On February 26, 2020, the Provincial Archives of Alberta published a Facebook post that asked the following question:
“Did you know that Edmonton-born John Utendale; was the first Black hockey player to sign a contract with the NHL?”
That National Hockey League contract was signed with the Detroit Red Wings in 1955, three years before Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s colour barrier in 1958 with the Boston Bruins. Utendale attended three or four camps with the Wings, skating with the likes of Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio and Red Kelly.
Utendale never played for the Red Wings, instead seeing action with Wings’ farm team, the Edmonton Flyers.
But O’Ree has been quoted, including in a 2018 article in The Undefeated, that it could easily have been Utendale, or O’Ree’s Boston teammate Stan Maxwell, or Herb Carnegie or Art Dorrington who could have the NHL’s first black player.
According to an Edmonton Journal article in 2006, as a youth and teenager, Utendale played on the outdoor city rinks in Edmonton while playing peewee, bantam and midget hockey. His post-minor hockey career started with the Edmonton Oil Kings, prior to his historic signing with the Red Wings. After that, he played three seasons with the Flyers, followed by a couple of seasons where he moved east, playing for teams such as the Windsor Bulldogs and North Bay Trappers (Ontario Senior league), Quebec Aces (Quebec Hockey League), and Sudbury Wolves (Eastern Professional Hockey League).
In his 1958-59 part-season (five games) with the Aces, Utendale would be joined by O’Ree and Maxwell, where they played together on “The Black Line.” And it is believed Utendale was only the fourth black player to play Senior A hockey in Ontario, joining Herb and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre
He eventually returned to western Canada, getting married to Maryan “Mickey” Maddison Leonard in 1959, and starting his university education. Utendale earned his teaching certificate from the University of British Columbia in 1961, and then enrolled at the University of Alberta, earning his Bachelor of Education degree in two years. He worked for three years at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), when that school was being established in the mid-1960s, becoming the school’s first Director of Physical Education and coaching the men’s hockey team (1966-67).
Throughout the 1960s, until his on-ice career ended in 1969, Utendale was still playing, including stints with the Ponoka Stampeders, Edmonton Nuggets and Edmonton Monarchs, along with the Spokane Jets (Western International Hockey League).
Had his story ended here, Utendale would already have established himself as a significant figure in the history of the sport of hockey.
But a sentence included in his obituary, published in the Edmonton Journal following his death in 2006, illustrates that hockey really was a lifelong passion for Utendale:
“John’s career was a story of diversity from professional hockey player to professor.”
With the conclusion of his playing career in 1969, Utendale’s focus shifted to what would be a long and influential career in post-secondary education.
He earned his Master’s degree at Eastern Washington State College, and was hired at Washington State University. During his three years at WSU he was academic coordinator for the athletic department, a member of the Washington State Human Rights commission, taught a course in the black studies department and coached little league baseball, all while earning his Doctorate in Education.
Dr. Utendale then joined Western Washington State College (now University), becoming the first black faculty member of the Woodring College of Education. For a quarter century, he headed the Student Personnel Administration graduate program, dramatically increasing the number of minority students at the school. Utendale was nationally recognized for his academic work, and moved into full professorship, becoming one of the few minor faculty members with tenure. He also held numerous positions in the Washington state community, including leading the Higher Education Administration.
But hockey always played a significant role in Utendale’s life. During his time as an educator, he was involved in hockey at the local, post-secondary and regional levels in Washington State. He helped found the Bellingham Area Minor Hockey Association and the city’s junior team (which he also coached), coached the Western Washington University Vikings team, and served as Western Regional Director for the Amateur Hockey Association of the U.S.
He was also an assistant training coach with the U.S. Olympic team in 1980, becoming the first black member of the coaching staff of the men’s hockey team. That team won gold at the “Miracle on Ice” Lake Placid Olympics.
John Utendale was born in Edmonton in 1937. He retired from Western Washington University in 2001, and he died in Bellingham, Washington in 2006.