By Nate Tenopir, Senior Staff Writer
As one would expect, much of the UNO hockey roster is compromised of athletes from traditional hockey regions. Four members are from Canada, five hail from Minnesota and a total of three from both Wisconsin and North Dakota.
Alex Hudson, on the other hand, is something of an anomaly. He grew up in Corona, Calif., where climate and popularity put many young hockey players at a decided disadvantage compared to their northern brethren.
But what sparks the most curiosity and intrigue about the story of Alex Hudson is his membership in a rather exclusive fraternity. Hudson is one of the few black players in all of college hockey.
While over half of all college football and basketball scholarships go to black athletes, hockey is one sport that remains overwhelmingly white. Which begs the question, how does an African-American kid growing up in California end up playing college hockey in Nebraska?
“My sisters and I were really into sports and I don’t even know why we really tried [hockey],” Hudson said. “We used to rollerblade and in-line skate, jump trash cans and stuff. The next step was to grab a hockey stick and try it out.”
Thanks to what Hudson calls “pure curiosity” in the sport, UNO gained a dynamic player who centers the Mavs’ second line of forwards, plays the power play as well as the penalty kill and is tied for third among all Mavs with 26 points. Though curiosity may have been what put a hockey stick in his hands, the Mavs should also be thankful for a few events that shook the hockey world in 1988.
After 10 years and four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, Wayne Gretzky, the hockey’s golden boy, was traded out of Canada from the Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. At the press conference announcing his trade, a stunned Canadian audience watched an emotional Wayne Gretzky say goodbye to his hockey home.
The deal sent such a shock wave through the sport and through the country that one Canadian member of Parliament asked the government to block the trade from happening. While Canadian hockey eventually came out of the crisis, their loss sparked what might be called the birth of hockey in the state of California.
“Watching the Mighty Ducks and when Wayne Gretzky came to L.A., everyone was playing hockey out in the street,” Hudson said. “It started with pick-up in the street. We’d go get the neighborhood kids; we’d get a big game going. Then I joined the YMCA. Because of the Gretzky boom, hockey just started in California. That’s what everybody was doing.”
While Hudson started with roller hockey at the YMCA, it wasn’t long before his success would lead him to the ice rink. Hudson said he remembers getting on hockey skates and playing competitively around the age of 10 or 11.
It became much more than simply finding an open street or a YMCA league to skate in.
“It was worse being from California,” Hudson said. “The only ice was 20 minutes away and 20 minutes in California is a two hour drive.”
His commitment to hockey meant that mom and dad had to make sacrifices in order for their son to be successful.
“Growing up, I played my club hockey two and a half hours away from my house,” he said “We’d drive to practice twice a week, two and a half hours at a time. That was just the norm.”
Though it may have been difficult, Hudson says he had nothing but love and support from his parents.
“My parents supported me 100 percent; there was never at any point anybody who told me I couldn’t play hockey,” Hudson said. “From day one that’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I was going to do.”
While hockey may be a non-traditional choice for a black kid in California, his parents were always there along the way.
“My parents, they made a huge commitment to pay for ice hockey in southern California, and to drive me around to all the rinks. It was definitely a way of life.”
That way of life transitioned quickly from the sunny beaches of California to the cold plains of Nebraska. Hudson, who had originally planned on playing in Seattle with the Western Hockey League, found himself in Kearney with the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League.
While moving to a new city and a new school is part of most players’ junior careers, most are not California kids who have to adjust to a different lifestyle in the Midwest, let alone the weather. Hudson still remembers how odd it felt telling his parents where he would be spending his teenage years.
“Even when I said it, I didn’t know what it was going to be like,” he said. “Kearney, Neb. I thought there was just going to be stoplights and it was going to be all dirt roads. I had no clue.”
While he was unsure coming into the experience, Hudson’s time in Kearney was positive.
“It turned out to be really good,” he said “It was a great experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Although a black hockey player might be unusual, there never seemed to be any doubt about Hudson’s love for the sport. Besides the pick-up games in the neighborhood, Hudson attended many Ducks and Kings games while growing up, served as the stick boy for Anaheim’s roller hockey team the Bullfrogs and has been watching old-time hockey for as long as he can remember.
Still, it’s those times out on the streets that are his earliest and fondest memories of playing hockey. While the fact that Hudson is a black hockey player may be news today, in those games, the kids on the street didn’t take note of race or even gender.
“I had two sisters out there and there were probably five or six girls that played with us,” he said. “The street I lived on was La Vista and we named our team the La Vista Vikings and that was it. We’d look forward every day to getting out of school and being able to play hockey for hours on end.”
While the innocence of a street hockey game is free from the judgments that come with race, class and gender, growing up can sometimes mean confronting those issues head on. Fortunately, Hudson’s evolution into a hockey player was mostly free of the hardships faced by some of the sport’s black pioneers.
Asked if he has had to encounter much difficulty being a black hockey player, Hudson said there was only the occasional racist remark when he was younger.
“Ever since I got to high levels like the USHL or [NCAA], I’d say no,” he said. “If it ever was an issue, hockey is obviously a game where you can get physical. I don’t know if people are scared of me, but to be honest, I don’t really get any remarks.”
From the streets of California to the ice of Qwest Center Omaha, Hudson’s career is defined by much more than his skin color. His true color shows in his love for hockey.
We may never know how Hudson would have turned out without the trade of Gretzky and the heartbreak of Canada. Chances are, Hudson would have excelled at whatever he set his mind to.
Still, one country’s loss turned into one college program’s gain. Would it be too late to send a thank you note from UNO hockey to former King’s owner Bruce McNall, 22 years later?