As John Mentis recalls, the Grade 9 French class in the Truro, Nova Scotia high school he attended in the mid-1950s was on Friday afternoons.
“That was when I would put my head on the desk and have a little rest. I thought, ‘When am I ever going to need to learn French?’”
Back then, young John was a budding Black athlete, especially in the school and district hockey and baseball systems. He learned to skate on the frozen ponds and marshes, encouraged by his father, Bob, an outstanding Maritimes’ senior hockey player, and his grandparents, who helped raise John and his four siblings after his mother died from a blood clot when John was only five years old.
“I was 18 years old when I left Truro, in 1956,” Mentis relates. “I signed a C- form with the Boston Bruins, and they sent me to training camp with the Quebec Aces, an affiliation with the Bruins at the time. I had an opportunity to practice with the Aces, and one of the players on the team was Willie O’Ree.”
Mentis was already familiar with the Fredericton, New Brunswick-born O’Ree, who blazed a trail for Black athletes by enduring the racial slings and arrows and became the first Black player in the National Hockey League, with the Bruins in 1958.
While O’Ree went on to the NHL ranks, Mentis was a training-camp cut, assigned to a team in Peterborough, Ontario. He wasn’t there for long, and suddenly he was on a bus headed to Chicoutimi to play for the local Quebec junior league team. As he was riding the bus Mentis thought that maybe he should have paid more attention in French class.
“I was the first Black player to play in the junior league in Saguenay region,” says Mentis. “And I was the only English- speaking player on the team. I got along well with my teammates. A few teammates could speak a bit of English. I remember my roommate was Jacques Allard. He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak French. We kept a French-English dictionary between the two beds.”
Mentis didn’t need a translator to tell him what spectators in rival rinks were saying about him.
“We had a big rivalry with Alma. And when we went there, the fans would shout things like (N-word) and Vico. That’s when I found out Vico was chocolate milk! I got called every name in the book. But the more names I got, the harder I played.
“It wasn’t as bad as some of the rinks in Nova Scotia. There was one game when I played midget, the fans in Berwick taunted me and three or four of the other Black players on the team. We beat Berwick and we needed a police escort to get out of the arena.”
The 18-year-old who left Truro to pursue an athletic career has enjoyed a remarkable life. John Mentis is 84, a soft-spoken gentleman – in both languages – and an esteemed, highly respected member of the community of Granby, where he has resided for almost 60 years. Despite a bothersome meniscus, he’s still able to golf at least twice a week at his member Miner Golf Club: “I can’t shoot 84, my age, but I’m usually in the low 90s.”
Mentis never had a full-fledged pro sports career. There were times when it looked like it might happen: “When the NHL expanded in 1967, Rudy Pilous, who was working with the Philadelphia Flyers at the time, told me they wanted to invite me for a tryout. I was the second-leading scorer in the Quebec Senior Provincial League, but I never heard any more from him.
“When I was 21, I had an offer to play Class A baseball in the Philadelphia Phillies’ system. They wanted to send me to their training camp in Florida. I had just married a French-Canadian girl and she wanted no part of moving to Florida. At that time in the U.S., Black people couldn’t use the same bathroom or walk on the same side of the road as white people. I wasn’t too interested in going to Florida.”
Mentis settled in Granby and carved out a semi-pro sports career. One of the Eastern Townships’ most versatile amateur athletes, Mentis starred for 13 seasons in the provincial baseball ranks with Granby. Waterloo, Acton Vale, Sherbrooke, Kenogami, where he played on two championship teams. He won three batting titles and was a key figure on the Granby Cardinals’ squad that won the Senior Provincial Championship in 1968.
This occurred just a few months after Mentis was an instrumental figure in the Victoriaville Tigers’ capturing the Allan Cup, awarded annually to the national senior men’s hockey champion.
While the twin championships further forged Mentis’s legendary amateur-sports status, it didn’t provide a steady income to survive. When he first settled in Granby, Mentis worked at jobs distributing Coca-Cola and cooking fiberglass in a local manufacturing plant.
One day, in 1966, Mentis saw an ad in the Granby newspaper – the federal government was looking to hire prison guards. Mentis successfully applied and was sent to St. Vincent-de-Paul, a maximum-security institution in Laval which, at the time, was Canada’s only francophone penitentiary.
“I had a four-month internship there,” relates Mentis. “I didn’t know it at the time, but they told afterwards I was the first Black prison guard in the federal penitentiary system.”
Just as he was in hockey arenas and on baseball diamonds, Mentis found himself in a minority position.
“At first, I was working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift,” he remembers. “I would hear things like, ‘What are you doing here, (N-word)?’ But it was in the dark, so you didn’t know where it was coming from.”
How did he cope with it?
“It’s the same thing as being taunted in sports. When somebody calls me that word, I tell them, I don’t like that word, can you
please change the
The internship led Mentis to a 30-year career in the prison system – over 26 years at the provincial level – working in Waterloo, Sweetsburg and Cowansville, where his expanded duties included overseeing the inmates’ physical and recreational activities.
Mentis’s career as a correctional officer has provided a nice pension that allows him to live comfortably in retirement. It has also removed any regrets from what might have been if he had pursued a professional sports career.
“When I left home, my father told me, ‘You’re going away to play hockey – try to find a good job because you’re not going to go anywhere with a full- time hockey career.’ I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out when I left Truro. Little did I think I would end up in Granby for 60 years. I’ve had a good life, and I feel at home here. You can’t change history.”