RICHMOND, BC – No one should tell Ed Hatoum about the struggles of the NHL’s expansion season, or that the league today is much more diverse than it was in the past.
The one-time WHL Seattle Times winger was the first Lebanese-born player in the National Hockey League. Hatoum moved with his family to Canada from his hometown of Beirut at the age of nine, got involved in hockey and joined the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings in December 1968. He joined the Vancouver Canucks for the 1970-71 expansion season.
How a kid who started late in hockey could play at such a high level is something even 74-year-old Hatoum — who resides outside Vancouver, BC, and is looking forward to Tuesday’s game between the Canucks and the Kraken — didn’t quite figure out.
“I started the game when I was 9 or 10, and I played my first NHL game 10 years later – can you believe it?” Hatoum said on Monday, while sipping coffee near his house. “I can do anything in sports – golf, tennis, squash, tennis. I threw the disc in high school. I kicked football in high school. I scored the winning goal. And the teacher would say, ‘Eddie, throw the bullet.'” Show the boys how to throw a shot put.
“I was always great at sports. I don’t know how I dealt with such a sport, but I did.”
His father and older brother came from Lebanon in 1954, followed by Hatoum, his mother and six other members of his family three years later. They settled in Ottawa, Ontario, where hockey rule. Hatoum’s cousin gave his first sledges, and soon adapted to pucks around other boys his age.
There were no other players of Middle Eastern descent competing at the high levels of hockey at the time, unlike today. Nazim Kadri is a Canadian-born Lebanese star who works for the Colorado Avalanche. Hatoum certainly stood out among her peers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but she doesn’t remember what he might describe as major racist incidents.
“I’ve been called a few names, but nothing really serious,” he said. “You know, when you’re out playing hockey and you get into the game — and you’re a very good young hockey player — you hear the noise, you hear them calling you by names, but you look beyond.
“And you know what? That made me a better and stronger hockey player for that.”
But he sees how recent racist incidents involving NHL players and some minor leagues have disrupted careers. “It’s very difficult for some players – how they are treated.”
Hatoum feels the league is “doing a good job”, opening itself up to players from more diverse backgrounds. He followed Qadri’s career with great interest, spurring him on to success after some difficult early stretches when he parted ways with Toronto in 2010.
However, former high school teammate, coach and friend Hatoum — longtime Canadian hockey broadcaster Don Sherry — jumped to his rescue when a caller to a sports program on the phone suggested that Ontario-born Kadri was the best Lebanese player in NHL history.
And Don Sherry calls and says, ‘Stop! Stop! There is only one Lebanese player who was born in Lebanon and I played with him in Rochester. It was Hatoum’s birthday! “
As a sophomore, Hatoum was signed by the Hamilton Red Wings, a junior squad for the Detroit National Hockey League. After four seasons, Hatoum was promoted to the Detroit branch of the AHL and then the big club, where he collaborated with legendary figures such as Gordie Howe, Frank Mahovlich and Alex Delvecchio.
The night after Howe scored his 700 . goaly His career goal, Hatoum scored his first goal against New York Rangers Hall of Fame guard Ed Giacomene. Hao walked up to Hatoum after that and said, “Now you only need 699 to catch me.”
He played 47 games with Detroit and Vancouver, scoring three goals and adding six assists. While with Detroit, attacking good friend Gary Unger gave him the nickname “Sock.”
It was a play on words: Hatoum’s surname and surname sound like “try it for him” when said together quickly.
Later, The Red Wings made Hatoum available in an expansion draft, and he was selected by Vancouver. The Canucks started their opening campaign with a better-than-expected 9-10-3, but then losses started creeping in and piled up once captain Orland Kortenbach was injured and missed two and a half months.
They finished 24-46-8 and 11 of 14 teams.
“We didn’t want to lose because I suppose, well, you can call us the banished from other teams,” Hatoum said. “But when we got together as a team, we played well and supported each other. The building was full when we played. We didn’t make much money, but we were just happy playing hockey.”
Vancouver won 2-15-2 over Hatoum’s last 19 games before suffering a shoulder injury. He was later loaned to the Totems to recuperate in exchange for future Boston Bruins mainstay Bobby Schmutz. The night before his injury, Hatoum went out at the “Miss Vancouver Canucks” pageant with teammates Pat Quinn and Gary Doak and saw one of the contestants, Frances Gooding, who ended up at the player’s table. Hatoum asked her to go out to dinner.
After he got injured the next day and phoned him to cancel their appointment, she visited him at the hospital. I also went to see him in Seattle while he was playing for the Totems.
They have been together for almost four years, they separated and then both got married and divorced. They came back to life again after 35 years, and in 2003 Hatoum returned to British Columbia, where they have lived together ever since.
Hatoum fondly remembers his 29-game stint with the Totems, living atop Queen Anne Hill in an apartment overlooking the Space Needle and walking briskly to play at Climate Pledge Arena.
“It was a beautiful city,” he said. “The fans were great. Everyone loved hockey in that city. And they knew, I was totally surprised. They were so knowledgeable about hockey.”
He’s followed the Kraken season with interest due to its association with the city.
“I love the kraken,” he said. “I love their arena. I love the fans there. I think they will be a successful hockey team.
“It takes three to four years to be a competitive hockey team. I think they’ve run right, they’ve been trained right, and the building is good. Just give them some time.”