On Feb. 26, 2020, the Provincial Archives of Alberta published a Facebook post that asked:
“Did you know that Edmonton-born John Utendale… was the first Black hockey player to sign a contract with the NHL?”
That National Hockey League contract was signed with the Detroit Red Wings in 1955, three years before Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s colour barrier with the Boston Bruins. Utendale attended a handful of camps with the Red Wings, skating with the likes of Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio and Red Kelly.
Utendale never played for Detroit, instead seeing action with its farm team, the Edmonton Flyers.
But O’Ree has been quoted, including in a 2018 article in The Undefeated, that it could easily have been Utendale, or O’Ree’s teammate Stan Maxwell, or Herb Carnegie, or Art Dorrington who could have the NHL’s first Black player.
According to an Edmonton Journal article in 2006, as a youth and teenager, Utendale played on the outdoor city rinks in Edmonton growing up. His post-minor hockey career started with the Edmonton Oil Kings, prior to his historic signing with the Red Wings. After that, he played three seasons with the Flyers, followed by a couple of seasons where he moved east, spending time with the Windsor Bulldogs, North Bay Trappers, Quebec Aces and Sudbury Wolves.
During his brief time with the Aces, Utendale would be joined by O’Ree and Maxwell, where they played together on an all-Black line. And it is believed Utendale was only the fourth Black player to play Senior A hockey in Ontario, joining Herb and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre.
He eventually returned to Western Canada, marrying his wife Mickey and starting his university education. Utendale earned his teaching certificate from the University of British Columbia in 1961 before enrolling at the University of Alberta, earning his bachelor’s degree in education. He worked for three years at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) when the school was being established in the mid-1960s, becoming the school’s first director of physical education and coaching the men’s hockey team.
Utendale stayed on the ice throughout the 1960s, including stints with the Ponoka Stampeders, Edmonton Nuggets and Edmonton Monarchs, along with the Spokane Jets.
Had his story ended here, Utendale would already have established himself as a significant figure in the history of the game.
But a sentence included in his obituary, published in the Edmonton Journal following his death in 2006, illustrates that hockey really was a lifelong passion for Utendale:
“John’s career was a story of diversity from professional hockey player to professor.”
With the conclusion of his playing career in 1969, Utendale’s focus shifted to what would be a long and influential career in post-secondary education.
He earned his master’s degree at Eastern Washington State College, and was hired at Washington State University. During his three years at WSU he was academic coordinator for the athletic department, a member of the Washington State Human Rights Commission, taught a course in the Black Studies department and coached Little League baseball, all while earning his doctorate in education.
Utendale then joined Western Washington State College (now University), becoming the first Black faculty member of the Woodring College of Education. For a quarter of a century, he headed the student personnel administration graduate program, dramatically increasing the number of minority students at the school.
He was nationally recognized for his academic work, and moved into full professorship, becoming one of the few minority faculty members with tenure. He also held numerous positions in the Washington state community, including leading the Higher Education Administration.
But hockey always played a significant role in Utendale’s life. During his time as an educator, he was involved in hockey at the local, post-secondary and regional levels in Washington. He helped found the Bellingham Area Minor Hockey Association and the city’s junior team (which he also coached), coached the Western Washington University Vikings and served as western regional director for the Amateur Hockey Association of the U.S.
He was also an assistant training coach with the U.S. Olympic team in 1980, becoming the first Black member of the coaching staff of the men’s hockey team. That team won gold in the “Miracle on Ice” at the Lake Placid Games.