Professional chess player and coach Babatunde Onakoya says chess saved him.
Now he’s using the game to educate children in Nigerian slum communities, with some even winning scholarships to study as a result.
Video journalist: Faith Ilevbare.
The only thing that we didn’t buy used was my jock strap. I can still picture the whole scene so clearly. It was the day before my first real hockey practice, and my mom took me to Play It Again Sports to get all my gear. Remember the smell of Play It Again Sports? It had a certain smell. If you know what I’m talking about, you know what I’m talking about.
The whole summer, I’d begged my mom and dad to sign me up for a house hockey team. I’d actually been skating since I was three years old. Every Saturday, my dad would take me to the outdoor rink behind the Scarborough Town Centre mall in Toronto, and I’d always get a hot chocolate. Then I’d go out on the ice and fall all over the place for an hour, then I’d come back inside and get another hot chocolate, then I’d go back out and fall all over the place again.
Tear it up.
The only rule was that I had to pick myself up when I fell. My dad would never help me up. That was his version of tough love. By four or five years old, I was ripping around the rink like it was a NASCAR race. I had no brakes, man. Couldn’t stop. Didn’t need to stop. I’d just let it rip and then when the guard blew the whistle for the Zamboni to come out and clean the ice, and I’d just crash into the boards to stop.
I loved it. The wind whipping around, the early ’90s R&B pumping out of the P.A., the crunch of the ice. It was a vibe.
When I turned six, I guess I was really getting good, because this random kid came up to me and he was like, “Whoa, do you play hockey?”
I was like, “Uh … no. I’m just skating?”
He was like, “Dude … you should play hockey.”
After that, it’s all I thought about. I kept telling my parents how bad I wanted to play, but I had no idea how expensive it was. My dad was a construction worker. My mom was a secretary. They had five kids in the house to feed. Hockey was too expensive. It was way too expensive, actually. It was crazy.
But they signed me up anyway.
Because that’s what parents do. They make the impossible possible. Somehow, some way, they make it work. The way, in our case, was to go to Play It Again Sports and buy all the gear used. The great thing about being a kid is that I had no idea. It all felt new to me. I was so freaking excited. I can remember every single piece of equipment.
The black Winnwell gloves with the teal letters.
The red TITAN stick with the white letters.
The Bauer Lightning skates with the worn laces.
The new jock was the only luxury.
When they sent me to bed that night, I couldn’t sleep. I was like … shaking. All I could think about was waking up the next morning and becoming the next Sergei Fedorov. This was ’95, back when the Red Wings were absolutely unreal. I loved the way they played the game with so much grace and style. Fedorov was my first hockey hero, so I kept telling my mom, “You gotta tell my coach, I need number 91.”
I went out for my first practice, and I can’t explain it. Everything just clicked. I was scoring at will. It was like I was meant to play the game.
Nah, I’m just messing around. I was absolutely terrible. I still couldn’t freaking stop! I’d come down the ice on a breakaway, and I’d shoot the puck and then go sailing straight into the boards. It was probably comical to everybody, but I didn’t even think twice about it. I was having such a blast. I think I scored one goal the entire season, and I remember I did a little celly with my hands in the air as I went slamming into the glass.
It was awesome. I loved every second of it.
By the time the next season came around, I had finally figured out how to stop, and then it was a whole new world, man. I led the league in scoring that season, and in my head, that was it — I was going to the NHL. My third grade teacher actually made us write a little report on career day, and we had to fill out what we wanted to be when we grew up, and then research it or whatever. Standard stuff.
All the kids wrote doctor, lawyer, veterinarian, Mountie, astronaut.
Of course, I wrote, “Pro hockey player.”
My teacher brought the paper back to my desk, and she was like, “Wayne, you can’t choose that. You have to be serious.”
And I said, “I am serious. I’m going to play in the NHL.”
She said, “No.”
I said, “Yes.”
“Wayne, you —”
James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports
I refused to change it, and I think she literally gave me an F on the assignment. I had to take the paper home to my mom and everything, and I was just like, “Can you believe this, Mom?”
I was in this bubble where all I cared about was hockey. It’s funny, when you’re a kid, you kind of have the blinders on. Everything just is what it is. You love what you love. At that age, I definitely didn’t think about color. I didn’t say to myself, “I want to be a black hockey player.” I just thought, “I want to be Sergei Fedorov.”
Of course, when you get to be 10 or 11 years old, you start to notice that maybe life is more complicated than you thought. I started to pick up on little things — just some weird comments, or the way certain people were treating me. It was mostly the parents, honestly. It always started with the parents.
