ALTHOUGH HIS TIME with the Flyers ended well before he could have hoped, Claude Vilgrain's impact on Philadelphia hockey was beyond anything he could have ever imagined.
As the first black player ever to play a game for the Flyers, Vilgrain suited up during the 1993-94 season for only two games before the NHL experienced a lockout one season later. If not for the 1994-95 lockout, the right winger thought he would have spent a lot more time wearing an orange-and-black uniform.
"I was hoping that I could play there many, many more years," Vilgrain said of his time spent in Philadelphia. "I enjoyed the city and the organization, and this was a place that I saw myself for a while, but then the next year, the lockout happened, and I went to Switzerland and I decided to stay. I miss the experience and wish I could have had a few more years in the NHL."
Before arriving in Philadelphia, Vilgrain had made two previous stops in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks and the New Jersey Devils. After beginning his career in 1980 with the Laval Voisins in Quebec, Vilgrain said he was used to being the first black player wherever he played, without it being a big deal.
"Everywhere I went, I was usually the first [black player] there," he said. "It's not like nowadays, where it's more common. I was always a novelty and always a guy that was always interviewed, because this was new for a lot of people. Even with the 2 years that I spent traveling around the world with the Canadian national team, I was always the first one and a novelty for them."
Instead of worrying about what others thought of his race, Vilgrain did whatever he could to perform and succeed on the ice in whatever city he was playing. Besides the normal heckling he received from fans, Vilgrain said he adjusted well to being Philadelphia's first black hockey player.
"Most of the issues I had came when I was playing in Europe," Vilgrain said. "Otherwise, I didn't really have a lot of trouble. When I was playing in the NHL, I never really had a lot of trouble, other than the normal stuff you would get from fans.
"I didn't even realize it at the time that I was the first black player for the Flyers, but I also didn't realize at the time the influence that I was having on the kids during my career.
"Even when I was retired, I would run into kids that would say they were cheering for us. It was something that I wish I could have understood when I was playing, but it was hard at times. I'm just glad that I know I made a positive impact for a lot of kids."
Born in Port-au-Prince, Vilgrain also became the first Haitian-born player in the NHL in 1987. He went on to play 89 total games in the NHL with the Canucks, Devils and Flyers, compiling 21 goals and 32 assists, with his best season coming in 1991-92 with New Jersey, in which he scored 19 goals and 27 assists in 71 games.
For the former Flyer, the one moment that sticks out when looking back upon his career did not come as a Flyer, but during his rookie season in 1987-88 with the Canucks.
"It was unbelievable," Vilgrain said of his first NHL goal, which came against the Flyers. "I had all sorts of respect for the Flyers from watching them growing up playing against my favorite team, the Montreal Canadiens. I thought I was going to play 20 years in the NHL after that, but it just didn't work out that way."
After 17 seasons of playing in the minors, NHL, overseas and in Canada, Vilgrain hung up his skates in 1999 after scoring 16 goals and 29 assists with the Schwenninger Wild Wings in Germany.
More than 20 years after playing his final game for the Flyers, Vilgrain, 51, has spent his time working, while also remaining active in the game by coaching a youth hockey team in Canada. In addition to coaching his daughter, who received a hockey scholarship at the University of New Hampshire, Vilgrain is most proud of being a pioneer for black NHL players in Philadelphia such as Donald Brashear and current Flyers Ray Emery and Wayne Simmonds.
"When I played, I never realized the impact I would be having on kids," Vilgrain said. "There were little black kids playing then, but to see guys like Emery and Simmonds playing now is what is great. To see them be successful and have great careers is really a great feeling for me."