Black and White
I’m from Scarborough, Ontario. I consider it my hometown since my parents moved there when I was only three years old in 1959. It was home for the next twenty years. The only thing that has changed about Scarborough since then is everything.
Well, almost everything. The boundaries—Lake Ontario on the south, Steeles Avenue on the north, Victoria Park Avenue on the west, the Rouge River and its valley on the east—are still the same.
I grew up in a Scarborough that was quite white. It was first settled in 1799 by Scottish stonemason and farmer David Thomson and his wife Mary. As a young boy in the sixties, I briefly went to Sunday school at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, which was built on the Thomsons’ land and includes a graveyard where they’re buried. You could say Scarborough was the very picture of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant life, though WASP didn’t necessarily mean affluent. Scarborough was far more middle class than upper crust. As near as I could tell, it was more blue collar, working class—a lot of young families of whom both parents needed to work to afford their first-time homes.
Today, the quite-white Scarborough of my youth has become one of the most ethnically and racially diverse communities in all of Canada. In the 2016 federal census, 67 percent of its population were visible minorities. Of the more than 630,000 people who called Scarborough home, 25 percent were from South Asia, 19 percent from China, and almost 11 percent were Black. Drive any thoroughfare and its multiculturalism is ubiquitous, from the faces of the people walking its streets to the cornucopia of international cuisines available to the strip mall signs in many languages.
Scarborough has earned national, at times international, recognition for its citizenry—comedian/actor Mike Myers (you didn’t really think Wayne’s World
was set in Aurora, Illinois, did you?); The Barenaked Ladies; race car driver Paul Tracy; marathon swimmer Cindy Nicholas; Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, better known as the Grammy Award–winning singer/songwriter/producer The Weeknd; Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson, and countless pro athletes in the NHL, NBA, CFL, and NFL.
But in such a richly diverse Canadian community, it should come as no surprise that Scarborough is second to none in putting Black hockey players in the NHL.
While the first Black man to break the NHL colour barrier was from Fredericton, New Brunswick—Willie O’Ree in 1957—the next Black player to do so was from Scarborough. Mike Marson was the nineteenth overall selection in the 1974 NHL draft and played 196 games over six NHL seasons, surpassing O’Ree’s 45 over two seasons. Marson was the first of many more from Scarborough to make the NHL.
Anson Carter played 698 NHL games between 1996 and 2007; his neighbourhood friend, goalie Kevin Weekes, played 357 games in a pro career between 1995 and 2009; Joel Ward played 809 NHL games in a thirteen-year career spanning 2005 to 2018. The Stewart brothers—Anthony and Chris, the latter of whom played part of the 2019–20 season with the Philadelphia Flyers—combined for 969 NHL games starting in 2005; Wayne Simmonds finished the 2019–20 season with the Buffalo Sabres, 953 NHL games and still counting in a career that started in 2008; Devante Smith-Pelly had 446 NHL games from 2011 to 2018, including playing a key role in the Washington Capitals’ winning the Stanley Cup in 2018.
Nathan Robinson played seven NHL games in a pro career that spanned sixteen seasons, and goaltender Chris Beckford-Tseu saw action in part of one NHL game during his seven-year career, but they nevertheless helped swell the ranks of Black kids from Scarborough who can say they made it to the NHL.
That’s ten in total and number eleven isn’t far off.
Scarborough’s next Black NHL standard-bearer will almost certainly be Akil Thomas, the Los Angeles Kings’ second-round pick in 2018, who’s expected to start his pro career in the 2020–21 season. Thomas scored the game-winning goal for Team Canada at the 2020 World Junior Hockey Championship.
Quantity and quality of Black NHL players; Scarborough has it all.
On a day when I was taking note of how many Black NHL players have come from my hometown, I started thinking about when I was a kid playing minor hockey. Mike Marson was born in 1955, the year before me, but I never saw him play minor hockey or even knew of him until he went on to the OHA Junior A Sudbury Wolves and then the NHL Washington Capitals. From 1964 to 1975, I had a Black teammate on only two occasions, but I do recall playing against
a few players of colour in that eleven-year span. Two in particular stand out. Vividly. Even now I still remember them—one was tall and gangly; the other was shorter but strong and powerful—and how they played. There’s no doubt they stood out to me because they were Black. To suggest otherwise would be silly. But these guys also stood out because they were good players, better than average in our age group and far better than me, though that was a pretty low bar.
There was a third reason I remember them so well—they had memorable names.
I got to wondering what it might have been like for them—Black kids playing an almost all-white sport in an almost all-white community in the 1960s and 1970s—and it struck me that Terry Mercury and Lindbergh Gonsalves were pioneers of sorts. All these years later, they must have some stories to tell. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, to track them down and have a conversation.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Terry Mercury’s family tree could be featured as part of Black History Month. His father, David Austin Mercury Sr., was born and raised in Toronto, but Terry’s paternal grandfather, Reverend George Luther Mercury, was born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. When George Mercury couldn’t get into divinity schools in Canada, he opted to go to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which was headed up by Booker T. Washington, and later became Tuskegee University. In fact, Booker T. Washington was one of George Mercury’s professors.
“When I heard that, I thought, ‘Oh, someone is blowing smoke’ until my cousin showed me the photograph,” Terry said. “I was like, ‘Holeeeeee, there’s my grandfather in this classroom and there’s Booker T. Washington at the front of the class.’”