I would ask my mom about it, and she would always say, “This kind of thing isn’t for you to worry about. You’re a kid. Just go out there and have fun.”
But you can’t protect your kids from ignorance forever. I’ll never forget the first time another kid called me the n-word on the ice. It’s a feeling that probably every single black player in the NHL can relate to. And as sad is it is to say, it’s a feeling that probably every black kid who grew up playing hockey can relate to. Ignorance is as old as time.I’ll never forget the first time another kid called me the n-word on the ice.
It’s going to be impossible for me to totally explain the feeling to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but it’s like someone is trying to take away your spirit. The awesome thing about playing hockey is that you get so wrapped up in the fun of it that it’s like nothing else in the world exists. When you’re playing baseball, there’s so much down time that you kind of know you’re playing baseball, you know what I mean? You might notice that the sun is out, or that it’s about to rain, or you start thinking about your homework or something.
But hockey is different. You’re in your own world. You could be having the worst day ever, but when you’re chasing the puck around, everything else kind of disappears. Nothing matters but the puck. You could be short, tall, fast, slow, white, black, brown, purple, pink … it doesn’t matter. You’re in this bubble. It’s the best.
When somebody calls you a racial slur, it pierces that bubble. The world becomes very real again. It can be a lonely and infuriating feeling.
The first time it happened, I think I was just confused and a little bit stunned.
The second or third time it happened, I lost it. I tried to fight the kids who said it.
I remember after one of the fights, my mom was driving me home after the game, and she asked me what I was thinking.
I told her what had happened.
And then she said something that I still, unfortunately, have to remind myself about from time to time. She said, “Well, that’s really unfortunate. You have every right to be mad. But what did you do the rest of the game?”
I didn’t score. I didn’t get any points. My team lost. I had to sit in the penalty box, which is where the other team wanted me.
She said, “Some people are going to say those things to try to make you upset. The best way to get back at them is to put the puck in the net and walk away with the two points. That’s how we’ll get even, O.K.?”
I wish I could say that I never heard those words again, or that I never let them get to me. But I’m only human. There were many times when somebody told me to “stick to basketball,” or used racial epithets, and I snapped. I couldn’t help myself. I tried to beat the crap out of them.
Around that time, my parents started teaching me about Willie O’Ree, the first black player to play in the NHL. It was one of the most important history lessons of my life.
Without Willie, there would be no Jarome Iginla. There would be no Grant Fuhr, or P.K. Subban or Ray Emery or Dustin Byfuglien or so many others who have had the honor of playing in this great league. There would definitely be no Wayne Simmonds.
I did a book report on Willie in school, and I learned that he was not only the first black player in the NHL, but he achieved that feat when there were only six teams you could play for. He made his debut in 1957, when most of America was still segregated. And he did it all with only one good eye. He got hit by a puck in junior hockey, which left him blind in his right eye. The only person he ever told was his sister. Somehow, despite all those obstacles, he still made it to the NHL. Willie set the table for everyone else to eat, and he did it all with dignity and class.
I used to think about Willie’s story whenever teachers or hockey parents or coaches would laugh at my dream of making it to the NHL. There were so many times when it felt like it just wasn’t meant to happen for me. By the time I turned 16, I was still playing AA hockey because my family simply couldn’t afford the AAA registration fees. The Toronto Jr. Canadiens came to scout me, and they offered me a spot on their team. It was pretty much my last chance to step up a level and keep my dream alive. But the registration fee was $5,000.
My parents sat me down and my mom said, “Wayne, obviously we can’t afford this.”
I said, “I know. I know …”
And then she said, “But we’re going to try anyway.”
My aunts and uncles chipped in. My dad went to the owner of his construction company and got him to chip in. So many people helped me. It was up to me to come up with the rest, so all summer long, I woke up every morning with my dad at 5 a.m. and we were out at the construction site by six.
I was the “cleanup guy.” The lowest guy on the ladder. I was so low that I didn’t even get to work with my dad. I walked around and cleaned up all the debris. Crates, bricks, plaster, dirt, wood, ceiling tiles, insulation, random trash. I was supposed to be doing weight training at night, but I’d be so exhausted that I’d come home and pass out.
It gave me a new appreciation for my dad, and just how hard he worked every day so that I could get some hockey gloves for Christmas, or some new skates on my birthday. When I say my parents sacrificed to keep me playing hockey, I really mean it. They did it with blood, sweat and tears. By the end of the summer, I came up with the last $2,500 for the registration fee, and I was a Jr. Canadien. It was my ticket into Junior hockey.
