John Utendale: A legacy of breaking barriers

by | Feb 8, 2023 | Sports

Willie O’Ree was the first black player to play in the NHL. But did you know that another black player almost did it first? John Utendale started his professional hockey career with the first iteration of the Edmonton Oil Kings as an 18-year-old in  the 1954-55 season. Utendale would then grab the attention of the Detroit Red Wings in 1955, three years before O’Ree played his first game for the Boston Bruins. Utendale signed a contract and attended training camps with the Red Wings but never got the chance to play. He would play for Detroit’s minor-league affiliate at the time, the Edmonton Flyers. 

According to an interview John’s brother, Paul, conducted with the Edmonton Journal, he would have broken the colour barrier before O’Ree if it wasn’t for his marriage. “To be very candid, the reason he didn’t get to play with the Detroit Red Wings is Jack Adams, the coach and general manager at the time. John was married to Maryan Maddison Leonard. It was a mixed marriage, and that was one of the very large stumbling blocks that kept him out of the NHL. [It was] more the mixed marriage than just being a black player.” 

John Utendale poses in his hockey uniform.
Photo via Twitter @mikecommitto

Just because Utendale didn’t play in the NHL didn’t mean he wasn’t a talented hockey player. Brad Lyons, senior manager of communications and historian for Hockey Alberta, said to, “You have to remember in that era, the NHL only had the ‘Original Six’ teams [adding up to 120 total skaters]. You had to be very good to even get on the radar of an NHL team, let alone signing a contract.”

Utendale would go on to play several more years of hockey, including on the “black line” alongside O’Ree and Stan Maxwell with the Quebec Aces before getting a teaching degree from the University of British Columbia in 1961. Utendale returned to Edmonton to complete his undergraduate degree in education from the University of Alberta in 1963. His first job in education was at NAIT as the school’s first director of physical education. He coached the Ooks’ men’s hockey team from 1965-1967, leading NAIT’s first non-tournament sports team to a WICC, the precursor to the ACAC championship in the 1966-67 season. 

He continued to appear for multiple hockey teams through 1969, when he hung up his skates to get a master’s degree at Eastern Washington State College (now Eastern Washington University). This allowed him to get hired as an academic coordinator for the athletic department at Washington State, a lecturer in the department of Black Studies and a member of Washington State’s Human Rights Commission. He managed to do all of this while earning a doctorate in education.

Utendale would then become the first Black faculty member of the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University. He managed WWU’s master’s degree program in student personnel administration and was nationally recognized for his work increasing the minority student population and earned tenure.

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