Hank Taylor

Minnesota Hockey Trailblazer

When we think about Minnesota hockey history and the legends that forged it, names like John Mariucci, John Mayasich, and Herb Brooks pop into our heads. When we think about Minnesota professional hockey history, names like Walter Bush, Bill Goldsworthy or Lou Nanne also come to mind.


But what about Hank Taylor?


Taylor was the first black person to try out for a major Minnesota professional hockey organization.


You’re probably thinking, “Wait, wasn’t it Tony McKegney?”. 


I grew up thinking that too.  McKegney was a Canadian forward who played with the North Stars in parts of 3 seasons from December 1984 to November 1986. But McKegney wasn’t even the first black player on an official North Stars roster.  Dirk Graham (also Canadian) played his first game with the North Stars in February 1984, making him the first person of African descent to play a regular season game for a major Minnesota hockey team. 

To tell the story of Hank Taylor, let’s rewind back to January 18, 1958.


Willie O’Ree, a forward from Fredericton, New Brunswick, is called up by the Boston Bruins to play in a 3-0 victory at Montreal. O’Ree becomes the first black player in the history of the NHL, blazing a trail for future black players like Mike Marson, Grant Fuhr, Val James, McKegney, Graham etc….

About the same time as O’Ree was making his NHL debut in 1958, a young man by the name of Henry Taylor (Hank as he prefers to be called) was growing up in Berkeley, California. Born in 1955, Taylor, one of six siblings, recalls his older brothers being into hockey and naturally he became interested in the sport too.

<---Photo of O'Ree  https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-calgary-albertan/129076253/ 

Taylor Interview clip: "You gotta work."

“We were always into any sport. We tried basketball. We played football. We played baseball.”, Taylor said.  “There was an ice rink about 5 blocks away from our home.” “My oldest brother and his friend saw there was ice skating, so they tried it. And they kind of liked it. And then they saw in the ice rink, a sign that said, ‘hockey sign-ups’.  They tried it. Got interested in it. Loved it. And of course, my next oldest brother got into it. And I got into it. My younger brother got into it.” “All four of us were playing hockey at one time.“


Growing up in California, and wanting to be a hockey player, he felt at a disadvantage to what kids were probably doing in Minnesota or Massachusetts to train. So they invented ways to work on their skills and athleticism. They would play roller skate hockey on pavement to get their “ice time” in. 

You read that right. Roller skates. This was well before roller blades became popular. 

The boys ran or rode their bikes up the steepest hill in Berkeley. They trained themselves to ride unicycles to improve their balance, even playing a pick up hockey game… on unicycles. He remembers once, riding his unicycle to the local high school with a bag of pucks where he would use the school's indoor racquetball courts to shoot pucks at the wall.

Taylor began to play in the Berkeley youth organization, which he said was a strong organization compared to surrounding communities.  however, there were a few other organizations in the San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Belmont communities that they would compete against.  The reason the Berkeley organization was so strong was because of the rink’s hockey director, a Canadian named Frank Rowley. In addition to working at the rink, Rowley also worked at California Seals games and would get Taylor and his friends into the arena to watch. Taylor recalls seeing, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita play, but adds that Mikita was his favorite.  The visiting NHL teams would sometimes use the Berkeley rink for practice and Taylor recalls “cutting school” to go watch.  

Rowley also ran a summer hockey camp 1000 miles north in Nelson, British Columbia. When Taylor was 12 years old he started attending the camp. It was staffed with NHL coaches, and held two-a-day practices that Taylor describes as “intense”.  But that intensity is what he credits with his improvement. 


The camp would host Saturday night games that scouts would attend, and that’s how he got noticed. When he was 16 he was invited to go to Penticton, BC to try out for juniors and was one of only two kids from the camp that were selected. He played 2 years of juniors in one of the top leagues in Canada, before being released by the Edmonton Oil Kings. After being cut, the Oil Kings' coach presented Taylor with another opportunity.  He gave Taylor the phone number of the coach of a Junior A team in St. Paul.  That team was the St. Paul Vulcans. The coach, was Doug Woog. 

The St. Paul Vulcans


Taylor would have difficulty getting to St. Paul because he was in California at the time he learned of his release.  All of his possessions and his vehicle were in Edmonton. He had to fly to Edmonton, pack up his things and then drive to St. Paul. Taylor recalls the adventure he had driving his “old Volkswagon” on the road trip.


“[The car] just made it to the Minnesota border, and lost compression. From the border to St. Paul, I could only drive 30 mph. But I got there. I got there and found out the car was “kaputz”, and it was done.”


Taylor tried out for the Vulcans and played under Woog for the 1974-75 Midwest Junior A season.  He said that Woog was a “great coach.” “He was tough, but one of the best coaches I ever had.”


Taylor credits St. Paul with preserving his career. When he first arrived in town, he had rented an apartment in South St. Paul that he describes laughingly as being “pretty shabby” and in a bad neighborhood. On a particular day, one of his teammates, Rick Pracht, visited the apartment. After taking one look at the residence, Pracht invited Taylor and his roommate to live with his family in North St. Paul, which Taylor is thankful for to this day. 