Terry’s paternal grandmother, Gladys Smith, was from the tiny St. Mary Parish in Jamaica, just miles away from where Bob Marley would later grow up.
Terry’s mom, Barbara Thompson, has roots that date back to 1800s Virginia. “My mom’s family came to Canada via the Underground Railroad,” Terry told me. “That makes me a sixth-generation Canadian on my mom’s side of the family.”
Terry’s parents met in Toronto. His dad attended Harbord Collegiate and his mom went to Central Tech, two high schools separated by less than a kilometre in Toronto’s west end. Terry was born December 14, 1956, at Toronto General Hospital, the fourth of six Mercury children, three boys and three girls. Of the six, three were adopted.
His dad worked as a real estate agent, mostly for RE/MAX, while his mom was an operator for Bell Canada. When Terry was four, his parents—like many young couples living in the city at the time—wanted a new home in wider, more open spaces and found just that in the Midland-Eglinton area of Scarborough. Terry and his siblings went to nearby Lord Roberts Public School. They weren’t the only Black family in the new neighbourhood, but the fact Terry can remember the name of the only other one—the Berrys—paints the picture pretty well.
What Terry quickly realized is that he loved hockey.
“I played it all the time,” he said. “I played street hockey with my friends until the streetlights came on. Then I’d go downstairs into the rec room and play with the net that my dad got me for Christmas. But I remember being scared to skate because I didn’t want my friends to see me fall down.” Terry, who would grow up to be six-foot-three, was always a tall kid, much taller and more gangly than other kids his age. “I was all arms and legs,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t want them to find out I couldn’t skate.”
Terry’s father had none of that. For the 1964–65 season, he registered Terry for Cedar Hill House League, which played their games at McGregor Park Arena, a two-pad outdoor rink that was just a couple of miles from their home.
“I’ll never forget it,” Terry said of his first time on skates. “My dad pushed me out on the ice and I couldn’t skate. I wanted to get off, but he said, ‘No, you’ve been bugging me about buying you hockey sticks and a net. Just get out there and learn to skate.’ He wouldn’t let me off the ice. And by the end of the season, I could skate.”
Those two years playing house league for Cedar Hill were pretty idyllic for Terry, who was eight and nine at the time.
“Kids that age just want to play hockey and have fun,” Terry said. “It was completely innocent. I was a member of the Paul Willison Valiants. All of my teammates were white and I was Black and it didn’t matter to them or me. I was just one of the guys. We’d sit in the dressing room and laugh and have fun and I’d have other fathers on the team come up to me, pat me on the shoulder, ‘You go get ’em out there, Terry,’ and they would sit with my dad and drink hot coffee to stay warm. My dad had helped some of the other fathers buy houses and they appreciated that. I was accepted, my dad was accepted. You know how they talk about ‘hockey being for everyone’? Well, I look back on that time period and that’s when I felt hockey really was everyone’s game.”
The innocence and joy of those early years would soon be gone. It started in Terry’s third year of hockey when he moved up to a more competitive level of play, with the West Hill Rangers minor atom team that played in the Metro Toronto Hockey League (MTHL).
Terry started on defence, was more or less happy just to be there. Fairly early in the season, though, he recalled a game in which he saw an opening and took off with the puck and made a play. The coach was surprised at how well he could skate and encouraged him to keep taking off with the puck anytime the opportunity presented itself. So he did. He had the puck more and was having more of an impact on the games. His confidence grew, but so did resentment from some teammates and their parents.
“A couple of the guys wanted to be the stars, and all of a sudden I was being talked about,” Terry recalled. “People would say, ‘Look at number six, look at him fly.’ It was just normal jealousy that happens in hockey sometimes. I don’t believe it started out as racist, but I think it became that after parents started complaining to the coach. They would say, ‘Not him,’ and my father would respond, ‘What do you mean, not him?’ That’s when I would hear my mom and dad talking in hushed tones in the kitchen, and when I’d walk in, the conversation would stop. I’d ask them what they were talking about and they’d say, ‘Nothing you need to know. Just go play hockey and have fun.’”
Some teammates, who had seemed to embrace him at the beginning of the season, stopped talking to him, but there were others who remained his friends all season long. Terry said he was, at times, subjected to racial epithets from opposing players—including the N-word among other assorted slurs—but he’d also known he was going to get it because he was emerging as a pretty good player. If he hadn’t had the puck so much, he probably would have been insulted less.
There was more change coming for Terry. A couple of years before high school, his family moved farther east to a neighbourhood on the shores of Lake Ontario called Guildwood. Now, Guildwood would never be confused with, say, Rosedale, Toronto’s bastion of great wealth and status. But the Guildwood subdivision, including its landmark centrepiece, the storied Guild Inn, was widely recognized in Scarborough circles as a prestigious address.
Terry described living there as akin to “all this white paper and a couple of black dots.” The houses on either side of the Mercurys’ new home were a microcosm of the whole neighbourhood. The Mercurys lived at number 23. The Zimmermans were at number 21. Mrs. Zimmerman and Terry’s mom became best of friends. The family at number 25?
“Didn’t know them,” Terry said. “Never spoke to them, they never spoke to us. They wanted nothing to do with us. That’s just the way it was in that neighbourhood. Half spoke to us; half didn’t.”
