When he wrote “Shut Out: The Game That Did Not Love Me Black,” Bernie Saunders realized that while there were several influences behind the book, he was doing it partly for himself.
Saunders — the fifth Black player in NHL history, whose career ended prematurely after years of racist taunts and with a feeling that he had been ostracized — said he never had full closure after leaving hockey.
“I’m a very private person, and I was hesitant in publishing the book,” Saunders said in a telephone interview. “But I’m 65 years old and I’ve seen a lot of injustice in my life.”
His family recently moved from Myrtle Beach, S.C. to the larger city of Greenville and he says they feel more at home there. Recent racially charged incidents in the United States spurred him to write about his own experiences, on and off the ice.
“One of the things that got me motivated was George Floyd, seeing what happened to him,” Saunders said about the killing of an unarmed Black man by a police officer in Minneapolis last year. “A (knee) on his neck, and that could have been any of us. Then I saw the Zoom bombing (of K’Andre Miller, a racist online attack aimed at 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 speak up, you never will.”
“Shut Out,” now in bookstores, is Saunders speaking up.
The career he left behind in his 20s included signing with the now-defunct Quebec Nordiques for their inaugural season in the National Hockey League in 1979-80. He had scored 69 goals in 106 games over his last three years at Western Michigan University before graduating to the NHL for 10 games over two seasons. Most of his playing days as a pro were spent in the IHL with Kalamazoo, and the AHL with Syracuse and Cincinnati, where he heard racist taunts “period by period.”
“The book is kind of a book report of my life,” said Saunders, who went on to a long career far away from the hockey world in the pharmaceutical industry. “I’ve had a wonderful life, and I’ve been very successful with most of the things I’ve done, but I just dealt with a lot of crap that most people don’t have to deal with. I know for a white person there’s difficulty, and no one sails through 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 of my patio furniture was thrown into the pond behind me. And I just knew right away it was a racial attack. But my friend, who was just as appalled, was saying: Well, it could have been a whirlwind. I said: Yeah, it could have been a whirlwind, but 99 per cent of the times in my life it’s been a racial attack that I’ve had to deal with.
“That’s kind of an analogy of my experience with hockey … not everything was racially motivated, but 95 per cent of them just were.”
Neil Smith, an NHL broadcaster and former general manager of the NHL’s Rangers, played with Saunders at Western Michigan.
“He is one of my best friends … and even he wasn’t aware of what I was going through back then,” Saunders recalled. “For example, there was this one team that just targeted me. Like every time we played you knew there was some locker-room bounty on my head. They just basically beat me up. And Neil said that 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 as a Black person it wasn’t the reason.
“What’s really helpful in the book is, I support every one of these points with evidence from the newspaper articles I saved.”
Veteran sportswriter Barry Meisel is a co-author of “Shut Out,” and Saunders says sports journalists, 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 — on the 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 — coached high school hockey while living in Michigan with mixed emotions from the start, especially when it came to his three sons.
“I literally did not want my boys to play hockey because of my experiences,” he said. “I got lured into coaching a high school (team) when my son was born, because I was living in Michigan and there wasn’t a lot of hockey expertise there … My son would go to the practices and, like any kid, he became smitten. All he wanted to do was play hockey, so I allowed it, and for the most part it went well.
“He was a really coachable kid, and I explained to him: 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 first started playing, I would drop 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 coached my son. He listened, but this one time he just lost it and went after the kid. The linesman pulled him by the scruff of the neck, by the shoulder pad, and that kind of induced a kicking motion, so my son got a match penalty on top of everything else.
“When I got to the locker room, I just chewed everyone out and whatnot. And then I found, like, a janitor’s closet and I just bawled. Everything came out of me. I hated hockey and I hated everything. But a couple of days later when (the person who made the slur) called to apologize, I did feel better, because I could see the world inching forward …
“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’s heartened by recent progress to eradicate racism, and hopes his voice will help. As for whether he still loves the game, he’s conflicted.
“The answer is, I love hockey — it made me the man I am today, it’s a part of me — but I’m happily estranged from the game.
“The only time I watch it is if it’s a really significant event. When I left the game, I couldn’t watch it. It was too painful for me because of my experiences. The only time I would watch it was when I had a vested interest. Like, I played for Jacques Demers (with the Nordiques), so when Jacques Demers won the Stanley Cup of course I watched it. I played with Guy Carbonneau (with the AHL’s Nova Scotia Voyageurs) and when he won the Stanley Cup, I watched it … I coached two kids who played for the L.A. Kings (Scott Parse and Matt Greene), so when the Kings won the Cup I watched that. But for years, it was too painful …
“I would have been the first person to know if I had run out of talent, and I would have walked away from the game happily, but I never felt that. I always felt that I just had so much runway there, but a lot of crazy things happened to me.
“And it wasn’t just the social injustice. It was that my experiences were so difficult. I had to turn the page.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION