Art Dorrington, an Atlantic City sports pioneer and community legend, died Friday, Dec. 29 at the age of 87.
Dorrington didn’t grow up in Atlantic City, but his name was synonymous with the resort. He moved to the city in 1950 to play professional ice hockey for the Eastern Hockey League’s Atlantic City Sea Gulls. Though he never made it to the National Hockey League (his career was sidelined early due to a broken leg), he was known as the "Jackie Robinson of hockey" because he became the first professional black hockey player in this country when he signed a contract with the New York Rangers organization.
A fine all-around athlete, Dorrington also played minor-league baseball in the Boston Braves organization. After retiring from hockey, Dorrington returned to his adopted hometown and put down sturdy roots, working for the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office for 20 years and serving as softball commissioner in Atlantic City for 32 years and an umpire for 34 years.
He created the Art Dorrington Ice Hockey Foundation with his wife, Dorothie, in 1998. The foundation was formed to teach life skills through hockey — for every hour on the ice, they spent an hour in the classroom. The program was supported by the National Hockey League’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative in the early 2000s.
In 2012, Boardwalk Hall’s ice hockey rink was named after him.
I wrote many articles about Art and his Foundation, as well as his work with the ECHL's Boardwalk Bullies, for The Press of Atlantic City beginning in the late 1990s. I also had the pleasure of accompanying Art to his hometown of Truro, Nova Scotia in February, 2005 for his induction into his local Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame and the Atlantic City Hall of Fame, which is an honor open to all, not only athletes.
Art Dorrington overcame many obstacles to make a huge difference in his community beyond his athletic achievements. The following is excerpted from an article I wrote about Art in January, 1998.
Breaking the ice: Pioneer remembers days of segregation
In a resort town split along racial lines, Arthur Dorrington carved his niche in history, using a pair of ice skates and a curved wooden stick.
Dorrington was 20 years old when he came to Atlantic City in 1950 to play for the semi-pro Sea Gulls in the Boardwalk Convention Hall, becoming the first black professional ice hockey player in the United States.
The kid from Truro, Nova Scotia, was simply fulfilling his lifelong dream, one that started when he took his first tentative skating strides as a 3-year-old. Black and white children played side by side in Truro, creating quick frozen surfaces by digging holes in their backyards and filling them with water.
"Nobody pushed me to play," Dorrington said. "It was automatic in Canada for boys. You didn't have to be pushed. I think every boy in Canada, that's their dream to someday play professional hockey for a living."
His hockey career eventually took him on a splintered path into southern cities where blacks were told, sometimes forcefully, to stay within the lines of a segregated society.
But he planted roots in Atlantic City. Said Thomas Allen of the city's Special Improvement District: "He's a living legend in this city."
"You always want to give back to the community as much as you can," Dorrington said of his efforts to introduce hockey to inner-city kids.
Rewind to 1950. The Sea Gulls of the old Eastern League were nearing the end of their 20-year tenancy in Convention Hall, averaging 3,000-4,000 fans per game on weekends. Herb Foster, player-coach of the team, took a phone call from Hall manager Phil Thompson.
"We were struggling a little bit at the time," Foster said. "Phil told me that two (prospective) players were coming down from New York and he said, 'I want to warn you, one of them is black and you'll have to deal with it.' He kind of threw it in my lap.
"Well, I had no trouble making the decision. Art was far and away the better player, and there was nothing hard to deal with. Art was a very fast skater and a fine young man."
Dorrington had left his home in Truro that fall to play for the New Milford Tomahawks, an independent amateur team in Connecticut.
"I never did play a game for them," he said. "We went down to Madison Square Garden (in Manhattan) one day to practice and I got scouted by the (National Hockey League's) New York Rangers. I was supposed to stay in New York and play with the Rangers' farm team, the Rovers, but they were on the road for two weeks. I was a little young guy, I didn't want to wait around New York for two weeks for a team to come back."
When he told Eastern League president Tommy Lockhart of his intention to return to Connecticut, Lockhart suggested another Eastern team, the Sea Gulls.
"I said, 'OK, I'll give it a try and see what develops.' All I knew is that Atlantic City had a Boardwalk and the Miss America Pageant. But the situation was very good here. The people were friendly, and I enjoyed it very well."
Racial unrest was simmering beneath the surface of American society in 1950, two years after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's color line.
In 1950, Martin Luther King Jr. was a theological student in Chester, Pa. It would be three more years before Rosa Parks refused to ride in the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus; four more years before the Supreme Court's Brown decision struck down school desegregation as unconstitutional; and seven years before the first federal Civil Rights Act.
In Atlantic City, racial division was a way of life, rarely spoken of.
"The thing about the city was, the way the demographics were set up, blacks stayed on the north side and whites stayed on the south side," Dorrington said. "They knew where they could go and where they couldn't go, so it wasn't that big a thing."
Dorrington, a center and left wing, played only one season for the Sea Gulls, scoring 18 goals and adding 32 assists. The big scoring line of Johnny Flynn, Stan McLellan and Mono Copley led the team to its last Eastern League title. The Sea Gulls also played in the national amateur championship that season, losing to Toledo, Ohio.
"I didn't experience any bad (racial) relationships here in the city," Dorrington said. "On the ice, there were no problems. The majority of the players were from Canada and there was very little segregation in Canada as far as hockey was concerned."
In Washington, Baltimore and Charlotte, N.C., things were different. Despite his teammates' complaints, Dorrington couldn't stay in the same hotels as the white players. He was taunted with racial slurs by southern hockey fans.
"It was something you had to accept," he said. "You knew it was there. It didn't feel good, but there was nothing you could do about it."
Dorrington recalls one incident in Troy, Ohio, where a hotel manager allowed Dorrington to stay but wouldn't let him eat in the restaurant with the other players.
"The players got mad, went back up to the hotel and broke up a couple of the rooms," Dorrington said. "They sent a bill to the Seagulls to pay for the damage. I don't know whether it ever got paid or not."
It did, according to Foster.
"Those crazy buzzards tore a hole in the wall," Foster said of the players. "Mr. Thompson refused to pay for it, so the players took up a collection, $5 each. They all got along great with Art."
After the season, Dorrington wanted an increase on his $90 per week salary. Thompson balked again.
"If he asked Thompson for more money, he was wasting his time," Foster said. "I was a player-coach and I was making less than some of the players."
Dorrington moved on. Despite obtaining dual citizenship and marrying an Atlantic City school teacher named Dorothy in 1951, he became a hockey vagabond, playing with Eastern teams in New Haven, Conn.; Washington; Johnstown, Pa.; and Philadelphia. He suspects the NHL was still scouting him when he was drafted from the Philadelphia Ramblers into the U.S. Army in 1956.
Dorrington was stationed in Germany for 22 months. A month after returning to the Ramblers for the 1957-58 season, he severely broke his right leg when an opponent tripped him up on a breakaway, ending his pro career.
By that time, Willie O'Ree from the Canadian province of New Brunswick had become the first black to break into the NHL, playing 45 games for the Boston Bruins from 1957-60.
"But I think Art paved the way a little bit," Foster said.
"You always look back and say what could have been," Dorrington said. "I think being black helped me more than hindered, because they always want somebody making history. It didn't hold me back.
"I look at it like this: if God meant for me to get in the NHL, then it would have happened," he said. "Maybe God meant for me to work with kids and try to help them become good citizens."