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Against the Odds: Remembering Mike Marson's Career with the Caps

Sixteen years after Willie O'Ree broke the NHL's color barrier, an 18-year-old Mike Marson made his NHL debut with the expansion Capitals

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 /

It was a typical Career Day for the Grade 6 class at Buchanan Public School in Scarborough, Ontario, complete with the usual allotment of fire fighters, policemen, nurses and other accomplished professionals on hand to chat with students.

Mike Marson, who played for the Washington Capitals during their 1974-75 expansion season, still remembers sitting in the classroom that day in 1967 along with his childhood friend and future New York Rangers forward Wayne Dillon.

"They were trying to get us to think about more than being in Grade 6," Marson recalled.

"So, Wayne was asked what he would someday like to do for a living, and he said he wanted to be a National Hockey League player. 'That's great, good for you,' he was told. Then I was asked the same question and I gave the same answer. The [staff] just looked at each other and shook their heads as if to say, 'Kid, you have no idea the mountain that you think you're going to climb.'"

The doubters were always going to be there because of Marson's skin color. He was a black kid looking to make it big in a historically white sport.

Although Willie O'Ree had broken the NHL's color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958, his 45-game tenure ended after the 1960-61 season. By the time Marson was dreaming of his own NHL career in his Grade 6 classroom, no other black player had earned an NHL paycheck.

But as racial tensions increased in the U.S. and the race riots of the late 1960s dominated the news cycle, Marson was enamored by a different tone that was slowly building momentum in Canada. Sixteen days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, Pierre Elliott Trudeau was elected as Canada's 15th Prime Minister.

"We had the original 'Trudeau-mania' going on, and its message was that you could do anything you want regardless of your race, creed or color as long as you applied yourself to it," Marson said.

The eldest of five children, Marson left home when he was 17 to play with the Ontario Hockey Association's Sudbury Wolves. In his mind, if he showed himself well in Ontario's top junior league, an NHL career would follow, regardless of his skin color. The politically active Marson believed in what Prime Minister Trudeau was selling.

"The whole thing in Trudeau's perspective was, 'Why shouldn't you be allowed?'" Marson explained. "You're black? Well, why shouldn't you be able to play in the National Hockey League and play at Maple Leaf Gardens? Why not?"

In his second season in Sudbury, Marson was the Wolves' leading scorer with 35 goals, 94 points and 146 penalty minutes in 69 games. The 1973-74 season would be his last in the OHA.

On May 31, 1974, the Capitals began assembling their maiden roster at the NHL Amateur Draft. Washington selected Marson with the first pick in the second round (19th overall).

Defenseman Greg Joly had been taken first overall by the Capitals and both Joly and Marson would have plenty of expectations thrust upon them as the first two players selected in franchise history.

The expectations only grew when the Capitals signed Marson to a five-year, $500,000 contract, primarily to keep him from signing with the rival World Hockey Association.

Marson recorded a hat trick in his first preseason game, then made the team out of training camp and skated in the club's first regular-season game on October 9, 1974 in New York. In doing so, Marson became the second black player in NHL history and the first since O'Ree nearly 14 years earlier.

Playing for a struggling expansion team would have been difficult enough for Marson under normal conditions. Doing so as a well-compensated visible minority made for challenges he wasn't prepared for.

"It wasn't just that I was a 19-year-old kid playing professional hockey," Marson said. "I was the only kid in the world who was black and playing at that time. And with all of the different social ramifications and setups that were going on at that time in America, it was completely unheard of."

Without the benefit of any minor-league seasoning, Marson played in 76 games during the Capitals' inaugural season - second on the team behind only Bill Lesuk, who played in 79.

Marson finished with 16 goals and 28 points as a rookie and entered the NHL as advertised - as one of the game's best skating prospects. The problem, Marson quickly found out, was that he couldn't out-skate the social realties of his situation quite as easily as he could elude a crosscheck.

Video: Black Hockey History | Mike Marson

"It was a daily issue of things that were almost mind blowing," he said. "There were times when I was refused lodging in hotels and the team would have to stick up for me. Or entering an arena like say, Madison Square Garden, and being questioned by security staff because there were no black hockey players. So, to their credit, they were asking the right questions, only to find out that yes, I was playing for Washington. For me, this was a daily thing. You'd go to pre-board an airplane and you're questioned - 'Well sir, I'm sorry this is just for the hockey players.' I dealt with this kind of business all the time."

