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Mike Marson: Breaking Down Barriers

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Guest author Glenn Dreyfuss tells of the rocky road faced by the NHL's second black player

Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Tomorrow night the Capitals will pay tribute to Mike Marson, as the Caps alum has been invited to attend the Caps-Blues game for a special in-game salute. A member of the inaugural team back in 1974-75 and a trailblazer in the fight to break down the NHL's color barriers, Marson was the second black player to lace up the skates in the NHL, and the first to do so for the Caps.

Our friend Glenn Dreyfuss, author of The Legends of Landover (a book that any history-loving Caps fan should have on the shelf), tells Marson's story below:

Even if you know Mike Marson was the NHL's second black player when he joined the Capitals in 1974 - and even if you know he was the first since Willie O'Ree's retirement 13 years earlier - you have no idea how tough it was for this small-town Canadian teenager.

As William Douglas wrote at colorofhockey.com, Marson "exuded unabashed blackness - an Afro, Fu Manchu mustache and mutton chop sideburns." And whites exuded bigotry. "It was a culture shock," Marson recalled. "Nobody should have to hear ‘We don't have people like him stay at our hotel;' and nobody should go down for breakfast and they won't feed you. This is before you even get to the rink, before you have to deal with your opposition. It was non-stop."

"I was called n****r and every other bad name in the book," Marson said in Cecil Harris' book Breaking The Ice, "along with stuff I didn't even know was in the book."

Racial slurs from fans were just the beginning. Teams would offer a cash prize to the player who injured Marson. A black teammate, Bill Riley, recalls the pair "getting high-sticked and slashed. Those things cut Michael's heart out." In one typically ugly incident in a preseason game, Detroit's Dennis Hextall speared Marson so violently in the chest, the blade of his stick broke. Marson received death threats pasted from words cut out of magazines. One read: "You're on thin ice black boy... The n****r is going to die." These venomous letters arrived both at Capital Centre and at his Maryland home.

Marson found no refuge with many of his so-called "teammates." "Uncle Ben" was one of the printable slurs. Some pretended not to know him as they boarded planes. When a death threat was phoned in to the Philadelphia Spectrum, linemates joked about sitting far from him on the bench. While Marson filmed a TV commercial, Dave Kryskow cracked that he could be chosen instead "if I get my face painted."

Undeniably, Marson was news because of his skin color. The front page of an October, 1974 issue of The Hockey News reported on the "First Black To Crack NHL In 15 Years." Kryskow and others failed, or refused, to grasp that Marson also detested the special attention, which he didn't solicit.

"I'm not a freak. I'm just another rookie trying to make it in the big leagues," Marson told the N.Y. Times. "What I don't need is someone pointing and saying, ‘Hey look! There's a black hockey player.' If I was brought up because I was black, I wouldn't want to be here." Mike was ready to turn the other cheek, or if need be, smack someone else's. "I'm prepared to close my ears to anything stupid. I anticipate the odd man mouthing off. But he might finally find himself skating with blood on his face." (Hayward Daily Review)

Mike overcame the pressure, scoring 16 goals in his rookie season, and wound up playing 196 NHL games. And some of his on-ice memories are fondly remembered. "I found myself looking in awe at guys like Orr and Esposito instead of playing my game," Marson admitted to the Lowell Sun. "Rookies have to battle these feelings, but it's not something you can control."

Marson did muster the gumption one time at Boston Garden to challenge Bobby Orr in a one-on-one puck duel. "And then I must have caught him off balance," Marson told CBC Radio. "We go to the corner and he gives me a cuff on the back of my helmet. I turned to Yvon Labre and said, 'What was that for?' Yvon says, 'You don't come into Boston and do that to Bobby Orr.'"

Then there was the time Marson learned what Wile E. Coyote already knew: road runners are sneaky fast. On the team's first trip into Montreal, Mike was assigned to mark "Yvon Cournoyer, the 'Roadrunner', one of the fastest people ever on skates.

"We went into the Montreal end, they started to work their magic coming up the ice, shifted gears at the blue line, I shifted, he shifted again, I stayed with him. We hit the Washington blue line. Cournoyer suddenly cut left; I could not believe this superhuman activity where he was cutting across in front of me, staying onside, and being the first man in to get the puck. It was like, 'woah', could we back that up please, I gotta have another look at this."

Maybe it's not surprising that after retiring, Marson became a karate black belt. For many years, says toromagazine.ca, he taught "hockey fighting like it's a martial art. Marson's instruction wipes away the mystery of combat. Students know they can take a punch without collapsing because Marson has punched them, and they haven't collapsed."

The same can be said about Mike Marson. He can be proud that a few years ago, he helped NHL officials craft penalties, fines, and suspensions for racial slurs on the ice. On the eve of a 2016 Verizon Center ceremony in his honor, Mike told colorofhockey.com, "For me, it's interesting to have put away all the negative things that transpired so many years ago - we're talking over 40 years ago - when the world was a totally different place."