“They took us in like family. That was a savior to me.” 


His time in St. Paul would create other opportunities for him. He played on the US Junior team in 1975 and at one point, Herb Brooks inquired as to Taylor’s amateur status. Brooks may have been looking to bring Taylor to the University of Minnesota and play for the Gophers. Unfortunately, Taylor was ineligible because of the way his room/board was paid by the Canadian junior teams.  But that connection would one day lead him to tryout for the 1980 Olympic team on which he would be chosen as one of four alternates selected by Brooks. 

St. Paul Vulcans team photo. Taylor is in the third row wearing #17.

Photo courtesy of VintageMnHockey.com

The Fighting Saints


American Junior teams didn’t pay for as much as the Canadian teams. So while playing with the Vulcans, Taylor needed to find work and make some money. The first job he had, was working in maintenance at a hotel in St. Paul that he describes as “horrible” and “treacherous”. 

During that same time, Taylor also helped out in Fighting Saints training camp as an extra skater for drills and he become well known to the team personnel. When the Fighting Saints assistant equipment manager left to take a job with the Gophers, his position was then offered to Taylor by Don Niederkorn, the Fighting Saints head equipment director.


Working in that position, Taylor happened to be present for one of the more infamous events in Fighting Saints history.  He felt the need to set the record straight as the way the story has been told was slightly incorrect. It was the night that Mike “Shakey” Walton walked out of the Civic Center in full uniform after being eliminated by the Nordiques in the 1975 WHA semifinals. In my book, A Slap Shot in Time, I had it written that Walton went to the bar in his full uniform.     


“He did NOT go to the bar in his hockey equipment.”, Taylor said. 

“Neiderkorn told me, run in the locker room. Get Shakey’s clothes, and take them out to the ramp. He was out there on the cement. Clack! Clack! Clack! with his skates. He took his stuff off and I gave him his clothes.  His car was right there. And he left.  I had to take all his hockey equipment back in the locker room.“


Taylor’s play with the Vulcans and his presence in the Fighting Saints locker room got him noticed by General Manager Glen Sonmor and coach Harry Neale. Taylor was drafted by the Fighting Saints in 1975 and jokingly says, "I was their last pick.”  

For the record, he was not the last pick.  He was selected in the final round, but there were two picks after him. 


Taylor then attended Fighting Saints training camp as an official player.  Although he would not make the team, he was present for the infamous Mankato “youth fundraiser” intra-squad scrimmage that was full of brawls, profanity, and broken noses. The only photos of Hank Taylor in a Fighting Saints uniform were from that game.   

He doesn’t remember anything about the instability of the WHA. He remembers the Fighting Saints as a great organization. He recalls a time when he was invited on a road trip to San Diego and his mother was invited to come down from Berkeley. He was able to spend time with her while also tending to his duties with the team.  "That meant a lot that they did that for me", he adds. 

Photos of Taylor from the Mankato scrimmage. Courtesy Original Fighting Saints photo archives saved by PR director Mike Lamey, scanned by Kyle Oen. 

Johnstown Jets


“Henry Taylor is an artist with a stick, son!” – Johnny Mitchell, General Manager of the Johnstown Jets

Taylor was then sent to the Fighting Saints minor league affiliate, the Johnstown Jets of the North American Hockey League. The Jets had just won the league championship the previous season. Henry recalls that he was cut from the team shortly after he arrived because the Fighting Saints were sending a few more players to Johnstown and needed to make room.  Johnstown's General Manager, Johnny Mitchell, said to him, “Well son, go to Minnesota and if something changes we’ll get a hold of you.”


*Note – Mitchell was famous for using the word “son” in all his sentences. If you’ve seen Slap Shot the movie, you know Joe McGrath, the GM of the Chiefs, spoke that way. McGrath was played by Strother Martin, and based on the real life Johnny Mitchell.


“I was devastated.” Taylor said. “I thought it was the end of my hockey career.”  


He went back to Minnesota and debated what to do next.  After 5 days, Mitchell called him back and said, “Son, we need you.” Taylor boarded a plane to meet the team in Buffalo and scored two goals in his first game. He went on to score 50 goals and 90 points that season, winning the NAHL rookie of the year.  The previous record goal total for an NAHL rookie of the year was 32.

At the end of Taylor’s first year with the Johnstown Jets, “Slap Shot” the movie was being filmed in and around Johnstown. Taylor says he got some screen time in the opening hockey scenes when he fed Bruce Boudreau (his linemate from the Johnstown Jets) for a goal. He recalls meeting Paul Newman and said Newman liked to play some “shinny” when they were waiting around for filming to start.  He also noted that there was always food around, which for a young minor league player was a much appreciated benefit. 

In the movie, there’s a pregame brawl that leads to the now famous National Anthem scene where a referee and Steve Hanson (played by Johnstown Jet/Fighting Saint, Steve Carlson) have a uniquely profane "conversation". That on-screen brawl was based on a real life pregame brawl between the Johnstown Jets and the Buffalo Norsemen during the 1976 NAHL playoffs. Accounts aren’t completely clear, but either a fan, or possibly a player on the Norseman was allegedly holding a sign, obviously directed at Taylor, that read, “Blacks should be playing basketball”. Enraged by the sign, some Johnstown players went after the offenders before the game even started.  The brawl left one Norseman player unconscious and a Buffalo sports reporter also injured.  After order was restored, the Norsemen refused to take the ice and forfeited the game. 

