National Post (National Edition)
UNITED BY SPORT
THE SAUNDERS BROTHERS NEVER HEARD OF WILLIE O'REE, BUT FOUGHT THE SAME BATTLE AGAINST RACISM
Black History Month begins, and the story of Bernie and John Saunders, brothers who grew up in Quebec and Ontario, needs to be told and retold once again.
Bernie Saunders will admit he never heard of Willie O'Ree when he was a young man in very white Châteauguay, Que., or when he moved as a teenager to just as white Ajax, Ont.
He and his brother didn't know that some 20 years earlier, O'Ree had broken the colour barrier in the National Hockey League. They didn't know the name at all.
They were trying to make a name for themselves in hockey, hoping to make a career of it.
“When we came through, it was like I was Willie O'Ree,” Bernie said during a lengthy interview from his home in South Carolina. “Everywhere I went, nobody had seen a Black hockey player. Nobody had heard of a Black hockey player. We thought it was just us, our fight.
“There was no internet back then. There was no way of knowing who Willie O'Ree was or what he might have done. There was no path for us to follow.
“I was this really shy, quiet kid, trying to make it in hockey. When I played, I felt like I was born to do this, like I was put on this universe to be an athlete. I lived and breathed hockey.”
He also lived, surrounded by racism. Racism in the sport. Racism in the stands. The worst part, maybe, racism in his own dressing rooms.
“When I played in the AHL, everything got to me ... the prejudice, the anger,” Bernie said. “You almost had to grow a kind of immunity or have a thick skin. Several games the other team just targeted me. The attitude was `let's demolish him.' And nobody did anything about it. It gets draining after a while.
“The worst maybe, was that I had several incidents with my own teammates. I don't want to get into names. But that's where it really got to me. You felt like you were on an island. You didn't have a home in your own locker-room. Who could you talk to? You couldn't talk to the coach or the general manager. You couldn't talk to your teammates.
“It's almost like a disease. You had to suffer in silence.”
But all the while, “there wasn't any doubt I would play in the NHL and do well.”
Bernie Saunders played 10 NHL games for the Quebec Nordiques over two seasons in 1980.
“He should have had a long career,” said Neil Smith, the former NHL general manager and a close friend of the Saunders brothers since they played together at Western Michigan University. “Bernie was our most
talented player, our fastest skater, our best scorer.”
When Bernie graduated from WMU, he was the alltime leading scorer in school history. He never did register a point in the NHL.
Long before he became the historic Stanley Cup winning general manager of the New York Rangers, Smith was a communications major at WMU and hosted a late-night radio show during his years in college.
One day, more as a lark than anything else, he asked his best friend, John Saunders, to join him on the show.
“He was an absolute natural on the radio,” Smith said. “I guess you could say the rest is history.”
John Saunders didn't graduate from WMU, and in truth, wasn't much of a hockey player at that level. He dropped out of school, went home to outside Toronto, and wound up enrolling at Ryerson.
His first job in radio was in Espanola, Ont., population 4,996, where he was hired as news and sports director.
“When I graduated in 1978, John called me and said there's a job here if you want one,” Smith said. “I went up to Espanola and worked as a country and western DJ for a couple of months. My dream was to play for the Islanders, the team that drafted me. I went to Espanola, my DJ name was Neil York, as in New York, the team I wanted to play for. I didn't last long there. But neither did John.”
After broadcasts stops in North Bay and New Brunswick, John Saunders went on to CITY-TV in Toronto, and was voted Toronto's most popular sports announcer before being hired to work in Baltimore. That was before he would become something of a broadcasting legend with the huge conglomerate, ESPN. He also was the first television play-by-play man of the Raptors when they began in 1995. He was a superstar of his craft.
“He was a natural,” Bernie said, “who found his calling. He had the gift of gab and
the personality to go along with it. I was so proud of him, of everything he accomplished.”
They used to talk a minimum five times a week.
“I miss that a lot,” said Bernie, one year younger than John.
John Saunders died at age 61 in August 2016. After he died, his memoir was published, detailing his challenges with depression throughout his life.
