January 20, 2007

Bill Riley

Regardless of the fact that he was the third black player in National Hockey League history, it's almost a miracle Bill Riley made it to the big leagues at all.

He played junior hockey for the Halifax Canadians (where his teammate was future NHL'er Errol Thompson) and finished for the Amherst Ramblers in 1968-69, scoring 64 points including 32 goals.
After that 1968-69 season Bill gave up pursing hockey at a higher level. He received no interest from the NHL or any other professional league, not because he was black but because, in the words of Breaking The Ice author Cecil Harris, was "blessed with more toughness, resiliency and perseverance than hockey talent."

Riley moved to Kitimat where he worked as a welder at the Alcan aluminum plant. But he just couldn't quit playing hockey. In 1971 he joined the Kitimat Eagles to play senior hockey in a now long gone industrial British Columbia League. Bill was tearing up the league, winning the scoring title in each of his three years there. In 1972-73 Bill had 88 points (56 goals) and in 1973-74 he had 118 points (76 goals).

His 1973-74 season was so spectacular that he caught the attention of NHL scouts. He was invited to both the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers training camps in 1974. He chose Washington as he figured he would have a better chance to catch on with an expansion club rather than the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Nobody even expected him to make the Capitals farm team, but Bill proved everybody wrong. He had an outstanding camp and was signed and sent to apprentice with the Dayton Gems of the IHL.

Bill went on to play in one game for Washington during their inaugural season in 1974-75. During his appearance in a Caps uniform in 19 74-75 he made history as it marked the first time two colored players played on the same team in the NHL at the same time. Rambunctious Mike Marson also played for the Caps. The rest of the season Riley played for Dayton where he quickly became a teammate's favourite with his bruising style. Bill racked up 279 Pim's in 63 games for Dayton.

Although he was appreciated by all of his teammates, winning over the fans was another story. The fans around the league, and especially in Dayton, were unthinkably brutal towards him. There were stories of fans making monkey sounds and even throwing chicken at him.

Riley tried not to let it bother him.

"I felt so sorry that black families that came to the games to support me had to hear those ugly things from cowards in the stands. I'll tell you what, though, it used to energize me. I think you had to look at it that way. You couldn't let those cowards beat you.

Bill remained in Dayton for the entire 1975-76 season and scored a 66 points, including 35 goals, in 69 games. He also racked up a mind boggling 301 penalty minutes. That was the season that the Washington management started to realize that Bill had a fine potential of becoming a very useful power forward in the National Hockey League.

Although Bill again started the 1976-77 season in Dayton it quickly was obvious that Washington couldn't afford having him in the minors. Bill scored 19 goals and 34 points in just 30 games for Dayton before being called up by the Capitals. He was officially signed as a free agent with the Caps on January 19, 1977.

Bill went on to play better hockey for the Caps then anybody could have imagined. He was one of Washington's best players, if not the best player during the second half of the 76-77 season. Bill scored 27 points (13+14) in 43 games, while picking up 124 PIMs. The most impressive part though was the fact that Bill was a +4 on a team that only had one more player with a plus rating (Bob Sirois +1). In the standings Washington was the 16th team out of 18 and yielded 86 more goals than they scored. So that, plus the fact Bill was a rookiem made his plus-minus rating even more impressive. Not surprisingly Bill became the "rookie of the year" in Washington, as voted by his teammates.

Washington's coach Tom McVie explained why Bill got a shot to play on the Capitals.

"We needed someone to stand in front of the net and pay the price." It was exactly this willingness to do that which gave him a spot on the team. Bill was far from a classic skater, but he made that up with his bruising body checks and an "in your face type" of hockey.

Tom McVie was also quoted as saying:

" He's one of the most determined athletes I've ever known," which tells us a little bit about Bill's all-out approach to the game.

That approach didn't stop in the NHL.

"In the NHL I fought Dave Schultz, Tiger Wiliams. I fought all the tough guys of that era (the 1970s)."

After his fine 1976-77 season he was a regular in the lineup. Early during the 1977-78 season (November 20, 1977) Buffalo's Jim Schoenfeld's skate accidentally cut the tendon in Bill's right ankle. Although he completed the game, this injury forced Bill to miss the next 21 games. Although he scored in his first game back and was in good form, he didn't top his performance from the previous year. Bill finished with 25 points (including 13 goals) in 53 games. He often found himself skating on the top line with scorers Guy Charron and Bob Sirois, establishing himself as crease crasher and fierce forechecker.

Sadly, one of the most blatant stories of racism against Riley occurred back in his hometown of Amherst, Nova Scotia. After signing a $100,000 contract with the Capitals, Riley tried to purchase a cottage on the outskirts of town where he and his childhood sweetheart Joanne could summer. The bank simply wouldn't process the transaction, as the all white neighborhood quietly moved to prevent him from moving in. It didn't matter for these bigots he was the hometown boy he made it all the way to the NHL. Riley ended up suing the bank successfully, making national headlines in the process.

Left hobbled by the tendon injury, Bill only played in 24 games for Washington in 78-79 and split his time between Washington and Hershey (AHL). He was left unprotected by Washington before the WHA / NHL merger draft. Winnipeg picked him up and he played briefly for Winnipeg in 1979-80 (14 games - 5 points) before being sent down to the Nova Scotia Voyageurs (AHL) where he had over a point per game (64 points in 63 games).

