BELLINGHAM — Sleepless nights from sports were a thing for Eric Pettigrew back in the early 1980s while playing college football as an Oregon State left tackle.

Those Beavers won only six times his four seasons, and Pettigrew was hoarse from yelling “Look out, Eddie!’’ as defenders blitzed quarterback Ed Singler. Stress from that is one reason Pettigrew eschewed professional football tryouts for a political career and is now in his second decade as a representative in the Washington state legislature.

But last weekend, Pettigrew, 58, again was tossing and turning at night because of a pivotal sports moment from his past. This time it was driven by excitement rather than dread; he’d be meeting Alton White, a former pro hockey player he’d long idolized and without whom he feels the politics, football and escaping his gang-plagued South Central Los Angeles neighborhood might never have happened.

Hockey was Pettigrew’s first love as a child, an oddball choice among peers. White, back in 1972, was a rare black hockey player, skating for the L.A. Sharks of the fledgling World Hockey Association (WHA) when he turned to a preteen Pettigrew in the stands and winked at him.

“It changed my life,’’ Pettigrew recalled.

None of that was known to White, now 74 and retired from running his family’s construction business in British Columbia. But in July, White was told that — for a story on National Hockey League diversity measures — Pettigrew mentioned how the wink had convinced the future lawmaker he, too, could join a bigger world beyond gangs and poverty.

White, who didn’t remember the wink, was stunned to hear of its impact. He repeated the story to longtime friend Doug Deacon, who phoned Pettigrew’s legislative office and arranged a lunch meetup. And so, 47 years after the player’s gesture, Pettigrew, White, Deacon and their wives drove midway between their homes to a seaside restaurant in Bellingham to discuss life’s unexpected twists.

Advertising

Before Pettigrew’s restaurant arrival, White mentioned being touched by the tale.

“I always did what I could to try to reach out to younger people,’’ White said. “To hear that I had that kind of impact, I’ll be honest, it overwhelms me a little.”

Moments later, Pettigrew and his wife, Nicole, arrived toting a replica Sharks jersey and souvenir hockey stick. Pettigrew and White, introduced for the first time, smiled and hugged. And for 90 minutes, they sat side by side, chatting like old friends about hockey, former teammates, grandchildren, planned vacations and — most of all — their respective paths to the table that day.

Pettigrew talked about being raised by his mother, Naomi, in Crips gang territory in South Central, where early memories were of fires during the 1965 Watts riots. He told White of mapping out the walking route to his junior high school in advance, given it sat in rival gang territory and he’d been frequently jumped and robbed.

Others at the table grew silent as Pettigrew, in more hushed tones, described events preceding the Sharks game that night in 1972; how, then age 11, he’d previously spent four months in a wheelchair recovering from surgery for a genetic hip problem and was still learning to walk properly again.

“That was a what you might call a dark period,’’ Pettigrew told White.

Advertising

His voice wavering, he relayed how his mother, sensing her son’s depression, offered to drive him and his pal, Tony, to the Sharks game to cheer him up. Tony was his only friend as hockey enthused as Pettigrew. With no ice rinks nearby, neither played the game.

But they loved hockey’s speed and physical nature, becoming avid fans of the NHL’s L.A. Kings and later the WHA’s Sharks.

“It was a blessing in disguise in a way because it gave me an identity in the neighborhood,” Pettigrew told White. “I was the hockey guy.”

By the end of that Sharks game, though, Pettigrew’s self-identity would expand.

After Pettigrew’s mother dropped them off, they’d sneaked down to ice level seats near the home dressing room. As the Sharks took the ice, the boys spotted the lone black player and screamed out his name.

“That’s when you turned and looked at me,’’ Pettigrew told White. “I’ll never forget it. You saw me.’’

Alton White circa 1972 with Los Angeles Sharks.  (Courtesy of White family / )
Alton White circa 1972 with Los Angeles Sharks. (Courtesy of White family / )

Nova Scotia-born White’s route to the game that night had been markedly different. His foundry-worker father had moved their family to hockey-crazed Winnipeg, where young White became a local junior star. By the 1966-67 season, he’d landed with the minor pro Columbus Checkers, a Chicago Blackhawks farm team.

Though White tallied 35 goals and 50 assists that season, he knew he would have little chance of cracking a Chicago lineup featuring Hall of Famers Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. But White hoped the NHL’s pending expansion from six to 12 teams would help him become that league’s second black player after Willie O’Ree from years prior.