In fact, a couple of weeks after the move, a neighbour showed Terry’s dad a scribbled note from a group of other neighbours who had discussed buying the Mercurys’ house so they wouldn’t have a Black family living on the street. The man said it was wrong and he wasn’t part of it, but he wanted my parents to be aware of what was going on. Terry’s dad explained to the kids that, “Some people, well, some people are like that.”
As Terry grew older, he started to be warier of his surroundings and was careful to keep his guard up. His father had a thick skin, but his mother was much more sensitive. Which is to say his dad was more likely not to be rattled by someone’s ignorance or respond to it; his mom was more likely to make an issue if she felt someone was out of line. Terry tended to lean more toward his mother’s temperament, but his dad would tell him, “Terry, it’s like getting mixed up with barbed wire, when you say something back to them, it only makes it worse; it gets them angrier.”
Once Terry got to his teen years, he knew himself that the social scene would present new complications. And his father sat him down and said, “Look, with parties and everything, it’s probably not for you.” Fortunately, he was more interested in sports than girls or parties and would often spend Saturday nights at Heron Park Arena playing pickup hockey. Terry knew he was also potentially saving himself from being in difficult spots, where racism was more likely to boil over than simmer, but with all that testosterone kicking in for him and his teammates, hockey wasn’t a total escape.
It was, as they say, the best of times and the worst of times. Mostly the worst, though. That was the story of Terry’s major bantam season, 1970–71, with West Hill in the MTHL.
He was playing centre now, not defence, and was the tallest player on the ice. He was also named the team captain. The coach began the season by telling him: “You’re the leader on this team. This team is going to go as far as you can take them.”
Statistically, it was quite likely his best season ever. In every other respect, it was misery.
“My happiest point of the year was when we were eliminated from the playoffs and it was over,” he said. “I was happy because I knew I would never have to go back into that dressing room again. It should have been a happy time for me. The Toronto Telegram
named them city all-stars and I remember seeing my name in the paper. My parents were so proud. But I just remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait for this to be over. This is really terrible.’”
The problem started with one teammate, whose father was a member of the right-wing John Birch Society, but it spread to others, creating a divided team. Terry was ostracized. Some teammates wouldn’t talk to him. If they did, it was to taunt him or antagonize him. Other players on the team were fine with Terry, but he never felt like they truly understood what he was going through. It wasn’t just that some of his teammates were making his life miserable, it was that he felt there were no consequences for the perpetrators. Instead, he was being portrayed as sullen and withdrawn, a kid with a chip on his shoulder, as if somehow he
was the problem. That was particularly true of his coaches.
“Here I am, I’m thirteen, just turning fourteen, a young teenage kid. And I’m being told, ‘Oh, just get over it.’ At thirteen or fourteen, are you capable of showing that kind of maturity to just ‘get over it’? You don’t have the articulation skills to tell people, ‘Look, this is what’s going on. This is what’s bugging me. This is what I hate.’ I couldn’t explain the frustration and the resentment I was feeling when other people got angry with me for being good.”
Or being Black.
Terry never felt as alone on a team as he did when that troublesome teammate taunted him with the N-word. “No teammate would tell the player, ‘No, you can’t say that.’ They would just stand there. And some of them enjoyed the conflict; I think they liked seeing me upset.” In a game in Leaside, even the referee called him the N-word. He came back to the bench extremely agitated and upset and explained to his coaches what was said. His winger on the ice backed him up, but his coaches told him to just let it go.
“That was such a bad year for me,” Terry said. “It really coloured my view of the hockey culture for a long time. But it never coloured my view of the game. Hockey is the best game in the world, but it bothered me that so many people—coaches and players—would stand around and let that happen. I mean, do they not see what’s wrong with this? I wasn’t asking them to be my best friend, I was just asking them to be my teammates.”
There was one ray of light that season and it came in the most surprising form: a tournament in Deerfield, Illinois, a well-to-do suburb just north of Chicago. The players on Terry’s team were going to be billeted with local families. Terry’s mom had grave concerns about letting Terry go—until she got a phone call ahead of time from Terry’s billet family in Deerfield.
“The family’s name was Boden,” Terry recalled. “Mrs. Boden called my mom and said: ‘I know your fears. I understand them. I get them. Terry will be safe with us. We will make sure that nothing happens to him.’”
The trip to Deerfield couldn’t have gone any better, on and off the ice. Terry scored four goals in the first game and was amazed when the opposing players sought him out to tell him what a great game he had played. Mrs. Boden was true to her word: Terry found a warm and welcoming family who treated him, and his dad, like royalty. Terry even went to a party with the Boden kids.
“There wasn’t one negative, not one,” Terry said of the trip. “I’ll never forget that.”
Terry went on to play four more years of organized hockey after his ill-fated major Bantam season, but that one year took its toll. When his next season ended with the Dorset Park Bruins, he was called up to play a few playoff games with the Pickering Panthers of the Metro Toronto Junior B Hockey League. He did well enough, but he knew he was losing interest in hockey.
Terry’s final year of high school at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate Institute was his final year playing hockey. It was his second season in the juvenile age group, a far cry from having the Toronto Telegram
honouring him as a city all-star in Bantam. Juvenile hockey was a fine enough place for seventeen- and eighteen-year olds to continue playing hockey for fun, but for any teenager with aspirations to playing at a higher level, well, juvenile is where hockey dreams go to die.
