Willie O’Ree was 37 in the fall of 1972, lacing up for his 17th season in professional hockey with the WHL San Diego Gulls. Eleven years after O’Ree skated the right wing for the Boston Bruins, the first black player to play in the NHL, the league was still waiting for a second. Alton White, 27, wasn’t focussed on that: he just wanted his chance to play. Born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, he’d grown up in Winnipeg. A right winger like O’Ree, he could score, and did aplenty, in the IHL and AHL. He attended the New York Rangers’ training camp in 1966; in 1970, he tried his luck with the Oakland Seals.
“I think speed is one of my strong points,” he said then. “I’m a pretty good skater, and I try to be a hustling type, two-way player.” When it didn’t work out in California, or any other NHL territory, White signed, in ’72, with the New York Raiders of the upstart WHA. He played four seasons in the WHA for four different franchises. He finished the ’72-72 season with the Los Angeles Sharks, for whom he scored 20 goals and 37 points. He ended his hockey career in 1976 playing senior hockey in British Columbia for a team fantastically named the North Shore Hurry Kings.
Newspaper profiles from those WHA years often focussed on the fact that he was the WHA’s only black player.
“I don’t consider myself the Jackie Robinson of hockey,” he told one writer in 1972. “He really had a lot of hardships. I have no problems.”
Of his early years, he recalled moving to Manitoba at the age of eight. “Nova Scotia was 90 per cent white and Winnipeg was probably 95 per cent. It was hockey country and I just naturally played hockey. My older brothers played peewee hockey and junior, but there was no other black that I played with or against in Canada.”
He had his hopes for the future. “In the future, there will be a lot more black hockey players. As I travel from city to city, I see some of the junior hockey programs, and I see more and more blacks participating. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t see any.”