Graeme Townshend only played 45 games in the NHL and only nine with the New York Islanders in the early 90s, but he holds the distinction of being the first black player in team history.
On this Martin Luther King Day, we look back at the hockey experiences of Townsend, who continues to encourage, inspire, and develop young players through Townsend Hockey, where on and off the skills and mentorship are offered.
An undrafted player, Townsend was signed by the Boston Bruins and worked his way up through the minors, making his NHL debut on Feb. 1, 1990. He played four games with Boston that season and 24 the following before being signed by the Islanders on Sept. 3, 1991.
Towsend spent most of his time with the organization playing with the Capitol District Islanders, their minor league affiliate, but was called up and made his Isles debut on Jan. 3, 1992. In his second game, he scored a goal in a 5-2 win over the Quebec Nordiques. He last played in the NHL during the 1993-94 season, dressing in 14 games for the Ottawa Senators.
Townshend was born in Kingston, Jamaica, but was raised in Toronto, where, like so many, he fell in love with the game of hockey. In a 2021 interview with Shannon Hogan of MSG Networks, Townsend spoke about his mostly positive experience playing youth hockey, where he rarely encountered derogatory or negative comments from his teammates.
However, that didn't mean his career was without racial incident. Playing in a Quebec arena for the Maine Mariners, a Bruins AHL affiliate at the time, Townsend recalled a time when he and fellow black teammate Ray Neufeld were in the penalty box. "During a break in play, the organist started playing bongo, African music with monkey sounds and stuff like that."
When Townsend looked over to Neufeld, whom he idolized, the veteran cooly and calmly told him, "Welcome to pro hockey. Don't let it get to you."
Townsend said that although his teammates supported him, as a black player, there was always a conscious effort not to rock the boat, but that is less the case now. "The fact that these players today are taking a stand for social justice is something I am very proud of them for because their using their status and popularity and fame to great things in society."
"There are people who criticize them for that and that they should just shut up and play hockey and I say it's the opposite," said Townsend. You're only going to be this influential for a very short period of time in your life and what is your legacy going to be?"
Townsend spoke about how inspiring it was to see Jarome Iginla get inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and watch the celebration of Willie O'Ree's career, which included his number being retired by the Boston Bruins.
"It brings a tear to my eye to see what's going on right now," added Townsend.
"I love it, the more and more kids of color are becoming dominant players in the league and I saw all the players on both teams rally around those guys. It made me feel good. I was getting choked watching it; this game has come a long way."