Upon expansion, he spent three seasons with the minor-pro Providence Reds — affiliated with the NHL’s new California Golden Seals — scoring 24, 29 and 30 goals each campaign.

“I kept waiting for a call,’’ White said. “But that call never came.’’

By 1972, fed up with waiting, he joined the New York Raiders of the WHA — a new, short-lived NHL-rival league. Stymied by a lack of ice-time, he demanded a trade and was shipped to the Sharks, where he scored 20 goals — second highest on the team — over 57 games.

White was the first black player to reach the 20-goal mark in a major pro league. He’d also become a popular pregame speaker with local youths, trying to drum up hockey interest and be an example for them.

Advertising

“I was always hoping I could reach somebody,’’ he told Pettigrew.

Injuries derailed White’s follow-up season in L.A. and by 1974-75, the financially-strapped Sharks had moved to Michigan.

White scored nine goals in 21 games that season before deciding, at age 29, he’d had enough. He and his wife, Linda, were building a home in B.C. and done crisscrossing the continent for a hockey dream that seemingly had run its course.

Ready for new challenges, he joined his brothers in their construction business. That season White quit, Mike Marson of the Washington Capitals became the NHL’s second black player, followed a year later by the third, Bill Riley.

White insists he doesn’t regret retiring when he did nor attribute his NHL snub to racism.

Years later, he’d met up at a hockey reunion with Bob Leduc — a white former captain of their Providence team — who was equally puzzled why the Seals had promoted lesser scorers over them.

Advertising

They eventually blamed money. Providence was independently owned and stocked with its own players and others controlled by the affiliated Seals. White and Leduc had signed with Providence, meaning the Seals needed to purchase their contracts rather than simply promoting players whose rights they already owned.

“I don’t like to blame all that other stuff (skin color) for things,’’ White said. “I chalk it up to wrong place, wrong time.’’

Pettigrew left the arena following White’s wink in 1972 with his head in the perfect place. It was as if, having shared something with a pro player, a better life seemed attainable.

Within two years, he’d persuaded his mother to let him live with his grandmother 20 miles away in La Puente, Calif., and far removed from his previous streets. He’d play high-school football there, which begot a scholarship to Oregon State followed by graduate school at the University of Washington.

Pettigrew became a staffer for council member Norm Rice, who, upon becoming Seattle’s mayor, appointed Pettigrew chief of staff. In 2002, Pettigrew was elected to the state legislature.

But he never stopped loving hockey and often wondered what became of the player who’d impacted him so profoundly. Now, at long last lunching with White, Pettigrew announced some big news: He’d taken a job with NHL Seattle, as a director of suites services and a community ambassador.

White, Pettigrew’s childhood influence, was delighted.

Over the years, White had resumed playing hockey after an invitation to join the Vancouver Canucks Alumni Association. There, White met Deacon, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who’d briefly joined the 1970-71 Philadelphia Flyers for a training-camp tryout.

“He still has sweet hands — not just for scoring goals, but for passing the puck,’’ Deacon said of White. “But as great a player as he still is, all the guys to a man will tell you he’s even greater off the ice.’’

Though White endured racist taunts and unsettling episodes while playing, Deacon said his perpetually positive friend hasn’t let it define him.

White’s wife is white, as is Deacon and his spouse. The couples enjoy traveling together and on their last trip, to Huatulco, Mexico, they say White was constantly recognized by Canadian snowbirds fondly remembering not only his pro career, but even more so his Winnipeg junior days.

With the Canucks alumni, White plays with ex-NHLers he’d previously dreamed of joining. He goes by “Whitey” with them — a nickname long ago derived from his surname, not a skin-color joke — though misunderstanding newcomers do cringe.

“They’ll whisper ‘You shouldn’t call him that just because he’s black,’ ’’ Deacon said. “Whitey finds it hilarious.’’

Their lunch winding down, Pettigrew asked White to autograph his Sharks jersey and stick. As they posed for photos, White handed Pettigrew a signed, framed picture from his WHA days.

Pettigrew admired the gift and thanked White profusely. After a parting hug, with both promising future meetups, Pettigrew thanked him again.

“You let me know,” Pettigrew told him, “that I mattered.”

White smiled and replied: “Hearing that matters to me, too.”

One hockey ambassador to another, their improbable circle was complete.