When Arthur Dorrington signed with the Atlantic City Seagulls on November 15, 1950, he became the first black man to play professional hockey. He was black, yes, but has was also Canadian so he could skate like any other kid on the block.
When he signed with the Seagulls in 1950, not to since the Colored Hockey League (1895-1925) had a black player taken a professional role in hockey. It would be a few decades before hockey saw enough black players on the ice to talk about them as more than one-offs.
The Seagulls weren’t trying to make some kind of political move. In 1950 there was no such thing, not in hockey. They signed Dorrington because he could kick some ass [skate, shoot, and score] on the ice.
In 1951, he was part of the Seagull’s championship team. Some considered him the Jackie Robinson of hockey, but Art Dorrington wasn’t trying to be anyone’s hero. He just wanted to play.
Whatever one considers him, however history characterizes him, Dorrington’s story is an interesting one.
Born in 1930, on March 13, Arthur Dorrington grew up in a place where something mattered more than race and it wasn’t beer. It was hockey.
“All that mattered was how good you were,’ Dorrington told the New York Times in 1997. “And I was pretty good.”
Young Dorrington learned to skate at age three, as did all his friends. The first accessory he added to the ice was a stick.
From an age too early to remember, he wanted to play competitively. So, he went to New York to try out for the New York Rangers, a minor league team.
The problem with the Rangers offer was that they wanted to put Dorrington on their farm team, the Rovers. It was bad enough he had to start in the minors.
When the Rangers offered Dorrington the Rovers, the team was on the road. It would have been another two weeks of waiting. Then he would have to start at the bottom.
“… Somebody told me of a team in Atlantic City that needed some players,” he told the Times. “I didn’t know where Atlantic City was, but I figured it was O.K to go there because it wasn’t far from New York.”
Art was too good for the coach of the Seagulls, Herbert Foster, to pass up. “Art was a terrific skater and a fine young man,” he told the times.
Dorrington officially joined the team on the 16th of November, 1951; the first black hockey player in the pros. With time, he could have played well enough to make it into the NHL. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t get that chance.
As a team member, the biggest hurdle was playing southern teams. Dorrington couldn’t always stay in the same hotel or eat with the team at certain restaurants.
“It was pretty strange for me,” he told the Times, ”because I never encountered this in Canada.”
Despite the oddity of American racism, Dorrington finished the season with the ‘Gulls. He even helped take that team to the Eastern League championships.
Dorrington married in 1951, and became a citizen of the U.S. He played hockey in a few different team until the Army drafted him in 1956.
They sent him to Germany where he served his country. When he’d finished, he returned to play for the Philadelphia Ramblers, the team he played for before the Army drafted him.
Six months into the seasons he suffered a fracture of his right femur. It was bad, career-ending bad. When it healed well enough to walk, he took a job as a sheriff in Atlantic County.
Art Dorrington is still in Atlantic City, living out his golden years as a local legend. Since his time, hockey has changed some, but today’s NHL still has only about 30 black players.
Don’t blame the NHL though. They’ll take anyone with enough talent to win. As Dorrington told the Times, “Hockey in the United States was never that important a sport among African-Americans.”
True, but compared to Canadians, it’s never been that important to any Americans. We share a mutual love for beer with Canada, though.