Most alarming were the death threats Marson received in the mail and over the phone both at the Capital Centre and at his suburban home in Silver Spring, Maryland. There was also a death threat called in one night at The Spectrum in Philadelphia.

"These are things that are not in the manual of a professional hockey player," he said.

According to Marson, the battles he dealt with off the ice carried over into the hockey arena as well.

"We're right in the pressure cooker of it, visiting cities like Chicago, Detroit or Atlanta back then," Marson said.

"People still had an emotional attachment to the negative things that had transpired in America at that time in the big cities. So now you're a young black hockey player coming into this arrangement and you're going into arenas where the people are looking to see who is going to get you. It's a novel thing and hockey is a contact sport. They hear, 'Oh, the kid can throw them pretty good, let's see who's going to handle him.' So, it was just a non-stop thing."

According to some of his teammates, Marson was set up to fail. He was a teenage prospect on a lousy expansion team with little guidance and few mentors. The slurs and taunts were audible every game, not only from the stands, but on the ice too, where opponents regularly took extra liberties with slashes and high sticks.

"It was overt on the ice, and he played an aggressive style," said former Capitals forward Ron Lalonde, teammates with Marson for parts of four seasons.

"He played like he had a chip on his shoulder. That's how he played in junior- rough and tough. But guys in the NHL started to challenge him and you'd hear things that would get anybody upset and riled. Unfortunately, he had to spend too much time fighting and trying to defend himself rather than working on his game. He had the physical skills, but he needed some coaching and some patience and fitting in."

Yvon Labre led the Capitals with 182 penalty minutes during the 1974-75 season, but the expansion club, which lacked in many areas, didn't have a true enforcer or tough guy. On most nights, the 19-year-old Marson was left to fend for himself.

"You'd hear things from some of the tougher players in the league because they knew they could get him off of his game pretty quick," Lalonde said.

"There were racial slurs that were fired and he'd be quick [to react]. He had a short fuse. The next thing you knew, he'd be involved in something. It was hard for him to work on his game. And he could skate. He was one of the best skaters in the league, but he spent so much energy having to defend himself."

Decades later, Marson said he would have appreciated more support from his teammates, many of whom he says were from rural settings and had had little contact with people of color until meeting him.

Off the ice, Marson battled weight issues and alcoholism during his playing career. In 1976, Marson nearly missed the Capitals' postseason trip to Japan because head coach Tom McVie said he wasn't in good enough shape.

"Me, Tommy and the weight scale became good friends," Marson said of his regular trips to the trainer's room.

Marson's playing career fizzled, with his trying rookie season arguably serving as the peak. He spent four more seasons in the Capitals organization, all of which were split between the NHL and the minors.

"I enjoyed Mike," said former Capitals goaltender Bernie Wolfe. "He could skate probably better than anybody on our team. That guy could move and he was big. But Mike had difficulty, there's no doubt. He was making a lot of money, and there was big-time pressure.

"Mike could fight, though, so he wasn't going to put up with much [expletive] on the ice. But I think the things that bothered Mike more were in his personal life. We were in Toronto one night, Hockey Night in Canada, and coach comes in and says, 'Mike, I've got to talk to you.' And he tells him that his brother had died suddenly. Mike had a lot of the personal things that he had to live with."

Marson's career lasted six seasons, five of which were spent shuffling between the NHL and AHL. After 193 games with the Capitals and three more with the Los Angeles Kings, Marson finished his NHL career with 24 goals and 48 points and 233 penalty minutes. He retired at the age of 25, and returned to the Greater Toronto Area where he worked as a martial arts instructor and a bus driver.

Despite the challenges, he looks back fondly on his playing days.

"You do your best," he said. "I was certainly up against many different challenges that there was no schooling for, there was no education that you can get or read up on. You had to be in tune with arrangements and situations. And at 18, just turning 19, I haven't met very many people that were playing in the National Hockey League at that level at that age and had a different ethnicity that was a visible minority. So, I did my best."

As for that unspoken mountain from Career Day that Marson would have to climb to realize his dream:

"I did climb it," he said decades later. "And I put a flag on the top of it, too."

This was a book excerpt from 100 Things Capitals Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die.

A revised edition of the book will be released in March 2019, with highlights from the Capitals 2018 Stanley Cup victory.

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