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Clarkson’s Seale was pioneer in Potsdam

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When Don Seale completed his first full season for Clarkson College of Technology in 1954, protests had erupted across the country over the Supreme Court’s decision to declare segregated schools unconstitutional. A federal judge upheld an Oklahoma law that required black political candidates to be listed on voting ballots as “negro.” And baseball legend Jackie Robinson and his wife encountered resistance in their attempt to build a home in Connecticut.

Just seven years earlier, Robinson had crossed the Canadian border after a season of playing minor league baseball for the Montreal Royals to break the color barrier in major league baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Now, Seale, a 19-year-old black man from Saint John, New Brunswick, was following a similar pioneering trail, crossing that same divide, to play college hockey for the Golden Knights in Potsdam.

Seale, like Robinson, was a talented, powerfully built athlete who embraced the physical aspect of his game. A 6-foot-1 defenseman with a jaw-dropping shot and devastating hip check, he inspired praise in those who saw him dash even long after his Clarkson career was over.

“He was Jimmy Brown on skates,” Clarkson athletic director Steve Yianoukos said, referring to the legendary NFL running back of the 1960s. “(Seale) was before my time, but he was just a physical specimen.”

But while Robinson’s difficulty in a white man’s world is etched in history through famous books and movies sitting on store shelves, Seale’s rarely told story wears his reticent personality.

Seale, one of the first blacks to play college hockey, did not play the most popular sport of the day, as Robinson did. Additionally, Seale conducted business quietly, efficiently and without bluster. He ignored racial taunts; he let his game do the talking. His story is reserved, as is the man himself.

“He was kind of quiet,” said Frank Rotunno, a Clarkson graduate and Seale’s big brother in the fraternity Sigma Delta. “A very polite, soft-spoken man.”

Seale’s personality would serve him well through his collegiate career, through nearly three decades in the Canadian military, and while raising two athletic children. Seale, now 78, rose to the level of major in the Royal Canadian Air Force before retiring in 1990, and he has lived in Ottawa since 1963.

“I would describe my father as a cross between NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell,” said Mark Seale, Don’s son. “Looks and plays like Jim; carries himself and speaks like Colin. … Two words describe him best: command, presence. When he spoke, you listened.”

But in 1954, Seale was a young black man in another country, on his first adventure.

“Clarkson was an all-white, all-male group,” Rotunno said of that time. “Most universities were that way.”

n n n

Don Seale’s parents emigrated from Barbados to New Brunswick in the early 1920s. They ran a successful fish exporting company, and Don was one of eight children.

Seale remembers being one of very few blacks at Saint John High School during the early 1950s. As a freshman, he sat in a classroom that included one other black girl, but in grades 10-12, Seale was the only black student.

Yet the difference in skin color never bothered him, he said, not even when he got the chance to pursue what then was a mostly white objective — a college education.

“As a matter of fact,” he said of the racial difference, “it did not cross my mind when the opportunity to go to Clarkson arose.”

Seale’s son said that feeling fits with what he knew about his father and racial topics.

“My father doesn’t see race,” Mark Seale said. “He never looks for discrimination. He doesn’t think that way.”

Don Seale remembers the day American Ed Skiffington arrived in Canada to take the physical education teaching position at Saint John High. Skiffington was interested in helping area hockey players earn collegiate scholarships in the United States, and Seale, who was class president at his school, was a candidate.

Already a talented skater, Seale discussed the idea with his high school coach, Norman “Mike” Marcus, and then with a friend, and he decided to head to Clarkson.

“I asked my best friend that if he had the opportunity to try it, would he do it, and he said, ‘without hesitation,’” Seale said.

The move was unusual for the time, not just from the standpoint of a black man attending an almost all-white university, but simply because a Canadian from the Maritimes was going to play hockey for a U.S. college.

“Attending an American university was an anomaly in and of itself,” Mark Seale said. “But to attend on a full athletic scholarship in hockey was very inspiring to me and to many other young Canadian kids, regardless of race.”

Don Seale’s first roommate at Clarkson was another black student, Jim Perry, who was from White Plains and was a couple of years older than him. They were in the same fraternity, and Seale remembers those days fondly and blissfully free of the rising racial strife occurring elsewhere in the country.

He found classes a challenge at first — “you couldn’t cram,” he said — but he found his footing on the ice right away.

“The hockey was the same,” Seale said, comparing the college game to his days in Saint John. “The players were the same caliber as myself, except for (two-time All-America center) Eddie Rowe. He was very good.

“He could skate, stick-handle. He had the whole package. Everyone else was more like me. But I wasn’t overwhelmed by the hockey aspect of it.”

Seale played four seasons for Clarkson, beginning in the fall of 1953, and he totaled five goals and 24 assists in 67 games. He was named to the All-East first team after the 1956-57 season, and the teams he played for were some of the best Clarkson had produced up to that time. The Golden Knights were 67-15-2 during Seale’s four seasons.

Off the ice, teammates barely heard from him. Gil Tennant, a fellow Canadian and Clarkson defenseman who roomed with Seale on road trips for two years, said his roommate merely went about his business.

“You never had to worry about him waking you up,” said Tennant, who once told Seale: “I don’t know much about you because you don’t say too much.”

“I guess that was my nature,” Seale said.

Instead, Seale spoke with a sizzling slap shot and a bruising style of play.

“When he boarded someone,” Rotunno said, “you could hear it.”

Said Tennant: “He was one of the top defensemen we had. He was a good 6 feet and all muscle.”

Rotunno and Tennant mentioned that players built like Seale weren’t nearly as commonplace as they are today. A 6-foot-1, 190-pound defenseman might not seem like much now, but Rotunno called Seale “imposing.”

