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Backchecking: Mike Marson

Mike Marson played 196 games in the NHL with Washington and Los Angeles. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Mike Marson played 196 games in the NHL with Washington and Los Angeles. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Michael Amato

Hockey trailblazer Mike Marson has traded in his hockey equipment for a karate uniform, bus license and paintbrush, proving his talents reach beyond the rink.

It is not uncommon now to see minorities not only playing, but thriving in the NHL, but that wasn’t the case when Marson was picked in the second round -19th overall - by the Washington Capitals in the 1974 draft.

Marson, who appeared on the cover of THN in October 1974, became only the second black player to play in the league after Willie O’Ree did so 14 years earlier.

“There were huge cultural obstacles,” Marson said. “We didn’t have the same civil rights movement here in Canada that they did in the States. I used to get hate mail and all that sort of stuff.”

What made it even more difficult were the expectations on him as a player. Marson had 94 points and captained the Ontario League’s Sudbury Wolves during his draft year. The expansion Capitals were counting on him to be a contributor right away, even though he was a teenaged rookie.

“I should have been in Grade 12 and instead I was turning pro against the best on the planet,” Marson said.

His rookie season was his best, scoring 16 goals and 28 points in 76 games. Marson scored a hat trick in his first pre-season game and suited up in the Capitals’ first-ever regular season game. The strong-skating left winger spent parts of the next four seasons with Washington as he went back and forth between the team’s various AHL affiliates.

After a trade and short stint with the Los Angeles Kings in 1980, Marson retired from pro hockey, explaining he had grown tired of dealing with issues both about his race and on-ice performance. Marson finished with 24 goals and 48 points in 196 NHL games.

Marson returned to Scarborough, Ont., a district of Toronto where he grew up, and took a job as a bus driver for the Toronto Transit Commission, where he still works. He is also an avid artist and paints large canvasses as a hobby in his spare time.

The conclusion of his hockey career didn’t stop Marson from continuing to be an athlete. He began practicing karate and now holds a seventh degree black belt. He’s also developed his own technique called Mars-Zen-Do, which requires straight-line punches and quick low kicks.

“When I was younger, I was a big fan of Bruce Lee movies and when I came back from Los Angeles I had all this energy,” he said. “I signed up for karate a week or two later and never looked back.”

He has worked with many prominent athletes through his company, Mike Marson’s Athletic Training Services. Rick Nash, who Marson trained in 2000 and 2001 while the Blue Jackets star prepared for the draft, was a student of the program.

Marson is excited to see more black players enjoying success in the NHL today. He also takes some comfort in the fact he helped pave the way for stars such as Jarome Iginla, Dustin Byfuglien, Chris Stewart and P.K. Subban.

“I feel very happy for them,” Marson said. “In a lot of ways society follows sports. It’s nice to see general managers and coaches see a player for his abilities and not get involved in all the political and racial ramifications.”

Despite the prejudice he encountered and an abbreviated NHL appearance, Marson, 55, has a good perspective on his experiences.

“I hate to dwell on those things because it always seems to upset somebody,” he said. “I had to deal with some interesting situations, more so than the normal guy because I was dealing with challenges off the ice as well as on the ice. But I don’t think I would trade it in. It was quite a ride.”

For more great analysis, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

This article also appeared in the April 4 edition of THN magazine.

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