The next year, Terry was off to carve out a career in broadcasting at Scarborough’s Centennial College, where he also played on the varsity basketball team. He was asked to come out and play for the varsity hockey team, the Colts, but he declined. As did one of his classmates, a young man by the name of Paul Smithers.
Smithers is Black; biracial, actually. Just three years earlier on February 18, 1973, a racially charged on-ice dispute with a white player, Barry Cobby—Smithers was repeatedly being called the N-word by Cobby and opposing players and fans—had spilled over into the parking lot of Dixie Arena in Mississauga after the game. In the parking-lot fight, reportedly initiated by the sixteen-year-old Smithers, Cobby choked on his own vomit and died.
Smithers was found guilty of manslaughter, in a trial that got international attention, and was sentenced to six months in the minimum-security Brampton Adult Training Centre. It was reported that Smithers was the only Black player in the Mississauga midget league at the time; it was also reported that he was the best player in that league.
In 1976, Smithers was at Centennial College with Terry Mercury.
“The Colts wanted me to play hockey,” Terry said. “And they wanted Paul to play, too. Paul told me, ‘I don’t play hockey anymore, I don’t even play floor hockey. I just stay away from the game altogether.’ Paul and I sat down and had a couple of long talks. I could understand where he was coming from.”
Lindbergh Gonsalves’s hockey journey began at eight or nine years old when he went pleasure skating on the then-brand-new outdoor rink at Nathan Phillips Square in the forecourt of City Hall. For a young kid from Antigua, it was a very Canadian thing to do—no, check that, a very Toronto thing to do.
“I didn’t know much about hockey,” Lin recalled. “I just saw the kids skating at the playground in the wintertime. I wanted to try that. So my dad got me brand-new skates. I would skate at the park, at the school, and I would venture out to other places, like City Hall. Everyone wanted to go skating at City Hall.”
As Lin was zigzagging through all the people at the rink, he was approached by a man named Mr. Mills.
“Do you play hockey?” he asked Lin.
“No,” Lin replied.
“Would you like to?”
He took Lin’s number and got in touch with his dad, and that’s how Lin started playing hockey with the Toronto Olympics house league out of St. Mike’s Arena.
None of that would have happened without Lin’s maternal grandmother, Melanie Charles, who was responsible for bringing the Gonsalves family to Toronto in 1958. Melanie emigrated to Canada earlier in the 1950s and arranged for her daughter Naomi and son-in-law Alphonso to follow her. Lin was just two years old. He and his younger brother Bert were born in Antigua; his sister Debbie and brother Greg were born in Toronto, where his father worked as a longshoreman at the Toronto docks, and his mother got a job at Bell Canada.
They first moved into an apartment above Sherman’s Hardware on Queen West, just a few blocks from City Hall. Lin doesn’t remember feeling particularly singled out for being Black or an immigrant.
“I don’t recall any kids of colour at my school then,” Lin said. “There were one or two Chinese kids I can remember. I never had any problems there. We were all so small, right? Little kids, little kids that age, they don’t know hatred.”
Partway through Lin’s elementary school years, the family moved east to Regent Park, the large public housing development in the three-city-block square east of Parliament Street and north of Queen. As early as the 1900s, when Regent Park was populated by mostly English and Irish immigrants, it was known as a poor, tough, and hardscrabble area of the city. In the 1960s, when the Gonsalves family arrived, there was a huge influx of visible minorities; it was one of the few spots in the city with affordable housing.
“There were a lot of Black people, so there were no issues with racism,” he said, chuckling. “But we weren’t there long, maybe a year and a half. My grandmother and mother, they were the ambitious type. They wanted to get out of there.”
And they did. The Gonsalves family was off to quite-white Scarborough.
Moving onto Packard Boulevard, Lin wasn’t the only Black kid at St. Andrew’s Public School. There was Dan Thompson (Terry Mercury’s cousin), Brian Bush, and Phil Knight, but he still had to fight, literally, to stake out his new territory.
“It was just about all white,” Lin said of his grade-five and grade-six school years at St. Andrew’s. “When I went to St. Andrew’s, the first guy I had a problem with was Dwight Foster. He was bugging my younger brother because they were in the same grade. My brother told me, ‘This guy named Dee-wight, he keeps bugging me, man.’ So, you know, I had to pay a visit to Dee-wight. I just, kind of like, told him to leave my brother alone. And, yeah, we had a scuffle.” At that point, Lin paused to have a really good, long laugh. “Oh, yeah, we had a scuffle, for sure. You know what? That’s what it takes sometimes to make friends. Yeah, I truly believe that’s what it takes to make friends.”
Dwight Foster and Lin did become friends. Fifty years later, they’re still friends and they see each other once or twice a year along with some other St. Andrew’s classmates.
For 1956-born hockey players from Scarborough, Dwight Foster was a very big deal. Which is kind of funny, because Foster was actually born in 1957, but he always played up a year against those born in ’56. He was that good. Foster was a big-time player for the Toronto Red Wings of the MTHL. He was the man—fast, strong, powerful, and skilled. He was the guy everyone else used as a measuring stick, a rival, someone to do battle with, as Lin did in the schoolyard and on the ice.
The kicker, of course, is that Foster went on to play in the NHL. He played four years with the OHA Junior A Kitchener Rangers and remains the franchise’s leading scorer of all time. He was selected in the first round, sixteenth overall, by the Boston Bruins in the 1977 NHL amateur draft. He went on to play more than five hundred NHL games with Boston, Colorado, New Jersey, and Detroit.
