Penfield Hockey Stars Carry On Family Tradition of Black Excellence on the Ice

by DARIEN LAMEN

ROCHESTER NY--Two Penfield high school students led their hockey team to a historic victory this month.


On March 13th, brothers Chris Smith Jr. and Sean Smith scored the only goals in the Section V championship game against Churchville-Chili, carrying the Penfield Patriots to their first sectional title since the team started in 1972.


It was a remarkable finish to an unusual season.


"It was my older son's senior year and we weren't sure if he was going to get a season because of COVID," says the teens' father, Christopher Smith Sr.


"So that was a nice way for him to finish his high school career--playing with his brother and also winning a sectional championship."


Smith says his sons have been playing hockey together since they were 4 and 5 years old.


But the teens are not the only ones in their family to make local hockey history.


Christopher Smith Sr. still holds the point record for Pittsford-Mendon High School. He went on to play for SUNY Geneseo, where he holds the record for all-time leading scorer. In the early 1990s, he played for two minor league teams--the Louisville Icehawks and the Roanoke Express.


And in addition to all those accomplishments, Christopher Smith Sr. has the distinction of being part of the first generation of African American hockey players in the Rochester area.


Those players, including Christopher Sr.'s older brother Clifford, all did more than just play the game. Like him, they excelled.

Photo: Courtesy Christopher Smith Sr.

"Second nature"


The Smith brothers were part of a close-knit group of neighbors who grew up in Rochester's historically-Black 19th Ward during the 1960s and 70s.


Clifford Smith credits the mothers of their friend group with introducing them to skating, hockey, and other activities they might not otherwise have experienced.


"They were trying to expose us to different things, to stuff that the kids in the suburbs would do," Clifford Smith says. "We would ask, 'Mom, can I go skiing?' And she'd learn what needed to be done with the equipment and all that. And since our father was a physician, we had the means to pay for it."


Most of the African American kids who played hockey in Rochester during the 60s and 70s were the children of professionals or up-and-coming entrepreneurs--people like Herbert Thornton's father, who owned Genesee Funeral Homes and Tempa Quick Delivery.


Thornton says his parents "didn’t have a clue" what hockey was all about. But, like the Smiths, they wanted their children to have the exposure, to feel that nothing was off-limits to them.


It isn't like he didn't play football and basketball too, Thornton says. But hockey was the sport he fell in love with.


"It was fast, because it was ice. It was just like playing football, because you got to hit people. And then it was finesse, like basketball. It became second nature really."



Hockey with a side of Canadian bacon


The first generation of Black hockey players in Rochester all came up through the Lions Club Youth Hockey League.


As the players moved up through the age groups, they eventually got a chance to play on travel teams. At the end of the local season, the best players from across the league were formed into teams that represented Rochester on the road.


There were overnight games in Buffalo, Albany, Ottawa, Montreal.


For Herbert Thornton, one of the most memorable aspects of the travel team experience was "billeting." Each player on the away team was paired with a player from the home team who put them up for the night.


Thornton says his father, who accompanied the Rochester team on its trips, often worried about what kind of experience his son might have with those home-stays, especially in places where local families might never have even spoken with a Black person before.


"Before the game, the hush-hush in the rink would always be, 'Who's getting the Black guy?'" Thornton recalls. "But by the end of the game, it was, 'Who's getting number 5? We want 5! He was amazing!' In other words, the ability to play the game took the color out of the scenario."


The next morning, there was sometimes even a home-cooked breakfast of poached eggs and Canadian bacon to wake up to too.



"Go play your own game"


Thornton and the Smiths all speak fondly about their years in the Lions Club Youth League.


But they acknowledge there were challenges. to being the only African Americans in the sport. And the challenges grew as they did.


Thornton played hockey for Penfield High School from 1977 to 1980, after his family moved away from the 19th Ward to a place on the Brighton-Penfield line.


"There was always someone on the ice that would call us that word, all the way through high school," Thornton says.


Clifford Smith also remembers hearing that word when he was playing for Brighton High School in the late 1970s, adding that sometimes altercations on the ice spilled over outside the rink.


"Sometimes I'd catch stuff like, 'N--, go play your own game.' Certain players, their focus was on getting me, getting the Black kid," Smith says. "But then there was stuff that led to [issues] off the ice too."


As a student in the Urban-Suburban Program who didn't live in the same neighborhood as his classmates, Clifford Smith says he often felt like he was treated differently, and not just by the other students.


During his senior year, he says trouble with a teacher brought things to a head.


"Four days before the first game, I got kicked out of the school," Clifford recalls. "That was the first time I ever saw my father cry."


Clifford Smith says his family tried to fight the decision, but in the end he finished out his senior year at Madison High School in the Rochester City School District, where there was no hockey team.


That was devastating, he says. But it wasn’t the end of his hockey days.


Clifford Smith continued to play for the Lions Youth League, adding the title of Defenseman of the Year to his status as a Monroe County All-Star. And after graduating, he went on to play hockey at the University of Bridgeport Connecticut.



Keep it moving


In the face of the challenges, Herbert Thornton says he and his peers did their best to outmaneuver whatever licks came their way.


Not that he minded the physical hits on the boards. He says that part was exhilarating.


But one of the lessons the game of hockey teaches is that you have to keep moving.


"It's very dynamic. The game always kept moving," Thornton says. "Of course you don't let someone say anything to you. But it's not all about retaliation. It's about being smarter. Hear and don't hear. Get 'em by your performance. That's how I think all of us looked at it."


Even if others tried to knock them down, these young men were there to build each other up. That much is clear from the way they talk about each other, even today.


"Cliffy was amazing, dude, you have no idea," Thornton tells me unprompted. "This dude would step across the red line and crank up a slap shot and beat a goalie every time. I can say, he was the best out of all of us. If you're going to print anything, make sure you print that."




Chris (L) and Sean Smith (R); photo courtesy C. Smith Sr.

Today, Herbert Thornton lives in Florida. But his old friend Clifford Smith keeps him up to date on all the latest hockey news from Rochester, including Chris Jr. and Sean Smith's outstanding performance at Thornton's alma mater.


"Chris and Sean came up through the ranks like us, and to get to high school and to carry the Penfield Patriots to the sectional championship was amazing," Thornton says.


Clifford Smith's voice also soars as he describes his nephews' performance throughout the season. He makes sure to point out how much they play off of and complement each other on the ice. "They each passed it to each other and got an assist on each other's goals," he says.


Christopher Smith Sr. says that's just the way his sons are--team players.


They are continuing on in a proud tradition of Black excellence, making history just like their father and uncles did before them. And they've got a community of people, some as far away as Florida, who are rooting for them.


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DARIEN LAMEN is news director/producer for Reclaiming the Narrative. He can be reached at wxirnews@gmail.com.

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