Every morning, Ed Wright, 72, walks 5 miles around his suburban neighborhood outside Tucson, Ariz. He does this as much for his mental health as his physical well-being. “I get to reflect,” he says. “Not a day goes by where my experiences at UB aren’t the first thing on my mind.”
Wright’s career as a coach, teacher and administrator spanned more than 40 years, beginning in 1970, when the university made NCAA history by hiring him as the first black hockey coach in the country. As such, his path would not be easy, but it was nothing his early life hadn’t prepared him for.
Wright grew up in poverty in Chatham, Ontario, about 50 miles across the border from Detroit. His father died when he was 6, and to help fill the void, he threw himself into sports. He played baseball and football, but excelled in hockey.
He was nicknamed “Pebble” because of his small size. He was called far worse because he was black. Still, the 5-foot-3, 138-pounder chose hard work over hatred, ignoring the insults hurled his way in multiple arenas.
Wright played on scholarship at Boston University, among the nation’s elite hockey programs, from 1965 to 1969. He stayed at BU for his master’s in education and had offers to teach in the Boston public school system when UB came calling. It was 1970 and, having just obtained varsity status, the hockey program needed a full-time coach.
With the campus in protest at the time over racial bias in athletics, the university was eager to hire a black coach. Bulls player Paul Morrissey (BA ’71), a former teammate of Wright’s in Chatham, suggested Wright for the gig. “The stars aligned for me,” says Wright, who was hired as both the hockey coach and a physical education instructor (he was later promoted to assistant professor, then professor and director of recreation and intramural services). “I wanted to teach and coach, and I was able to do that at UB. It was an unbelievably fulfilling dream.”
But on the flip side of the dream were the realities of being a person of color in a very white sport. Fans in opposing arenas often chanted racial slurs at Wright, and even mocked UB’s players for skating for a black coach.
At a team dinner one night, the server presented the check to each of the players—all of whom were white—before finally handing it to Wright. “I chuckle at that because of the ignorance it shows,” he says. “Those things take their toll on you. But you can overcome all that with hard work and determination, the belief that you can’t be denied.”
Wright brought respect and credibility to UB’s fledgling hockey program. As a coach, he took pride in his ability to push his players to be their best. One of those players, Tunney Murchie (MBA ’76, BA ’75), was so appreciative of his mentor that in 2010 he donated $220,000 to have the renovated Triple Gym in Alumni Arena renamed the Edward L. Wright Practice Facility.
Wright led UB’s hockey program until 1981, when he took a leave of absence to work on his doctorate. He returned for his 12th and final season in 1986. The following year, hockey at UB became a club sport, which it remains today.
Wright’s impact at UB extended well beyond the ice, touching countless students’ lives through his role as director of intramural programs. He retired in 2012 as head of the academic instruction program for the Division of Athletics and moved to Arizona with his wife, Sheila.
He has made a point of visiting Buffalo for the annual UB hockey alumni game each year since retiring. And despite some of the difficult situations he endured, he remains extremely fond of his time here.
“The university is very much a part of me and will continue to be,” he says. “I feel blessed to have had the opportunities I did at UB.”
"The rarest bird in the forest" Great article on a great human being. We miss him here.