Foster wasn’t the only guy Lin got into it with. Far from it. There were a lot of beefs, a lot of scores to be settled.
“Kids are insensitive. They say stupid stuff sometimes. I won’t lie, yes, yes, I was in a lot of fights,” he said, punctuating his words with a hearty laugh. “Sure, some kids would use the N-word or stuff like that. They would try to intimidate us because we were different. They would say, ‘What are you doing here?’ Because some of them had never seen Black guys before. So, yeah, I got into my fair share of scraps at school.”
Though Lin never grew to be any taller than five-foot-seven and weigh more than 165 pounds, as a kid who was entering his teens, he was fearsomely powerful, strong, and well built. He was a physical specimen, far more athletic and physically mature than most of the kids his age. And, as evidenced by his fight card, competitive and fearless, too.
Small wonder then that he quickly developed as a hockey player, rocketing past the other kids in the Toronto Olympics house league program. He and his parents were a little miffed that Lin didn’t get elevated to play rep hockey for the Olympics, but in Pee Wee, at age twelve, he did get to play for an Olympics all-star entry in the season-ending King Clancy tournament.
Lin’s team lost in overtime against a much more highly regarded MTHL team, the Agincourt Canadians, sponsored by Horton’s Spice Mills and coached by Tom Horton Sr., but Lin made an impression on Horton. Immediately following that season, Horton showed up at the Toronto docks to convince Alphonso Gonsalves that his son should play with the Horton’s Spice Mills Canadians in the coming minor Bantam season.
“I don’t know how he found my dad but he must have scoured the city,” Lin said. “He told my dad, ‘I want your son on my team.’” It was a seminal moment for Lin Gonsalves. “For me, Tom Horton was the greatest coach in the world. He was so good to me. My dad was working a lot and my mom didn’t drive, so Tom drove me to nine out of every ten games and practices. I loved that guy.”
After minor Bantam, Tom Horton moved his sponsorship over to the Toronto Red Wings and Lin went right along with him for the following seasons. Lin was playing with and against the top players in the city, doing well, having fun, and completely supported by the head coach. It was joy to play on those Horton-coached teams because there was never any issue with any teammates. Lin was just one of the guys, fully embraced and accepted. But he did get a rough ride from opposing players and teams. Was it because he was Black? Or because he was a better-than-average player?
“Let’s say it was both,” Lin said. “Sometimes I would look across the ice to the other bench and I’d see the coaches telling their guys, ‘You gotta get that guy,’ because maybe I just finished scoring a goal. But things were said, too. All the usual stuff about being Black. It wasn’t always easy for me. But my team was great. We stuck together, we helped one another. Tom would see the stuff happening and notice I was down a bit and he’d say, ‘C’mon, no problem, don’t worry.’ He picked me back up. Such a great guy, a great motivator. He had my back all the time.”
Lin wasn’t just a very good hockey player; he was a very good multi-sport athlete. He played baseball for Scarborough Village and soccer for the Scarborough Spurs; he ran track and did pole vault at school; he loved football and excelled at it, too.
Meanwhile, he was progressing up the ranks in hockey. He didn’t grow as tall or big as others, but he was still very athletic. He played for the Toronto Red Wings Butter Beeps midgets and then the Red Wings Metro Junior B team, but hockey took a decided turn for the worse once he got to Junior B, at age sixteen and seventeen.
“It was harder for me,” Lin said. “The guys on the team, they had already been there for a while. I was a rookie coming in. It was a whole new game. I just never felt comfortable either because I wasn’t as welcome as I had been on my other teams.” It wasn’t necessarily overt racism, Lin said. Call it whatever you want, but he wasn’t well accepted by his own teammates. “The guys on that team weren’t very receptive to me. I guess it was because I was the only Black guy there and they didn’t know me at all. I lost that feeling of being on a team. Then I lost my drive. That junior team took all the wind out of my sails. Hockey wasn’t the same for me after that.”
Lin still played some juvenile hockey, as well as soccer and junior football, first with the Woburn Wildcats and then as a running back for the Oshawa Hawkeyes in the high-level (under twenty-three) Ontario Junior Football League. He said he was on the verge of getting a tryout with the CFL Toronto Argonauts but a badly dislocated shoulder snuffed that out. He still managed to find some bright spots in hockey as a teenager, including a team trip to Newfoundland that he’ll never forget.
“I loved Newfoundland,” he said. “I love those Newfies. They welcomed us into their homes. They are the greatest, friendliest people on earth. No racism. None. That was one of the best experiences I ever had playing hockey. I’ll never forget it.”
Once Lin graduated high school and got into his twenties—his shoulder issue ended his competitive football days—he quickly settled into a workingman’s life. His job was in production at an automotive parts company, one he would hold for thirty-three years before retiring. While he was working, he was still playing a lot of sports, including the weekend-warrior competitive Metro (Toronto) Touch Football League. He still played some men’s league hockey, too. He was one of the better players. Which meant, men’s hockey being men’s hockey, it would sometimes get a little stupid.
“Some idiot ran me into the boards and screwed up my back,” Lin recalled. “I had to miss a month of work. My boss, Randy, called me into the office and told me, ‘You gotta quit playing hockey. You should referee hockey.’ Randy was a ref. He said, ‘Trust me, you’ll make some nice money, you’ll stay involved in the game, and you won’t miss work because you’re injured.’”