Taylor says that he was no stranger to being called the n-word, and because he was black there were a few times he knew he was going to get roughed up on the ice after scoring.  

His response? 

“I was always trying to refrain from reacting, and react on the ice by scoring goals.” Taylor was not a fighter.  His philosophy was to beat them on the scoreboard rather than in the brawl. And he did that, quite often. 

<-----Taylor with the Johnstown Jets. https://www.newspapers.com/article/press-and-sun-bulletin/128917259/

Minnesota North Stars

After 2 seasons with the Johnstown Jets and the folding of the Fighting Saints, Taylor played briefly with the Grand Rapids Owls of the International Hockey League, before getting another shot at the big leagues with the Minnesota North Stars. He says his time with the North Stars was “being in the wrong place at the wrong time”. The North Stars and Cleveland Barons had just merged, making it very difficult to sort out the sudden doubling of the roster as well as all the minor league players. He felt he may have just gotten lost in the shuffle.


He does however have a lasting memory from his time with the North Stars. His half-sister (whose last name was Smith) was pregnant with a boy. He and his brothers told her that it didn’t matter what she named the child, they were all planning on calling him “Bobby”. She didn’t name the child Bobby. True to their word, Taylor and his brothers called the child “Bobby” anyway. When that child became an adult, he legally changed his name to Bobby. 

<---- North Stars training camp photo of Taylor. https://www.newspapers.com/article/star-tribune/112516818/

After his time in the North Stars organization, Taylor played a few seasons in Switzerland and then finished his career playing 3 seasons with the Fresno Falcons of the Pacific Southwest Hockey League. Residing in Fresno, he then started coaching youth hockey. He also got licensed as a travel agent and worked for a few years in the travel industry. At some point an arena was built in Fresno and Taylor began working in the pro shop, and eventually worked his way up to management. He has managed arenas in Colorado, California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Alaska, and now in Texas.  He is currently the General Manager of a two rink arena where he oversees the facilities and programs.

When I contacted Taylor, he had no idea that he was the first black person to try out for a Minnesota major professional hockey team.  When I asked him about what that meant to him, he had trouble finding words.  He hesitated, and said, “I just wanted to play hockey”. He talks about the diverse area and melting pot of people he grew up with, and his parents being mixed race.  The way he explains it, it makes sense that it just didn’t occur to him.  His love of the game is clearly evident. He added, “The game gets a hold of you, and you just love it and you get out there as much as you can.”

<----Taylor playing for the Fresno Falcons. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-fresno-bee/128918538/ 

Taylor Interview clip:  "The Game gets a hold of you."  

In the brief time I spent with Hank Taylor, I could tell he's a humble man and thankful for his life’s path.  His attitude, and quiet inner strength, especially in the face of some of the racism he has experienced, is inspiring. In a world where we can immediately fire off an angry Tweet about whatever our outrage of the day is, it's refreshing to hear someone speak the way Hank does.  

He beamed when he talked about his love of hockey and spoke of of how the Hispanic children and their parents in his youth hockey programs look up to him because he too, is a person of color. 

It should remind us, representation matters. 

When I asked him what he is most proud of, he said he was proud that he hung in there. There were a few times his career could have been over before it started.  He said his personal career highlights were: Being one of 4 brothers playing hockey out of Berkeley California; His years in Minnesota; His NAHL 'Rookie of the Year' award; and his years in Switzerland which included a game where his mother witnessed him score 2 goals. He added, "All in all, it's all about the adventures, the experiences, the teammates and the fans." 

He’s a father of two. He's a grandfather of three. He’s a hero to countless youth hockey players all around the country.


He’s also a Minnesota hockey legend.

Did he ever play in an official regular season game for the Fighting Saints or North Stars


But he was the first black person to try - at a time it was difficult for any American to break into the NHL, let alone a black American.  

He may be a bit reluctant about it, and even if he didn’t realize it at the time, he was indeed blazing a path for others to follow. 


Thanks to Kyle Oen at VintageMNHockey.com for tracking Hank down. 

Thanks to Derek Felska of Crease and Assist Podcast for assistance prepping for the interview and proofreading.


Gilbert, John. "Black hockey player's goal is to stay with Stars". Minneapolis Tribune. September 16, 1978. 

Taylor, Hank. Interview conducted via Zoom. July 29, 2023.





Willie O'Ree - The Calgary Albertan. January 20, 1958.

USA Junior Photo - Minneapolis Star. January 1, 1975.  

Vulcans Team photo - VintageMnHockey.com

Fighting Saints photos - Original Fighting Saints photo archives preserved by Mike Lamey.

Johnstown Jets photo - Press and Sun Bulletin. November 11, 1976.

North Stars photo - Minneapolis Tribune. September 16, 1978. 

Fresno Falcons photo - Fresno Bee. October 9, 1988.