Born To Break Barriers

Feb. 26, 2007

By Elliot Olshansky



Elliot is's hockey editor and runs his Rink Rat hockey blog on
E-mail here!

It's only natural that Dick Lord was the first to break the color barrier in college hockey. After all, the former Michigan State star has stepped across boundaries all his life.


Lord has been President and Vice President of the Quebec Liberal Party, Project Engineer for Communications for the 1967 World Exhibition (for which he managed all of the exhibits' communications) and has served on Canada's Immigration Appeals Board and Special Committee on Poverty. He has also run his own businesses, and has received countless honors for his years of varied service.


It all started when Lord arrived in East Lansing in the fall of 1949 to study chemical engineering and play for the recently reinstated Michigan State hockey team. While Lord was to be the first black college hockey player in the U.S., he wasn't without options.


Lord's path into college hockey started "through a friend called Norman Lupovich," Lord recalled. "He had an offer for a scholarship to Denver. "I said, `Geez. If he can get one...' I was a better player than he was, and he said, `I can help you get one.' They sent a questionnaire to the school. The principal called me in, and I finished an IQ test and they said, `OK, come ahead,' but then I got another letter from Michigan State that told me that if I came, that if I passed an IQ test, that they would be willing to offer me a scholarship if I could make the team. So I took the test, and eventually, they said, `Come ahead.' The principal said rather than go to Denver - which was a playboy school, because they ski more than study - he said, `Richard, you should go to Michigan State.' I packed up and took off for Michigan State University."


Lord turned heads almost immediately upon arrival. It wasn't that the folks in East Lansing weren't used to seeing African-Americans at the University or on its teams. It was Lord's sport of choice that came as a surprise.


"When I got up for the enrollment," Lord said, "I came in and they asked me, `Persons that bring you here,' and I said, `I got a scholarship,' and they said, `No, you're not on the scholarship list,' and they asked, `What sport are you out for? Track and field? Football?' I said, `No, hockey.'


"They said, `Hockey?' Geez, can you skate?'"


Eventually, the matter was resolved, and Lord's college career was underway. However, the large number of young men going back to school after World War II produced a housing crunch, and there was no dorm space available for Lord, forcing him into other accommodations.


"I lived on a bunk," Lord recalled. "It was one big hall for about 16-20 people, and everybody had a nook with a bunk, upper and lower.


"They were shocked that I was taking chemical engineering," Lord said. "They said, `You're taking chemical engineering?' I said, `Yeah.' It seemed that I was going to have a difficult time there, and the guy said, `You sure you're getting through?' I said, `Don't worry, I've come too far to go back.'"


Then, there was the hockey. Former Minnesota All-American Harold Paulson took the reins of Michigan State's first varsity team since 1930. If anyone doubted that Lord was a hockey player, it didn't take him long to set those doubts aside.


"We had an intra-squad game, the varsity playing against the freshmen" Lord said. "We played that game, and we beat them 2-1, and I scored two goals, and that kind of settled that for a while."


Settled though it might have been that Lord was a talented player, freshmen were still ineligible for varsity competition. So Lord went through his classes, played with the freshman team, and sold programs at Spartan football games. He made friends, and generally settled in to life in East Lansing, which - as one might expect in the early 50's - occasionally presented challenges.


"I got into a dormitory," Lord said, "and the first time I went into the dormitory, I caused another problem, because I was roomed with a fellow with red hair who came from Manitoba. I checked into the dormitory, and they called me because we were the first time they had a black and white roommate together. They said, `Mr. Lord, do you know that the guy that you're moving in with is white?' I said, `Yeah. So?' And they called him and they asked him, and he said, `Yeah, so?'"


While the two Canadians coexisted without a problem, they decided to change their arrangement after a month. "I said, `OK, let's not put any more pressure,'" Lord said.


Lord moved in with Lawrence Perry, another black student from Ypsilanti, Mich. Lord and his original roommate remained friendly, though, through the "Canadian Club," an informal association of Canadian students - organized by Lord - who gathered every so often. "We'd just chit-chat," Lord said. "Play some touch football with the girls and the guys and so forth."


After a year, as Lord said, "They got adjusted to Richard Lord." As Lord returned for his sophomore year, it was time for his varsity hockey career to begin. While there was no doubting Lord's talent after that day in the freshman-varsity game, there was still some discomfort among some of the other Spartans. "Most of the members were okay," Lord said, "but one or two were a little disturbed I was on the team. They didn't think, as a black person, I should be on the team."