Bill never returned to the NHL. He was signed as a free agent by the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 25, 1981 but never played for them. Instead Bill went on to play for the New Brunswick Hawks (AHL) where he captained the Hawks to a Calder Cup championship in 1981-82. The team had future NHL superstar Steve Larmer in the lineup as well as 1980 Olympic Gold Medalist Jack O'Callahan.

In 1982-83 Bill became the Moncton Alpines (AHL) player/ assistant coach and in 1983-84 he returned to Nova Scotia where he played for the Voyageurs (AHL). Bill put up some pretty descent AHL numbers (304 points in 391 games).

Bill remained active in hockey after retiring as a player. He went on to be the Moncton Golden Flames director of marketing and public relations for three years. He was also the co-coach of the Moncton Junior Midland Hawks, reaching the Centennial Cup round.

But Bill wasn't ready to hang up his skates just yet. He went on to be the playing coach for the St. John's Sr. Capitals of the Newfoundland Senior League where he played between 1986-89. He scored 163 points (64 goals and 99 assists) in just 66 games the last two seasons there. In 1988 Bill was also a member of the Hardy Cup winning "Port Aux Basque Mariners".

In 1989-90 Bill became a coach and GM of his hometown team, the Amherst Ramblers, where he once had played junior hockey. He remained there for eight years, winning two Atlantic titles with four Centennial Cup appearances. He later went on to various positions with the junior Moncton Wildcats and Miramichi Timberwolves.


Unknown said...

A great article full of inspiration and determination. Bill Riley's story is amazing and everyone in Amherst NS and any other involved community should be proud of his great accomplishments.

Patrick Furlong said...

I'm from Amherst, NS and grew up hearing about Bill Reilly. My son had to choose somebody to write about for a paper for Black History Month, and I suggested Bill Reilly. I tracked down his mother, who said she would see what she could do. My son soon received a phone call, and got to interview Mr. Reilly for his report. Mr. Reilly was gracious and gave my son a lot of time, answering his questions and telling stories from his days playing and coaching.

His willingness to do all this speaks to his character.

Unknown said...

What an awesome athlete and hockey great, proud to know him. A gentlemen in all respects and a wonderful legacy to leave his family,friends and fans.

Dave Croft said...

It was my pleasure to met Billy and his family after my son was drafted by Billy for a junior team in Miramichi which he was GM and coach.As my great father often stated its not the color of the skin that counts but what is inside it that really matters.Those words are very true when you read the above article about Billy,a real tropper and team first player in every aspect of the game.These traits still remain with him today a true gentleman in every respect of the word.

Unknown said...

From Hockey Player Bill Riley:
I wish to clarify the article above. I never had a chance to proof read this article by Cecil Harris and would like to set the record straight.

It was NOT the people and fans of Dayton, Ohio that treated me badly. It was the fans of Toledo and Columbus, Ohio that were brutal towards me. For a young black man with a young family from Canada coming to the USA with the racial tensions between the blacks and the whites in the 70's the people and fans of Dayton made it an easy transition for me and my family. The Dayton Gems Booster club led by a wonderful grand lady, named Granny Bowers and a great fan named Leroy Williams made us feel so welcome and so at home. Dayton was my first pro city and I have nothing but great memories of Dayton Ohio and I hope some day that we can have a reunion of our Championship team there. The only regret that I have from Dayton, Ohio is that the ownership measured us for championship rings and never gave them to us. God Bless the people of Dayton!

#7 Bill Riley

Bill Hoffmann said...

Great story- such a determined & positive person with a love of hockey & life. I am inspired!

Anonymous said...

I am trying to get in touch with Bill (former coach) but am having no luck? If you can provide any info plz email me jadon_newman@hotmail.com

Roy P / Amherst N S said...

I am from Amherst and have been all my life. I grew up around Bill and his family, two of the finest people I know are Bill,s parents. He is a hero here and his picture is on the local marrow. I heard his name on CBC the other evening as a player from Amherst that helped break the color barrier. Many of us here never seen him as black, he was just a hell of a hockey player from Amherst. It was not the same in some of the placed the team played, but there is a story here of many a hockey player in the Metro Valley League still looking both ways as they get off the bus to make sure bill is not coming. Good Luck Bill.

Maureen Marshall said...

Congratulations on your lifetime of hard work and perseverance Bill. Continue to be a blessing and an inspiration to others.
Maureen ��

tjs said...

My family and I were privileged to have been friends with Joanne & Bill back in the day when they were in Dayton. Bill, in your corrective, your reference to Granny B (we sat very near her for years!) just made.my.day.! We are so very sorry to be reminded of all the crap you endured, but glad to know your memories of Dayton are better ones. It was indeed a difficult era. We would love to be back in touch.

Unknown said...

Hi Billy Riley... Best friends with Bobby Currel :) It has been many years :)

Unknown said...

I lived in Smithers BC and watched Bill play in the PNWHL fir Kitimat. He was by far the best player. Great player and made it all the way to the NHL. It was quite a thrill for us to watch him play for the Capitals. I still vividly recall the first game I saw him play in the NHL, still get goose bumps when I think of it. It was an incredible accomplishment!