory in the high impact sport, the two standouts are already looking forward to the next level in their young careers. And, while the junior leagues and collegiate hockey could very well be in their near futures, their confidence almost pales that of the younger Carmen, who battles stereotypical notions on two fronts with a wit that is as exceptional as her skills in goal. Largely crediting big brother for her tenacity, the eighth grade goalie has thus far had four shutouts for her teams, and can and will talk trash to anyone foolish enough to come near her in the crease.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard girls can’t play hockey,” said the younger Culpepper who, like her brother is also an outstanding student. “In a recent game I got some lip from another kid, he’s all cocky and thinks I’m not going to do anything so I just took the opportunity, he get’s a breakaway and I shut him down.
“When you’re out there on the ice, then you pull off your helmet at the end and they see you’re a girl, they kind of look at you like ‘we just got beat by a girl,’” she quipped.
Because of the dearth of minority players, one of the side effects, according to the father Warren is the development of a fierce fraternity of minority parents and players who pull for each other in most situations. A former football coach for St. Andrews, Culpepper knew nothing about the sport when Vincent told him he wanted to play the game.
Today, however, he finds himself faithfully watching the Jerome Iginlas and Mike Greers of the NHL, in between the rigors of supporting his children’s hockey aspirations of course. The elder Culpepper advises other Black parents not to let apprehension of the sport overpower an effort to expand a child’s athletic horizons.
“This is a sport that I knew nothing about, but I had to learn,” he said. “Let your kids experience different things, give them that opportunity. I took the opportunity to see what it’s about, and through that, these guys have taught me a lot.”
Examples for which an entire community can be proud, the trio never set out to change the local perception of a sport still largely dominated by white male players. Each in fact admit simply that hockey just happens to be a sport they love.
But like O’Ree showed over 50 years ago, it is exactly that love that may well change the game.