Black NHL history celebrated through card collection
It really began as a hobby when the pandemic shut down his recreational hockey team.
But Dean Barnes’ hockey card collection is evolving into something far more significant than a personal pastime. It’s a definitive and living history of NHL diversity.
The 53-year-old, an administrator with the Halton District School Board, has collected the rookie trading cards of every Black player who has ever made it into at least one game in the National Hockey League. There have been just over 100 of them which, Barnes is quick to point out, is not nearly enough. But the total is growing every season.
The movers and shakers in the game have taken notice. For the second successive year, the NHL has included 10 of his cards in its United By Hockey Mobile History Museum, currently on a five-month tour of North America. The travelling museum also includes 30 cards from other collections, of players of Indigenous, Asian and Hispanic heritage.
Barnes found most of his cards on eBay, which is now sponsoring his My Hockey Hero podcast. It begins in two weeks with interviews expanding beyond the useful information on the back of hockey cards and into the stories and personal experiences of Black NHL players.
“There should be more diversity in hockey to model the growth of a country that has changed over time,” Barnes says. “Some might argue this can help that, because some people have not heard of many of these players. To be good enough to play even one NHL game is great and I’m really proud that there’ve been 100 because when I stopped as a player in 1990 there might have been 15.”
Most of the players in the collection are African Canadian and all but Herb Carnegie, whom Barnes regards “as the best Black player who never played in the NHL,” suited up for at least one major league game. Some, like Jarome Iginla and Grant Fuhr, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Others are more like former Hamilton Kilty B’s goalie Tyrone Garner, who dressed for only three NHL games, or Sean McMurrow, who played only one.
Barnes, whose parents emigrated from Jamaica, was raised, and still lives, in Burlington and started collecting cards when he was eight, the year before he graduated from house league to Triple-A hockey. He also played for a Aldershot High and the Kitchener Jr. B’s but realized he’d hit his hockey ceiling with the University of Waterloo Warriors and left high-level competition in 1990 to concentrate on his off-ice future.
He has worked in education for 30 years, and has a doctorate from U of T, so the hockey card collection and podcast weld together several of his interests: education, research, diversity issues, his personal journey as Black man, and the game itself.
“I think sharing their stories helps to normalize the presence of Black people in the game,” Barnes says. “Some children of colour might not see hockey as an option, because they don’t see themselves represented in a scope that would leave many under-represented groups to consider playing hockey. The visual presence of a hockey card is an impactful way of amplifying representation over time.”
Barnes had sold off most of the cards he’d collected as a kid, but held on to his 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee cards. He possessed about a third of the set when the pandemic hit and he began buying cards on eBay until he had all 400 of them, including Wayne Gretzky’s first NHL card.
But he recognized that, “as an educator, this would go deeper.” He didn’t know about Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first Black player with the 1958 Boston Bruins, but as a young fan and player he’d been aware of Scarborough’s Mike Marson, who became the NHL’s second Black player, 16 years after O’Ree’s debut. He also knew about African Canadian stars Fuhr, Iginla and Tony McKegney and bought Fuhr and Iginla rookie cards on eBay, propelling him into his current collection.
“That … and with the awareness and action people were trying to make about the social injustices of the world, like the George Floyd murder, it became personal, with me reflecting on my journey,” Barnes says.
“I started doing research on different players over a period of five or six months and was surprised I could find most of their cards on eBay.”
A few players, such as former Toronto Maple Leaf Val James, never had a rookie card, so Barnes hired private companies to custom-make them. That includes, of course, Carnegie. Overt prejudice during his prime years in the 1940s and ’50s, precluded the founder of the famous and still-going Carnegie Hockey School from the NHL.
“The visual presence of a hockey card is an impactful way of amplifying representation over time.”
Hockey card collector
An avid fan, Barnes was aware that during his lifetime the number of players of colour had been increasing and as word of his work spread, some of them began reaching out to Barnes to inform him of others.
Barnes acknowledges that “the real history” is in the Coloured Hockey League, which somehow survived in the Maritimes during the late 19th and early 20th century. He has enormous respect for its influence but has channelled his energy and research into the modern NHL. Each episode of the My Hockey Hero podcast will include a call to action to help fund and support Hockey Equality, a program led by analyst and former player Anthony Stewart, which gets some financial help from eBay.
“It’s my way of giving back,” Barnes said. “Many people of colour, including myself, have faced overt racism, but mine was relatively minimal. I felt very supported by teammates and fortunately did not face the same … situations as I’ve learned and heard about. If I can use my platforms to amplify the stories of current and former NHL players to raise awareness of how important representation is, it will ultimately lead to change, inclusion and acceptance for all Black players and other equity-seeking groups.
“When we capture history and identify stories it broadens the game because with inclusion comes more innovation and engagement.”
Cards on tour
The NHL’s United By Hockey Mobile History Museum, which will be in Buffalo May 17 and 18 and Toronto June 7 and 8, features 10 cards from Barnes’ collection, including:
- Herb Carnegie, the former senior and semi-professional star of the 1940s and ’50s who was kept out of the NHL by racial prejudice.
- Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s colour barrier (Boston, 1958).
- Tony McKegney, the first Black player to score 40 goals in an NHL season.
- Val James, the first African-American (meaning born in the U.S.) NHL player.
- Dirk Graham, the NHL’s first Black captain and first Black head coach (both with Chicago).
- Darren Lowe, the first Black player to play in the Olympics (Canada, 1984).
- Mike McHugh, the first American-born Black player to play U.S. college hockey and in the NHL.
- Grant Fuhr, the first Black NHL goalie, first Black player to win a Stanley Cup and first Black player in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
- Jarome Iginla, the first Black player to score over 1,000 points; first to score 50 goals in a season.
- P.K. Subban, former Hamilton Bulldog, the first Black player to be named the NHL’s best defenceman (Norris Trophy, 2013).
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