In fact, perhaps Seale’s greatest attribute was his ability to stand up to trouble while on the ice.

Seale learned the physical game while growing up in Saint John, and he gave greater than he got. He found it a necessity simply from the standpoint of succeeding in the game. He knew it would be even more important once he came to Clarkson and saw faster, shiftier skaters.

“There were a lot of smaller and very quick and mobile players,” Seale said. “You couldn’t poke-check them and get any results — or I couldn’t, anyway. You had to take them out. When I was playing in high school, I found I got better results to play that way.”

It also was effective when opponents or fans became vocal, sometimes calling out Seale because of his race.

“He received rough treatment from the fans and from some of the other players,” Mark Seale said. “If the vitriol came from the ice, he would take care of it himself, with his teammates watching his back, swiftly, ruthlessly. His thought was, ‘why should I drop my gloves when I have this nice Sherwood hockey stick in my hands?’ If it came from the fans, he ignored it. Just play your game.

“But he never complained about it, never brought it up, never considered it an impediment to success.”

Rotunno and Seale both remember a holiday tournament at Christmastime at Boston Garden. Rotunno recalls an opponent saying something and a fight erupting on the ice. Seale remembers someone in the stands “saying some things.” But he shrugged it off.

“I heard more playing in the Maritimes,” he said.

A Times account from Dec. 31, 1954, states that Clarkson defeated Boston College 5-1 in Boston, adding: “in the rough contest, Clarkson’s Don Seale, Ellard Gutzman and Tom Meeker, along with BC’s Paul Sheehy, Dick Gagliardi and Don Fox, were banished at 6:43 of the finale for fighting.”

n n n

Seale was credited in the 1995 book “A Clarkson Mosaic,” by Bradford B. Broughton, as being the first black college hockey player in the United States. But according to several other publications, that honor belongs to Richard “Dick” Lord, who began playing for Michigan State in 1951.

Both Lord and Seale played for northern U.S. universities in a sport without a national presence, like baseball. Hockey’s regional nature in the United States took the focus off of the first black skaters. The masses just weren’t that interested in the game, particularly at the college level.

“The pockets were New England, upstate New York, the Ivys; that was it,” Rotunno said. “It didn’t get the press that it now gets. I remember the NCAA playoffs. It was a six-line mention.”

Seale’s name was published at least a dozen occasions in the Times during his Clarkson career, and his unique stature as a black player was never mentioned.

The Clarkson and St. Lawrence seasons received some publicity in the local papers, but even Clarkson’s decision not to compete in the NCAA Tournament after an undefeated 1955-56 season at 23-0 was buried at the end of a story about the Golden Knights’ season exploits.

While Seale was at Clarkson, the NCAA decided that freshmen weren’t allowed to compete, meaning that anyone on Clarkson’s 1955-56 team who had played as a freshman would not be permitted to play in the tournament. The Golden Knights had eight players on the team — including Seale — who had skated during their freshman years, but Clarkson voted to forgo the tournament rather than play without him and the seven others.

“It was a sad occasion,” Seale said. “At the time we had great depth. We lost those four or five seniors the following year, and we didn’t have that anymore. I just think back, if we had only played (in the NCAAs) with that team.”

“It was disappointing,” Rotunno said. “I still think about it.”

n n n

Seale’s children, Mark and Lori, were standout athletes, and both played hockey. Lori played volleyball for the University of Ottawa and is an inspector for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Mark figured to follow his father’s path as a standout player, but he eventually grew bigger than his dad and became too large for hockey. Football was his sport, and he received a full scholarship to the University of Richmond, a Division I football school at the time.

“As big as Don was, his son was huge,“ Rotunno said.

Mark Seale was drafted in the 12th round by the NFL’s New York Giants in 1982, as well as in the first round by the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa Rough Riders. After surviving until the Giants’ final cut, he went on to play seven years for the Rough Riders, Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

After Clarkson, Don Seale continued to play hockey, competing for the Halifax Wolverines in Nova Scotia in the Maritime Senior League, playing against players such as Gordie Howe during the NHL preseason. Seale met his wife, Juanita, in Halifax, and Mark was born there.

When Mark was young, his dad would regularly travel to the north country to play in semipro games. He’d also return to Clarkson and old Walker Arena to play in alumni games. Mark, 53, remembers students in the stands commenting on the size of his father and also recalls him playing as tough as he did in any of the Wolverines games.

“Back in 2001, I met him up at Potsdam, where the (1956) undefeated team was being honored on ice during the Harvard vs. Clarkson game,” Mark said. “Before the game we ran into some of his teammates, some of whom he hadn’t seen in decades. To a man, they lined up and gave him big hugs.”

Don Seale said he hasn’t been back to Clarkson alumni events for five or six years and remarked that the school has “changed considerably” from cramped, cozy Walker Arena, where he played his games. Even the school’s name is different now; it was changed from the Clarkson College of Technology to Clarkson University in 1984.

Mark, who works in corporate banking for Citigroup in Manhattan and has a son who played Division I lacrosse at Siena College, received more attention in football and in the United States than his dad did. But he realizes he isn’t the only one who looks up to his pioneering father.

“Last year my mom and dad and my family were sitting at a restaurant having lunch” in Halifax, Mark said. “The maitre d’, who was probably in his mid-60s, came over to the table and says to us, ‘gee, you look familiar.’ My kids assumed he was referring to me because I played pro football. (But) he was referring to my dad. He had seen him play for the Wolverines back in the early ’60s.”

“As rugged as they come,” the maitre d’ said, shaking Don Seale’s hand.

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