Lin hated the idea. Randy kept pestering him. Finally, Lin succumbed, took the certification course, and was assigned a little kids’ game. He loathed every minute of it. One of the coaches never stopped yelling at him. Did he think it might have been racially motivated?
“Who knows?” he said, laughing. “Probably was, but all referees get yelled at, right?”
As he was taking off his skates, fully intending to never officiate another game, the referee supervisor for the league came in, Norm Belyea. Lin told him he was quitting. “I was so pissed. But Norm, who was a great guy, talked me through it. If it wasn’t for Norm, I would have never refereed another game.”
Instead, Lin went on to officiate hundreds if not thousands of minor hockey games. He did little kids to high-end AAA minor midget games in the MTHL. He got to see and officiate games involving many future NHLers, including some of the young Black players currently starring in pro hockey. He recalled one game in particular, the finals of the Toronto Marlies Christmas tourney, when he called a penalty shot in the final minute and the resulting goal gave P. K. Subban’s team a win over John Tavares’s Marlie team.
Lin had rediscovered his passion for hockey, this time in the black-and-white world of an on-ice official.
He got used to the verbal abuse, didn’t overly concern himself about whether it was racially motivated or just the normal by-product of the job and/or the idiocy of minor hockey coaches and parents. But that isn’t to say racism didn’t rear its ugly head.
Lin was asked to fill in as a last-minute replacement linesman for a Junior A game at Herb Carnegie North York Centennial Arena. The other linesman he would be working with hadn’t been told about the switch until Lin showed up. It was clear to Lin that he didn’t like that, or him. The rest of the officiating crew that day, which included venerable veteran ref Ralph Sparks, something of an amateur zebra legend, welcomed Lin with open arms. But not this one fellow linesman. Lin has no doubt the issue was racial.
“Some people—not all of them, not many of them, really—are just like that,” Lin said. “When you grow up with it, you just learn how to deflect it and move on.”
Being the same age and growing up at the same time in Scarborough, I can identify with many things in the lives of Terry Mercury and Lindbergh Gonsalves.
Terry moved to Scarborough at age four; I moved there at three. Lindbergh’s house was less than two kilometres from mine; his school, St. Andrew’s, was barely a ten-minute walk from my home. Lindbergh and his friends played in the same open fields and forest on the north side of Ellesmere Avenue, now home to the Scarborough Town Centre, as I did with my friends.
Our parents all held down jobs: Terry’s dad in real estate, his mom at Bell; Lindbergh’s dad as a stevedore, his mom also at Bell; my dad, Bob Sr., on the production line at de Havilland Aircraft, my mom, Maureen, in the service department of Golden Mile Chevrolet. They all had dreamed of buying their first homes, which they did in Scarborough.
And of course, the three of us had hockey in common. We all spent every waking moment of our childhoods skating and playing the game. Terry’s first two years of minor hockey, with Cedar Hill, were played at McGregor Park Arena. My first two years, with Dorset Park, were also played there. Terry, Lindbergh, and I played games against each other.
Dwight Foster, to varying degrees, was a presence in all our lives. Foster was a hockey rival to Terry; he was at first a schoolyard foe, then a schoolyard friend/rival/teammate to Lindbergh. I got to know Dwight, if only superficially, because my good pal Ron Walker played on the Red Wings with him, and Dwight would come over to Ron’s house on occasion and we would horse around together.
Yet, for all those shared experiences, there were two things I’d never be able to relate to. One, they were better-than-average hockey players; I was not. Two, they were Black; I was not.
The former caused me what little angst I would experience in minor hockey; the latter meant the vast majority of my minor hockey experiences were positive, if not idyllic, unlike Terry and Lindbergh’s.
After two years in the Dorset Park House League, I moved up and played two more with the Agincourt Lions in the SHA. Both experiences were great. In Pee Wee, I played for the Scarborough Lions in a four-team division of the MTHL. It wasn’t the highest calibre—my team didn’t play against Dwight Foster’s Red Wings, for example—but it was a big step up for me.
On the way to Pee Wee tryouts, my dad would often have to pull the car over to the side of the road so I could throw up. I was worried sick that I wasn’t good enough; I was also concerned that Pee Wee hockey was getting a lot more physical. Let’s just say I wasn’t a naturally aggressive or confident kid.
I got by. And it was, all things considered, a pretty good year. My coach was Bob Park, the father of Hall of Fame defenceman Brad Park, who was just breaking into the NHL then. Brad would come out to tryouts and practices when he could. That was cool. We got to go to the 1969 Quebec International Peewee tournament. That was very
Given my lack of confidence at these higher levels and my timidity, I’m not sure what possessed me to try out for the Agincourt Canadians, a team that did play at the top level, but I did. I made the team. It was coached and sponsored by Tom Horton Sr.
Lindbergh Gonsalves and I were teammates.
“We were teammates?” Lindbergh said with a cackle when I told him. “I didn’t know that. Small world.”
The reason Lindbergh didn’t remember me was that we were only teammates for a few weeks. I was in over my head. I lacked confidence. I was playing soft. Tom Horton called my parents to tell them I was being released.
I was devastated. Hurt, embarrassed, you name it. But this
was as much hardship as I would ever face in minor hockey.