Lord was on the team, though, and it was a good thing. After going 0-14-0 the year before, the Spartans went 6-11-0 in Lord's first year on the ice. Lord scored 17 points on eight goals and nine assists, ranking second on the team, which is even more impressive when one realizes that he didn't play in all 17 games.  "They heard I came from McGill," Lord said, "and they didn't permit me to play a game, so I said, `I didn't go to McGill. I came from Westmount High.'"


The confusion stemmed from differences between the American and Canadian education systems. "I was hitting too high marks in certain courses," Lord said, "Introduction to Trigonometry and Intro to Analytical Geometry and Calculus. At Westmount High, they gave you that in your last year, so I was introduced to trigonometry at Westmount High. At Westmount High, if you didn't have big money to go to university right away, they would have a little extra class there, especially if you were going into engineering or medicine. I took them, but it was all high school."


Once again, the matter was eventually resolved, and Lord went on being a student-athlete, which was often more challenging because of his race.


"I got quite a few penalties," Lord said, "because everyone was going after me. I didn't retaliate; I just gave the guy a good bodycheck, and the whistle would go. I had a little friction in North Dakota. On the ice, the guys would try to call me names, but they didn't provoke me. Occasionally, you had a few names, like `N----- n-----, come to dinner, half past two, fried potatoes, alligators, all for you,' but that was nothing. We just laughed at that."


Lord led the Spartans in penalties in each of his three seasons, and the friction hardly ended when he stepped off the ice. However, his Spartan teammates looked after him.


"When we moved into the hotels, when we went to North Dakota or someplace like that, I noticed that all the players had their rooms, and I was sitting in the lobby waiting as the coach negotiated with the hotel," Lord said. "Usually, what happened was one of the players would come down and say, `Oh, Richard, come with me,' and I'd go up to his room and stay with him. The coach was discussing the room, but a guy already had a room and he asked me to come with him, so they couldn't do anything about it."


That was how it was for Dick Lord at Michigan State. There were challenges, but when they arose, he always seemed to get the help he needed.


"One time a teacher provoked me and harassed me in my engineering drawing class," Lord said. "I was doing an assembly drawing, and he hit me in the back, and my compass went right through the onion-skin paper I had and almost destroyed the whole project. I complained to a lady I had met at church, and the lady turned out to be the wife of the Dean of Engineering. When they checked it out, they found out what happened, and they told me, `Look, Mr. Lord, you only have four more weeks to go in that class. Drop out of the class and we'll give you a C. I would have got a B, and I said, `OK.' The next term, the guy wasn't there."


Lord was embraced by many at Michigan State, being elected vice president of his dormitory and president of the school's Varsity Club. "Becoming head of the Varsity Club was a big thing," Lord said. "It was a big school, and they had almost everything. During the three years I was there, Michigan State's football team was undefeated. They won the championship three years in a row. They won the Rose Bowl and everything."


Still, Lord couldn't please everyone. As a Canadian, Lord wasn't personally affected by the U.S. civil rights movement, and while he became more politically active when he returned to Canada, that was not one of his battles at the time. Lord did what he felt were the right things to do, and didn't worry too much about what others thought.


"Some of the blacks were shocked, too," Lord said, recalling an instance where he helped out with a fundraiser and was told, "'Let them collect their own money,' but I didn't pay much attention to that."


Lord finished his Spartan career with 18 goals and 17 assists in three seasons, graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, and then embarked on a long and varied career in business, science and government. Today, Lord is retired, but stays busy, as he is constantly sought after by various organizations around Montreal to give talks and speeches. He also remains close with a number of his Spartan teammates, including Bill Blair, Dick Northey and Bill Calvert.


Meanwhile, the hockey program flourished at Michigan State under Amo Bessone, who took over before Lord's junior season and eventually guided the Spartans to an NCAA title in 1966. Other blacks have played for the Spartans, most notably Anson Carter, who led the Spartans in goals for three consecutive years and is among the most successful MSU alumnus in the NHL. Other schools have also seen black players compete and flourish - including Mike Grier at Boston University, Robbie Earl at the University of Wisconsin, and Kyle Okposo, who this year became the first black hockey player at the University of Minnesota - but it all started with Lord.


"Michigan State led the way," Lord said. "Paulson led the way, and I guess I was a proper candidate, unknown to them. They didn't know I was an organizer of all things. I came down and I didn't let people calling me names provoke me or go out of my mind."


With his mind, his body and his indefatigable spirit, Dick Lord has made a mark that will not soon be wiped away, on the ice and beyond.



Men's Ice Hockey Home