Three years later, I was driving on the L.A. freeway with my buddy Chris Stewart. We were on our way to a summer workout at Gold’s Gym. It was seven in the morning, and I was half asleep, and all of a sudden I got a call from my agent. I was in such a daze that I didn’t realize it was already 10 a.m. back in Toronto, and the second round of the NHL draft had already started.
I picked up, and my agent said, “The Kings are about to take you with the 61st pick.”
I was expecting the call at some point in the day, but when it happened for real, I was so stunned that I missed the exit to the gym — the one we took every single day.
Chris was like, “Dude?”
I said, “Holy crap. I just got picked. By Los Angeles. Holy crap.”
He was dying laughing. He’s like, “Alright, but we still gotta lift. You better get off at the next exit, man.”
My mom called me, and she just started crying. Then I started crying.
For some reason, my mind was kind of drifting as we were driving, and I started thinking about that red TITAN stick. I broke it so many times, and my dad would always take it into the garage and wrap it up with tape to hold it together. We couldn’t just keep buying new sticks, you know? By the end of the season, it was wrapped up like a mummy. It probably weighed twice as much as when we bought it. No wonder I only scored one goal.
That first season, I couldn’t even stop, and I was playing with a broken stick …
Now I’m going to the NHL. It was unreal.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NHLI/Getty Images
And honestly, none of it ever would’ve happened without Mr. O’Ree opening the door — not just for me, but for every black hockey player with a dream. That’s why I’m sharing my story with you today. It’s not the easiest thing for me to talk about, for obvious reasons. But my dream simply does not become a reality without Willie O’Ree.
Mr. O’Ree should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame yesterday.
I can’t think of anyone who has done more to broaden the appeal of our great sport to new audiences. He’s a living hero to so many of us, and he deserves to be honored as a legend of the game.For every single kid who was ever told to “stick to basketball,” Willie was like the first man on the moon.
Now, I already know what a vocal minority of people will say. I’ve already read your comments a hundred times before.
“He only played 45 games.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Move on. It’s a different world now.”
Well, I wish it was a different world. Unfortunately, ignorance and hate never seem to go away completely.
In 2011, a banana was thrown onto the ice while I was playing an exhibition game in London, Ontario.
In 2012, while I was playing in the Czech Republic during the NHL lockout, some of the fans started yelling something at me. They were chanting “opice, opice.” It means “monkey” in Czech.
Just this season, Devante Smith-Pelly had to endure racist chants during a game in Chicago.
Every player of color can probably tell you a similar story. It’s not fun to talk about. It’s not something I like to dwell on. But it still exists. It’s not ancient history.
It’s always a small minority of idiots. But for players of color who experience that kind of ignorance, it hurts the same as it did when you were 10 years old. It’s a reminder that we’re still striving for true equality for the next generation of kids coming up in the game, just like Willie probably hoped he would see for the next generation after him.
Willie’s quiet determination and class continue to be an inspiration for players of color in today’s game. Sixty years after he broke the color barrier, we’re still chipping away at intolerance.
Jamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty Images
What’s unbelievable to me is that Willie went through it all by himself. There wasn’t another black player in the NHL until 1974. Imagine that.
Now, whenever something happens that makes me question my faith in humanity, there’s always someone in the league I can reach out to who understands, who went through it himself.
But Willie was out there all alone, competing in the best league in the world with only one good eye. He never lost his cool. He never lost his dignity. He never lost his love for the game. He was a true pioneer.
I got the chance to meet Willie for the first time during my rookie year with the Kings, and I was exactly like the little kids who come up to us for autographs after games. I was totally speechless. I was meeting my hero. For every single kid who was ever told to “stick to basketball,” Willie was like the first man on the moon. He wasn’t just a hockey player. He was an astronaut.
He was, and continues to be, an inspiration for everyone who loves the game.
Even now, at 82 years old, he’s still going around the world, spreading a very powerful message to kids who need to hear it: No matter what anybody tells you, hockey is a game for everyone.
Mr. O’Ree deserves his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Let’s make it happen.
Speaking at a Liberal fundraising breakfast at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York hotel, the prime minister said he plans to focus on bringing people together.
“We’re going to have to stand in the face of what very likely will be negative, divisive campaigns while we stay positive, because we know that scaring people and dividing people might lead to short-term electoral gains, but it ends up hurting your capacity to govern for everyone,” Trudeau told a group of supporters.
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