In Local Clippings, we bring you what we feel are notable items from the city’s newspapers. Today, we bring you the special Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day column from longtime sportswriter Mike Harvey, in today’s Evening Press. NOTE: The inexplicable edit of a certain word toward the end isn’t ours, but that of the (rather conservative) paper.
Harvey on Sports: Barriers Still Unbroken
This city is well-known for producing successful professional athletes. Since 1950, we can claim 24 NFL players, 15 MLB players, 5 NBA players and even MLS superstar Quentin Clemens. Yet, somehow, in spite of the access to over a dozen ice rinks and the largest winter skate park in the tri-state area, not a single athlete who calls this town home has made it to the National Hockey League.
Only one player even made it close.
In 1952, Sidney “Silk” Stalkins might have been the next Big Thing in hockey. A full 6’4″, 230 lbs at the age of 20, Stalkins lead the league with 109 goals and 75 assists in just 46 games played with the late local junior hockey squad, the Whizzers.
They say they say that Stalkins had the build and toughness of Gordie Howe, the skating ability of Jean Beliveau and the scoring touch of Maurice Richard.
Unfortunately, Stalkins also had the skin color of Jackie Robinson.
Which was black.
Stalkins had played junior hockey for the Whizzers for four agonizing years, watching in desperation as other players on the regional circuit, far less talented, were drafted by professional hockey teams. There were rumors that pro scouts, impressed by the stats, would come just to watch the phenom in action, only to leave in disgust minutes after arriving.
Finally, inevitably, Stalkins was forced to leave the team. At age 21, the talented skater was no longer eligible for junior hockey.
It seemed that Silk’s career would be anything but smooth.
A glimmer of hope
Stalkins found work as a porter at the historic Stratford-Dorsey Hotel, eking out a living carrying heavy luggage up and down 14 stories all day long. (It would be 1964 before the Stratford-Dorsey would install its first elevator). The work was back-breaking and monotonous.
Then, in 1958, something happened that renewed Stalkins’ faith in the game. On Jan 18, the Boston Bruins started a man named Willie O’Ree. And like Stalkins, O’Ree was black.
The NHL color barrier had been broken.
Stalkins enthusiastically quit the porter job and started getting back into game shape. The following summer, Silk tried out for the city’s new entry into the minors- the Federal East Coast Hockey League (FECHL) affiliate, the Starlights, and was signed as a right winger.
Stalkins played faithfully for the Starlights for three seasons, netting very respectable statistics and drawing decent attendance figures. Still, no call ever came from the big leagues.
The ugly truth
Then, in 1962, Stalkins was happily surprised by an NHL announcement that it was looking to expand from its original six teams, and the FECHL was one of the leagues it was considering merging with. It might have been that big chance that was so long in the waiting.
However, it was not to be. The owners took a secretive vote, and unanimously decided against the merger. Stalkins was heartbroken.
Years later, NHL president Clarence Campbell would confirm what many had suspected: Stalkins was one factor (of many) in the owners’ vote. Said Campbell in a 1964 interview, “[The Owners] signed a joint letter of agreement that they didn’t want any part of a league that would include someone like [Stalkins].”
The signing of O’Ree by the Bruins in 1958 proved that the league had no objections to hiring a black player. Unfortunately, Stalkins had a second hurdle.
It wasn’t racism that dashed Sidney “Silk” Stalkins’ hopes. It was sexism.
You see, not only did Stalkins have the skin color of Jackie Robinson (black), she had the same sexual organ as Babe Didrikson.
Which was a v—-a.
Noticed at last
Stalkins never played hockey again. She gave up the game she loved once more and settled into a modest lifestyle. She married, had 6 children and worked in the lingerie department at Osberger’s Department store for 30 years before retiring at the age of 60.
She finally received the recognition she so richly deserved on October 13, 1998. On that night, the first minor league hockey game was played at the new Fourth Financial Arena. The Xtreme (which had changed their name from the Starlights in the early 90’s in an effort to sound more “extreme”) bestowed upon Stalkins the honor of dropping the first ceremonial puck.
And even though 23 other ceremonial pucks were also dropped by various other local celebrities, personalities, and raffle winners that night, there is a good chance that everyone there probably knew the reason why Stalkins was so special.
Stalkins died of heart failure in early 2002. She was buried in a quiet, peaceful corner of the Elmwood Memorial Cemetery.
Her epitaph reads, simply and truthfully:
SIDNEY “SILK” STALKINS
VERY NEARLY THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN TO PLAY IN THE NHL
- Ray Ingraham