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Boomer Harding: The Forgotten Hockey Pioneer

Before Willie O’Ree, there was ‘Boomer’ Harding. He broke almost every racial barrier in the game as he battled his way up hockey’s hierarchy. But even though he could score at will, the game’s power brokers never let him break the biggest barrier of them all.
Boomer Harding

Wilfred ‘Boomer’ Harding lived on the precipice of success. His talent, whether it was on the baseball diamond or the ice, would take him to the verge of bigger things and could’ve taken him to the biggest. But Harding was Black, competing at a time when the highest levels of baseball and hockey remained segregated.

Famously, Boomer Harding was part of the 1934 Chatham Coloured All-Stars. Born in Chatham, Ont., Harding starred for his hometown club, the first all-Black baseball team ever to enter into Ontario’s provincial baseball playoffs. Not only did they enter, they won.

With the All-Stars on the cusp of the title, leading 3-2 in the deciding game, umpires tried to stop what was about to happen by calling the game “on account of darkness.” “I can still see the two guys throwing up their arms in the air,” Harding recalled to interviewers from the University of Windsor. “There was no way we were going to win that game.”

With sunset almost two hours away that day, it was not a slim measure of daylight the umpires saw. The only darkness on the field was the color of the Chatham All-Stars’ skin.

“Why’d they call the game on account of darkness?” asked Harding’s son, Blake. “Well, it was dark because there were nine Black players out there. That’s why it was too dark.”

The next day, with new umps, the All-Stars, led by Harding, won the Ontario championship, becoming the first all-Black baseball team in Canadian history to win a provincial title.

When baseball season ended each fall, Harding would turn to hockey. In high school, as the only Black player on his team, he led Chatham Vocational High School to multiple regional championships. Years later, as the Second World War broke out, Harding enlisted and was stationed in Kingston, Ont., resuming his hockey career with the Kingston Ponies.

Near the end of the war, Harding was shipped overseas. And just as D-Day arrived, he was recruited to play hockey for a Canadian Armed Forces all-star team, which featured NHLers from the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens. The team toured Europe, playing professional teams at each stop. On that team was a Detroit Red Wings left winger named Adam Brown, who had won a Stanley Cup with the Wings in 1943. Nicknamed ‘The Flying Scotsman,’ Brown was the first Red Wings player to score a hat trick on opening night, which he did only months after the war ended, in a 7-0 win over the Boston Bruins in 1945. The next year, Brown assisted, along with Sid Abel, on the first career goal of a rookie named Gordie Howe.

It was Brown who recommended his Army teammate Harding to the Red Wings organization. And in 1946, Harding earned a spot on a Red Wings affiliate, the IHL’s Windsor Staffords, becoming the first Black person ever to play in the International Amateur League, a forerunner of the International League. His on-ice barrier breaking also included being the first Black person to play at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium, home of the Red Wings from 1927 until its closing in February 1980. Harding stepped on the ice at Olympia in 1946 playing for Windsor against the Detroit Auto Club.

Only two years earlier, Harding had been denied access to the ice at Olympia when he visited with his family for public skating. He was with his brothers as well as his sisters Beulah and Georgina when they were turned away only steps from the ice. According to the attendant at Olympia, “public” meant white only. (Beulah would later become friends with another Detroit sports legend and the namesake of the arena that would replace Olympia as the Red Wings’ new home, Joe Louis. The famous boxer gifted Beulah and her husband, Earl, who worked for Louis, the pair of gloves he wore in his first fight against German boxer Max Schmeling.)

With Harding playing for the Staffords in 1946, the NHL was within reach. All he did was score. Yet even that wasn’t enough to propel him up to the Red Wings.

At the time, his team owner promised to buy any player who scored a hat trick a fedora to proudly wear to games. Early in the season, Harding stepped on the ice and scored a pair of goals in the first period. A third goal, however, would not come, because Harding wouldn’t step back on the ice. He had been benched without a word. A few games later, Harding again scored two early goals to put his team into the lead, but instead of continuing to play one of his top players, the coach again stapled Harding to the bench and kept him there until the final buzzer. Harding soon came to realize that although the team wanted to benefit from his skill, the end reward, a fedora, and the bigger goal, the NHL, would be withheld from him. His career would be benched each and every time he came within reach of the ultimate reward.

Soon, in order to stay on the ice, Harding abandoned attempts to score early in games. He would pass the puck off in every situation, and focus on defense instead. When the third period arrived, Harding would return to his own game, taking his chances to score. At least this way, there would only be minutes left on the clock if he managed to score a pair of goals, when his coach would call him off and assign him a seat on the bench until the final buzzer sounded.

Harding finished his lone season in the IHL with 20 points in 25 games, despite being regularly benched for scoring. He was later traded to the Detroit Auto Club, but would not continue playing.

After Harding’s stint with Windsor, it took another 11 years for the second Black player to compete in a game at Olympia Stadium. That athlete was John Utendale, who played for a Red Wings farm team called the Edmonton Flyers in a 1957 pre-season exhibition game against the Wings.

According to Harding’s son Blake, the ice could be a lonely place for a Black hockey player in the 1940s. “It was that feeling of maybe Jackie Robinson that, ‘I’m out here all by myself, there’s nothing I can do to hide it,’ ” Blake said. “A Black man on white ice sticks out. And back then, it really stuck out. And Dad, I think, was a real pioneer in hockey.”

For Black hockey players in the 1940s, there were few opportunities. In Quebec, Herb Carnegie was the star of the Quebec Provincial League, while in Southern Ontario, it was Harding. The only barrier neither man could break was becoming the first Black player in the NHL, an honor reserved for Willie O’Ree more than a decade later in 1958.

Harding knew why his NHL and baseball dreams remained out of reach. And whenever he was asked why he didn’t make it, he would silently respond in the same way – he would look down and rub the skin on his arms.

Harding was a baseball and hockey pioneer, and although racism kept him out of the NHL, he broke barriers for generations to come. 

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