Life of Riley; Career of N.S. hockey trailblazer Bill Riley remembered during Black History Month
HALIFAX -- Bill Riley has a lot to be proud of. The 70-year-old trailblazer looks back in pride on his hockey career, and the contribution he made to the history, culture and fabric of his sport and home province of Nova Scotia.
Fredericton’s Willie O’Ree broke the National Hockey League’s colour barrier in 1958, but it took 16 years before another black man received the same opportunity, with Toronto’s Mike Marson and Amherst’s Bill Riley breaking through again in 1974.
While Riley is a member of the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame, some feel his amazing career hasn’t received the attention it deserves.
From an early age growing up in Amherst, N.S., Riley was an elite athlete, who felt he was being held back.
“I had a lot of doors shut in my face,” says Riley. “You can’t do this, and you can’t do that, and all that did was make me stronger, because I am going to show you that I can do it.”
Riley played one game in the NHL in the 1974-75 season, before cracking the Washington Capitals regular roster two seasons later.
“Bill Riley was the first Nova Scotian Black player to play in the NHL, and the third Black player to play in the NHL. He had an illustrious career, you just have to check his statistics,” says Dean Smith, chair of Hockey Nova Scotia's diversity and inclusion task force.
The stats show Riley played 139 games over five NHL seasons with the Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets, scoring 31 goals and 30 assists and amassing 320 penalty minutes.
Riley says his first full season with the Capitals is the one that stands out, even 45 years later.
“Rick Green was the first round pick of the NHL that year, and when our teammates selected the Capitals rookie of the year in 1977, they selected me over him,” recalls Riley, who had 27 points in 43 games in his first full season with the team.
Former teammate Gerry Meehan recalls Riley as a fierce competitor and a loyal teammate.
“He played with skill, played with passion, played the physical presence, and he was also a very deft scorer,” says Meehan.
But Riley also saw his share of low moments as a player, enduring racial taunts, especially in the minor league.
“I got called names down in the States that I had never heard before in Canada,” recalls the 70-year-old trailblazer.
Riley was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame in 1998.
Dean Smith from Hockey NS says Black History Month is the perfect time to celebrate the success of Riley’s life and career.
“Absolutely proud of Bill Riley. He’s a Scotian and I think we have to do more to celebrate his accomplishments in this game.”
Now 70-years-old, Riley also takes enormous pride in looking back at his accomplishments coaching and play in his home region of the Maritimes.
“I was the captain of the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, I was the captain of the New Brunswick Hawks who won the Calder Cup. To be a Black man playing a white game, I think that was quite and achievement,” says Riley.
One of many achievements that have earned Riley a special place sports history.