December 1, 2023

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White played a key part in the history of Columbus hockey

In some ways, it worked out for each of them, even if it took some time. For Columbus, it would take decades before the sport finally gained enough of a foothold to be here for good. For White, he became the second Black player to make it to the major league level in North America when he skated in the old World Hockey Association, but he never got to see the ice in the NHL. 

Still, a lot has worked out for each. Columbus of course is now a hockey town, as the inroads made by the IHL teams of the 1960s and ’70s and the success of the minor league Chill in the 1990s led to the establishment of the Blue Jackets, bringing a top-four major sport to the capital city for the first time. White, meanwhile, is now recognized as a pioneer in the sport, one of the first players to help integrate hockey at the highest level. 

This week, the Blue Jackets are have welcomed White back to Columbus for the first time since he totaled 96 goals and 226 points in 204 games over three seasons with the Checkers. White attended Blue Jackets practice today, meeting players and coaches, and will be recognized at Thursday night’s game against the Jets, perhaps a fitting honor given he grew up in the Manitoba city. 

That something like this would happen for White could have only seemed like a pipe dream when he first was acquired by the nascent Checkers in October 1966. Ohio State didn’t begin a varsity program until 1963, and indoor ice rinks were hard to come by when the Schmelzer family, led by young sports entrepreneur Jerry Schmelzer, decided to bring a team to the Fairgrounds Coliseum.  

The IHL already had squads in Ohio in Dayton and Toledo, plus two teams in Michigan (Fort Wayne and Port Huron), a franchise in Indiana (Fort Wayne), and another in Iowa (Des Moines). The capital of Ohio, known for its love of the Buckeyes, was seen as a growing market, but those who first arrived to play for the Checkers didn’t know a ton about the city. 

“I played the year before in Fort Wayne,” White said. “We would play against Dayton and Toledo, but I never heard much about Columbus. I grew up in Winnipeg, so that was quite a distance from Columbus. I really wasn’t too up on everything down there, but when I got there, it turned out to be a pretty nice town. They treated us well.” 

There would be ups and downs for the Checkers, though, as it took some time for the city to have its curiosity piqued. White had 66 points the first season to place sixth on the team, but Columbus was known more for its rough-and-tumble style than its winning ways, finishing in last place during its inaugural campaign and drawing just over 75,000 fans over 36 home dates.  

A year later, though, the team got off to a solid start and momentum built. White was a big part of it, as his line with Real Paquette and Chuck Kelly was the perfect complement to leading scorer Bert Fizzell and productive player-coach Moe Bartoli. Crowds of more than 5,000 started to pack the Fairgrounds Coliseum as the Checkers battled for a playoff spot, and a 4-2 victory in the team’s final game at Toledo clinched a postseason berth.  

But in a story familiar to anyone who knows the history of hockey in the city, the Coliseum was booked for the opening round of the playoffs, and the third-place Checkers had to play their home games in the best-of-seven postseason series against Muskegon in Port Huron. The first-place Mohawks swept the series to end Columbus’ season, but the gate of nearly 120,000 fans for the season meant hockey was grabbing a foothold in the city. 

“People liked it,” White remembers. “We had to educate the people, so Jerry Schmelzer was always asking the guys, especially the young guys, to Elks Clubs and schools trying to educate people about hockey. Once they came, they were kind of hooked because of the speed and contact of hockey. 

“The fans were good to us after we became established. We had a few crazy guys like Bartoli and Kerry Bond and Jack Turner and Choo Choo Bouchard. We had colorful guys, and people came to the games. They didn’t know what to expect. It was pretty fun.” 

Unfortunately, the Checkers couldn’t maintain the momentum. A slow start the next season led to the firing of the popular Bartoli, and Columbus failed to make the postseason. White was a bright spot, though, posting a 35-50-85 line to place third on the team in scoring and earn team MVP honors.  

Late that season, White told the Columbus Dispatch that his goal was to play full-time AHL hockey the next season, and sure enough, he got the call to spend the next campaign with Providence. Still, he has fond memories of the connections made in Columbus, including with popular radio host Ann B. Walker, longtime Fairgrounds worker and hockey fan Richard Shepard, Ohio State coach and future “Hockey Night in Canada” star Harry Neale, and the MacKay family. 

Matriarch Ruth MacKay had been born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, just like White and quickly forged a bond with the player during his time in Columbus. Two of the four MacKay brothers, Peter and Andrew, would go on to play hockey at Ohio State. 

“She had four boys, and I was her fifth son,” White remembers. “She was just a wonderful lady, and she would tell me stories about my hometown that I didn’t even know. Mrs. MacKay and Mr. MacKay and their family were like a breath of fresh air to us because they’d have us over for Thanksgiving, during Christmas, so we weren’t so alone. It really made us feel at home.” 

White looks back fondly at his time in Columbus, and his status as one of the few Black players in high-level hockey didn’t draw a ton of notice at the time. The Dispatch rarely made mention of his race, and while White said he had been denied housing because of his skin color when he first got to Fort Wayne, there were few such instances in Columbus, one of the reasons he thrived with the Checkers. 

“My second year in Columbus, I felt a lot of confidence,” he said. “I don’t know what it was, but I just felt a lot of confidence and things turned around for me. I could always put the puck in the net, and I could really skate. Those were my two best assets, and when I played my second year in Columbus, I turned things around.” 

The Checkers eventually folded after their fourth season, but by then, White had moved up the ranks. After his three seasons in Columbus, White spent three more in Providence, then signed with the New York Raiders of the WHA when the upstart league began play in 1972. He was traded to Los Angeles after just 13 games and had a productive season with the Sharks, notching 20 goals and 17 assists in 57 games. 

He played another season with Los Angeles, notching an 8-13-21 line in 47 games, before ending up with Michigan of the WHA in 1974-75. The Stags moved to Baltimore midway through the season, and White notched nine goals and 21 points in 27 games during what would be his final pro campaign. He would be the only Black player to suit up in the WHA during its run.

Having acquitted himself well at the pro level, White then decided it was time to move on, getting into the construction business and settling in the Vancouver area. As hockey has put more of a focus on recognizing the trailblazers who helped grow the game, White’s impressive career has come into sharper focus and he’s received his due as someone who made an indelible impact on the sport. 

“Hockey has been great for me,” he said. “I’ve led a great life, so I’ve never flaunted it too much. I get cards and letters from people all the time that want my autograph and that kind of stuff, so I get more exposure now than I did when I played.”