The long and short of it is that I went all the way back to the Cedar Hill House League for a couple of years, where I was one of the best players. My confidence soared at the lower level. When one of my friends’ dads was entering a team into the MTHL minor midget division, and a bunch of my pals were playing on it, I made my rep hockey comeback. There was a moment of truth in an early season game when my old “friend,” fear, returned. I decided that I either had to quit competitive hockey that night or go back out on the ice and overcome my fears. Inexplicably, a switch went off. I never took another backward step.
My yips were gone. I hit; I got hit. I fought and lost a lot, but I showed up. I went on to enjoy a great six-year run: two years in midget; two years in juvenile; and even two years in intermediate—you really had to love hockey to play intermediate. As far as juvenile hockey goes, I found my niche as a pretty good late bloomer and those years were the most fun I ever had playing the game.
My journey was the very opposite of that of Terry Mercury and Lindbergh Gonsalves, who played out the string in juvenile, robbed of their passion for the game. The difference could not have been more black-and-white.
Five decades later, it wasn’t difficult to find Terry Mercury and Lin Gonsalves.
If you listen to Sirius/XM satellite radio in Canada, you have probably heard the dulcet tones of Mercury, doing sports updates, among other assignments, on multiple sports and information channels there. He’s been a sports or business broadcaster for much of his life, with stops in Cambridge, Kitchener, and Toronto.
Terry now lives with his wife, Esther, in the Don Mills area of North York. He has one daughter, Samantha, from a previous marriage. His minor hockey teammates who may have found him quiet and withdrawn as a kid might be surprised at how warm, open, and naturally conversational he is now. He’s a big man, six-foot-three, thicker now than the towering beanpole I remember, though he could say the same about me and my five-foot-nine frame.
As for Lin, it was probably twenty years ago, while at a minor hockey tournament of my son’s in Toronto, that I saw a referee with GONSALVES on his nameplate. A Black referee. It had to be the same Lindbergh Gonsalves I remembered as a kid, and, of course, it was. Armed with that recollection, after I’d reached out to the Greater Toronto Hockey League office, it was easy to find Lin in 2020.
Lin now lives in the Morningside-Sheppard area of Scarborough, with his wife, Elizabeth, and their son, Leondre. Lin also has a daughter, Lisa, from his first marriage. He’s been retired from his automotive parts company job for five years. Now he drives a school bus—Leondre is one of his passengers each day—and he stays extremely busy refereeing a lot of boys’ and girls’ hockey.
Lin is easygoing, quick to smile, prone to long, loud laughs, and, at his current height and weight of five-foot-seven and 165 pounds, he seems much smaller and slighter than I remember him, but he still gives off a lean athletic vibe, very much unlike his inquisitor.
Terry and Lin couldn’t have been more open to taking this trip down memory lane, relating their childhood experiences in detail—painful as some of them were—and offering some adult perspective on them. As they shared their stories, it was obvious that, out of everything they went through, the racism and exclusion they experienced at the hands of their own teammates scarred them the most, and the fact that it went unacknowledged hurt—it still hurts.
“Even now,” Terry said. “I’ll come across someone I played with and they’ll say, ‘I remember playing with you, you didn’t talk to anyone.’ How could you not know? Could you not see the look on my face? How could you not hear those words? That’s what makes me angry now. They said I had a chip on my shoulder. Teachers at school even said that about me. Could they all not see what was being said to me, how I was being treated? I went from being exasperated to upset to angry. It took time but I got better at articulating what my anger was about. It’s one thing if you’re my teammate and you see what’s going on and take the path of least resistance, you choose
to not stand up and say something. I get that. Not everyone will put themselves out there. But when you tell me it’s not happening or it didn’t happen? That’s when I get really angry.”
It’s hard not to look back and think about how things might have been. Both Terry and Lin wonder how far they might have gone in hockey if they hadn’t lost their passion for the game.
“Could I have had a career in hockey?” Terry wondered. “Could I have had a shot? I remember playing against Dwight Foster. I had people tell me I was better than him. Was I? I don’t know, but I never gave it a shot. That’s the one thing I regret. I might not have been good enough, but I would have liked to find out, you know, rather than walk away. Now? I look back and see how silly it was to be resentful. I chose to walk away from hockey. They didn’t chase me out. I chose to go. That’s on me. That’s one of the reasons I admire people like Tony McKegney or Jarome Iginla or Wayne Simmonds [Terry’s second cousin]. They pushed through. Wayne had something that I maybe didn’t have enough of—fire in the gut.”
Lin echoed that sentiment: “I’ll tell you, man, I’m not going to lie. If it wasn’t for the year in Junior B, I don’t know where I might have ended up with hockey. Those guys killed me. Yeah, man, they really killed me. Hockey was never the same for me after that… If I had to do it all over again, I would have stuck with it, tried to make it to the pros. You know why? Dwight Foster, because of my pal Dwight. He sticks in my mind because I was as good or better than him. He kept going. I didn’t. Trust me, if you’re a white guy, you’re going to have it easier than a Black guy. Back then anyway. But I will say this: Dwight was really dedicated to hockey. The Red Wings had a summer camp up north. Dwight went to that all the time. I was asked to go. I didn’t go. I was playing too many other sports, soccer and football. I wasn’t 24/7 hockey, like Dwight was, like kids are today. When I went to junior, you had to be disciplined, you had to do things exactly this way for the coach, turn this way or do that. It was a big jump for me, a big change from playing for Tom Horton, who was really laid-back. I didn’t like it. I wasn’t disciplined. You know, I was on my own. I had no one to tell me. No one to blame, but I wish I knew then what I know now. Because I was better than Dwight.”
