For University of Toronto graduate Dean Barnes, a hockey card collection that began as a pandemic hobby took on new significance after the murder of George Floyd and subsequent calls for justice.
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education alumnus initially intended to complete a card set with a Wayne Gretzky rookie card but shifted his focus to collecting cards of Black NHL players.
Barnes, a superintendent of education at Halton District School Board, says he chose to collect Black hockey players' cards to highlight players who have arguably not received due recognition.
“When I started collecting, I recognized the availability of buying the cards and was deeply inspired to purchase more and more cards to add to the collection,” said Barnes, who earned his doctorate with OISE’s department of curriculum, teaching and learning in 2014. “The driving force, as I got into it, was to amplify and recognize players who should be celebrated for such an accomplishment that may not have been highlighted before – the significance of playing at least one NHL game.”
The collection includes a card for Willie O'Ree, who became the first Black NHL player when he made his debut for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens in 1958. It also includes Hockey Hall of Famers Grant Fuhr (goalkeeper during the Edmonton Oilers' glory years in the 1980s) and Jarome Iginla, as well as lesser known names such as winger Bill Riley (Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets) and Alton White, the only Black player who featured in the now-defunct World Hockey Association.
Darren Lowe, a U of T alumnus and longtime former U of T Varsity Blues Men’s hockey coach who played for Canada’s Olympic Team and the Pittsburgh Penguins (in the 1983-84 season), is also in the collection.
The public will get a chance to view Barnes's collection as part of the NHL's Black Hockey History Tour. The cards will be on display at Maple Leaf Square (15 York Street) before the Maple Leafs-Jets game today, from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. It will also be shown at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute on Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
As an undergraduate, Barnes played for the University of Waterloo hockey team in the 1989-90 season. Here, he is pictured at an alumni hockey game at the former Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton.
Barnes built up his collection quickly, starting by cross-referencing lists of Black players with listings of cards on eBay. Some players featured so briefly in the league that Barnes had to get creative. For Val James, the first American-born Black NHL player, he commissioned an independent card manufacturer in P.E.I. to make a playing card.
Barnes's two daughters also helped build a website for the collection and publicized it on social media.
After the NHL cast a spotlight on Barnes' collection, he's heard from past and present hockey players who have offered to contribute. He's now interested in expanding the collection to focus on Black players’ contributions to Canadian junior hockey leagues and U.S. college hockey.
“I'm an educator and I wanted to share this important history with others and create an opportunity for people to learn more about these players,” said Barnes.
Barnes played hockey at the University of Waterloo during the 1989-90 season before beginning his doctoral studies at OISE and working as an administrator.
Under the tutelage of faculty Kathy Bickmore, Tara Goldstein and Lance McCready – his PhD supervisors – Barnes’ dissertation focused on the potential of restorative peacemaking circles. That doctoral work signalled commitments to justice issues that he brought to his role as an administrator, particularly as a principal, and while leading a welcome centre for newcomers and international students, says David Montemurro, Barnes’ colleague on OISE’s teacher education advisory committee.
“Throughout these connections, I have really appreciated his affable, kindly and clear commitments to creating concrete strategies to support students,” says Montemurro, an associate professor, teaching stream in the department of curriculum, teaching and learning.
Keen to maintain connections with OISE, Barnes reached out to Montemurro with an idea to create an innovative high school credit to promote post-secondary pathways for racialized and Indigenous students. “This led to his support of the master of teaching program’s Access Pathways for Black Educators initiative, where the high school credit has become an outreach opportunity with U of T Mississauga, and the Halton, Peel and Toronto school boards,” Montemurro says.
“Dean has been a longstanding advocate for marginalized students disproportionally impacted by negative experiences in schools, and brings a consistent, caring and critical eye to building opportunities for their success.”
Barnes says he hopes the exhibit teaches people about the long history of Black players in the NHL. “When I have shared [my card collection] with people, whether they're a person of colour or not, there's been a bit of an a-ha moment like, ‘Well, I actually didn't know there were that many players who played,’” he says, noting the need for more representation in hockey from the pros on down.
“Ultimately, I am hoping my card collection will raise awareness and encourage future conversations about the importance of diversity, inclusion and acceptance, in the game of hockey at all levels – from minor hockey though to the pro levels.”