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Grant Fuhr praises Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds and talks diversity in the NHL

The league legend is excited about Simmonds repeating as NHL All-Star MVP and his shot at greatness

Feb. 4 marked the 31st anniversary of former Edmonton Oiler Grant Fuhr’s selection as the 1986 NHL All-Star Game MVP — making him the first black hockey player to receive the recognition — after saving all 15 shots on goal.

Fuhr’s list of groundbreaking accomplishments is extensive: He was the first black goalie in the league, first black Stanley Cup champion (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1990), first black NHL All-Star (1982, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1989), and first and only black player in the Hall of Fame (2003).

The eighth-overall pick in the 1981 NHL draft, Fuhr, now 54, came to Edmonton at age 18 via the Victoria Cougars major junior team in the Western Hockey League. He played 10 seasons in his hometown, and in his third season in the league, he set the record for points scored by a goalie in a single season (14), all on assists. Fuhr’s 46 career points make him third among goalies behind Tom Barrasso (48) and Martin Brodeur (47).

The Spruce Grove, Alberta, native captured his only Vezina Trophy, which is awarded to the league’s best goaltender, after the 1987-88 season, in which he played 4,304 minutes in 75 games, made 2,061 saves, won 40 games, and his four shutouts that season were a personal best. He led the league in each of those statistics except for the last. When Fuhr, who finished with 403 total victories, reached his 400th win with the Calgary Flames, he was the sixth goalie to do so at the time.

All of these accolades culminated in Fuhr making an appearance at the 62nd NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles on Jan. 29 to be recognized as one of the NHL’s 100 greatest players.

Another treat for Fuhr, and the fans who packed a sold-out Staples Center, was watching Philadelphia Flyers right wing Wayne Simmonds play in his first All-Star Game, record a hat trick in Metropolitan Division’s 4-3 win over the Pacific Division and also become the second black player to be awarded the NHL All-Star Game MVP.

Fuhr talked with The Undefeated about what he likes about Simmonds’ game, how he felt winning MVP and how diversity can improve in the NHL:

Is it accurate to say that race didn’t affect your ability to play hockey?

It’s definitely an accurate statement. I think playing in Canada as a whole there’s not nearly as much division racewise as there is in the United States. So I think playing my first 12 1/2, 13 years in Canada right out of the gate was a bonus when it came to that. Never saw it, never had to deal with it.

Why do you think it’s not as much of a big deal to just not being a big deal in Canada?

I think the big thing is they treat you as a hockey player, first and foremost, from the time you’re 3 to 4 years old. Everything else is secondary, whereas in the States, I think they see it more on a color basis. It’s considered a white man’s game, when in Canada it’s considered everybody’s game. It’s changing in the States. I think you’re seeing that more and more.

Do you feel like part of the reason hockey hasn’t grown as much (among black players) is because people are too focused on who’s supposed to play what sport instead of participating in a game they would enjoy otherwise?

I think it’s part of why it’s developed slow. I think that in the last seven, eight years, the NHL has made a concentrated effort with the diversity program and that hockey is for everyone and getting the game out in front of everyone.

In addition to what the NHL is doing, is it about people stepping outside of their comfort zone?

I think that’s a lot of it. You just have to trust that the game is comfortable for everybody and have everybody enjoy the game. It’s just like society: Everyone has to become comfortable in their own skin is the biggest thing. People are becoming more and more comfortable with it.

You were the only black person listed on the NHL 100. What did it mean making the list and did it matter that you were the only black person?

It’s a great honor to make the list. One, as a hockey player, two as a black person. I think the secondary thing is, it’s not just me. It’s people like Willie O’Ree, Tony McKegney, Mike Marson and a lot of the guys before me. It’s kind of a justification for all the guys, that it’s possible and doable and they kind of laid the groundwork.

Did you get a chance to watch Wayne Simmonds at the All-Star Game?

I did. I’m actually a big fan of his.

Why and what do you think of his game?

I like the way he plays the game. He plays a hard, physical game that’s got some skill involved in it. You got to see how talented he is, where it’s not so much the hard physical part, but you got to see the skilled side of him, which I think a lot of people hadn’t seen that side of him. He plays the game the right way — he plays it hard, physical and a good, honest game. He’s a great kid, so that’s a bonus.

How much have you gotten to interact with him? Did you get a chance to speak to or congratulate him at the All-Star Game?

Not a lot, unfortunately. I haven’t really had a chance to spend a lot of time with him. Unfortunately, no [I didn’t get to speak to him]. But I plan to catch up with him when he comes out west or I sneak out to the east.

If you’d spoken to him, what would you have said about winning the MVP, his play or his time in the NHL?

I would tell him congratulations, and I hope it lasts for another 15 years. Obviously, the way he plays the game is fantastic, and I think it’s a great way for kids to watch how he plays the game and watch how he carries himself. Between Wayne, you have P.K. Subban, there’s a lot of good players for black kids to idolize.

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.