“You know someone, but you don't really know what's inside,” Smith said. “John and Bernie were so different, you wonder how they came from the same family. One was an extrovert. The other was an introvert. One had a God-given personality. The introvert had an incredible work ethic. John stumbled into a career that suited his personality perfectly and became a huge success. Bernie has had great success, just not in hockey.”
“When John passed away, I was kind of lost,” Bernie said. “He was my best friend. I've done well with my life, but I miss him so much.”
When the Saunders family moved to Ajax in the mid 1970s, it was Bernie's goal to play junior B hockey and earn a U.S. college scholarship.
There was one problem: “Nobody wanted a black hockey player,” Saunders said.
In those days, succeeding in junior B was the ticket to an American scholarship. Saunders tried out for the Toronto Nationals. Cut. Then a second team. Cut. Then a third team. Cut.
“I quit hockey for about a month. I figured that was it,” he said.
Saunders wound up playing juvenile for the local Ajax team, a lost level in those days that scouts didn't pay attention to. And one night, the coach of the junior B Pickering Panthers, Sherry Bassin, was in a bar having a bite when he saw four of his players enjoying a beverage or two. The Panthers had a rule: Players weren't allowed in a bar the night before a game.
“I called up my GM and said `I'm benching these guys tomorrow, I'm sitting them out. Get me four players.”
That night, playing his first Ontario junior B game, Saunders had a goal and two assists and may have been the best player on the ice.
“After the game, I go to Bernie and say, `Tell your GM and coach you're not playing juvenile anymore.' I remember looking at him and seeing his watery eyes. It was a moment I'll never forget.”
Bernie wound up finishing that season and playing the next one for the Panthers.
“We still talk to this day,” Bassin said. “We became very close with him and his family.”
One game cemented the relationship between Saunders and Bassin. Pickering was playing at Belleville at the old rink and one man in the stands was being verbally abusive towards Saunders.
Eventually, Bassin had heard enough. He called the referee to his bench and told him, `We're not going to tolerate this. Either you throw this guy out of the building, or we're going to go up there and take it into our own hands.' ”
The game was delayed for seven minutes. The seven minutes that altered the lifelong relationship between Bassin and Saunders.
“I didn't want the attention, I just wanted to play,”
Saunders said. “But when they ushered that loud mouth out of the building, that had a big influence on me. Sherry was instrumental in turning my life around. He was so supportive of me. He was like a second father to me.”
On Aug. 24, 1980, John Saunders phoned his brother with the hockey news of the day. At the time, they were living together in Toronto, each of them chasing their dreams.
“Are you sitting down?” John said.
He went on to tell Bernie that Peter and Anton Stastny had defected from what was then Czechoslovakia and would be joining the Quebec Nordiques.
Saunders had played four games for the Nordiques the previous season. He had dominated in the minors. His chances of playing in the NHL had just diminished by two guaranteed roster spots. The battle to get to the NHL just got tougher.
“I went to Quebec and we had a tournament at the end of camp, and I'll never forget this,” Saunders said. “Peter was the leading scorer, tied with Anton. I was third. Michel Goulet was a point behind me. When camp ended, I got sent to the minors.”
Peter Stastny won the rookie of the year award in the NHL. Anton scored 39 goals. Goulet scored 32 goals.
Saunders was sent to Halifax, which was a Montreal farm team. The Nordiques didn't have an affiliate.
“Halifax had Guy Carbonneau, Dan Daoust, Craig Laughlin, some pretty good players,” said Saunders, 64. “Because I wasn't a Montreal-owned player, I got stuck on the fourth line. They sent me to the minors saying I needed more polish, and needed to score more. And then didn't give me a chance to do that. That kind of broke my heart.”
The next season, he asked for his release, returned to Kalamazoo, where he went to college, and played one season in the International League, scoring 38 goals. Those were the last goals he scored in professional hockey.
“I wasn't about to wallow in self pity,” Saunders said. “I morphed it into a positive. I went to college to get an education. I took business with an emphasis in marketing. I wound up with a 35-year career in the pharmaceutical business.”
Saunders has a book coming out next fall, and as the subject of racism in hockey has become more prominent, he felt the need to be more vocal.
“Being silent is being complicit,” Saunders said. “If you don't speak up, you're not helping.”