And with that, Lin let out a good, long laugh, something the old St. Andrew’s classmates can talk about when they next cruise the Toronto harbour on their annual summer reunion.
When I was growing up in Scarborough, Ontario, my family was working class, same as everyone else. My family life, though, was by no means easy, so I can honestly say I never felt privileged. But I like to think that over the course of my life, I’ve been able to figure out the difference between not growing up “privileged” but still growing up with “white privilege.”
I was an only child, but that was because my mom was afflicted with severe rheumatoid arthritis when I was one. Having any more children for her was out of the question. Rheumatoid arthritis is a cruel, vicious, debilitating, crippling disease that attacks the joints and causes swelling, intense pain, and often disfigurement. This was especially true back in the 1950s and 1960s. My mom had surgery on at least fifteen to twenty occasions and pretty much every joint in her body was red, swollen, and/or severely disfigured. She was, every minute of every day I knew her, racked with pain. Yet for a good many years, she still managed to drive herself to the car dealership where she worked full-time. She eventually ended up in a wheelchair for the last fourteen years of her life and, quite suddenly really, died of complications from this dreaded disease at the age of fifty-nine in 1992.
That made my dad’s life very tough, too. In addition to working his job and taking care of me when my mom was working nights, he had to be a caregiver to her. When she had to quit her job because of her arthritis, he had to take on a second job. In those fourteen years my mom was in a wheelchair, my dad’s job as a caregiver was as full-time as his job at de Havilland. It was not an easy or joyous life for him. Or her.
In spite of the hand my parents were dealt, I grew up in a loving, caring family. My parents went out of their way to support me in all my endeavours, but especially, as a kid, playing minor hockey. They showed me the way—work ethic, sacrifice, commitment, and love. No time for pity parties. Everyone has a sad story. Onward and upward. No surrender.
That’s how I was raised. And it was anything but privileged. But there’s obviously a huge difference between my childhood and Terry’s and Lin’s. And that’s white privilege.
White privilege isn’t so much about what things in life you had to overcome as much as it is all the things you didn’t
have to overcome, simply because you are white in a predominantly white community. I never had to fight because of the colour of my skin. I was never harassed or excluded by my teammates because I was white. Outside of some confidence issues I had, minor hockey was mostly fun and welcoming for me. I was never ever made to feel like an outsider. Because I was white.
The very first time I had any inkling of white privilege was back in 1967, when I was eleven years old, in grade six at Bendale Public School. Our class that year read Black Like Me
by John Howard Griffin, published in 1961 and later made into a movie. It was the story of a white American journalist from Texas who temporarily altered the pigment of his skin to effectively become a Black man and travelled through the Deep South—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia—in 1959. A jarring social science experiment, that book left a lasting impression on me at such a young age simply because of the virulence of the racism it described.
When I was talking to Terry Mercury and Lin Gonsalves about what it was like for them as Black children playing hockey and living in Scarborough in the 1960s, I couldn’t help but think back to Black Like Me
; I couldn’t help but confront my own white privilege.
When Terry and Lin say they think they maybe could have played pro hockey, that they felt they were as good if not better than Dwight Foster, I could easily lapse into my job as a hockey analyst. I could be the utter pragmatist, maybe even cynically tell them, “Take a number; the road is littered with guys who coulda, woulda, shoulda played pro hockey if not for this or that.” I could tell them that Dwight Foster was a year younger than them; that he always
played at the highest competitive level and they didn’t; that he was more disciplined than Lin, bigger than Lin, and more consistent than Terry; and that there’s probably a trail of 1956-born white hockey players telling their friends they were as good or better than Dwight Foster, too. “That’s hockey.”
I could say all that, and I obviously considered some of those thoughts, because that’s how I’m wired to do my job, to break things down. But you know what? I wouldn’t tell them that. It’s not my place to do so. Because for me, as a white man, it’s utterly incomprehensible to feel
what it’s like to have your passion and love of the game stripped bare from you for no other reason than the colour of your skin. That’s not
hockey. Or at least it shouldn’t have been, though it was for them.
Maybe Terry and Lin are right. Maybe under different circumstances, they could have played pro. Who am I to say? Who is anyone to say? It’s their story to tell; it’s their truth. I’m sure as hell not the guy to try to take that away from them, not after they had so much stolen from them as teenagers.
It’s an incredible testament to both men that they have handled everything as well as they have. That qualifies them as everyday hockey heroes. They are indeed pioneers who helped pave the way for future generations of young Black kids from Scarborough to overcome their own experiences with racism. Some of them even made it to the NHL.
A favourite saying of mine over the years is: never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.
I feel that’s especially fitting as it relates to Terry Mercury and Lindbergh Gonsalves, even if I didn’t take that walk, so to speak, until some fifty years after the fact.Terry Mercury
is a broadcaster on Sirius/XM Canada satellite radio. He lives in North York, Ontario, with his wife, Esther.Lindbergh Gonsalves
is a retired automotive parts worker, who currently referees and drives a school bus. He lives in Scarborough, Ontario, with his wife, Elizabeth, and their son, Leondre.