Black influences on the game of hockey not often spoken about (Sway Magazine)

By Ryan B. Patrick

Despite the growing presence of African-Canadian players in the world of professional hockey—Jarome Iginla, Wayne Simmonds and PK Subban, to name a few—Canada’s national pastime is still largely considered a “white man’s sport.”

But many Canadians don’t realize that trademarks associated with the National Hockey League (NHL) such as the goalie butterfly playing style, the slap shot (which is largely credited to white player Frank Cook but was actually first taken by African-Canadian Eddie Martin), and more offensive-minded play, were all innovations introduced by African-Canadians in the early 1900s.

More specifically, it was players of the Halifax-based Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes in the 1920s who brought forth many of the game-changers. The league featured more than a dozen teams and 400 players from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Despite hardships and prejudice, this league—comprised of the sons and grandsons of runaway American slaves—would survive until the mid-1920s.

Sadly, the storied tradition of Black Canadian hockey players is as faded as the historical record itself, and white players of the era have often overshadowed these players’ memories and contributions, say Canadian historians and documentary filmmakers George and Darril Fosty. In 2007, the Fosty brothers released Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925. Based on extensive, painstaking research, the book uncovers the hidden history of hockey in Canada.

The roots of early Canadian hockey, note the Fosty brothers, originate with the North American Natives while the modern day game has many Black influences. But because ice hockey’s story has been based almost solely on the historical records maintained by early white historians, the brothers say, the contributions and innovations that Black Canadians made to the game have been forgotten, deliberately destroyed or conveniently ignored.

“When we released our book, we were immediately attacked by traditionalists,” says George. “Critics tried to disprove it by looking for anything that would question our research, but they actually enhanced some of our storylines by adding additional references. I don’t know that we’ll recover all of it but there were in fact at least 42 hockey teams that existed in the 1890s to 1930s that were all Black, that we know of. We still only have about 30 per cent of the story at this point. But that 30 per cent is so amazing and makes you wonder where the rest of it is.”

And despite today’s increased presence of African-Canadian and African-American players, the specter of racism still looms. Most recently, it surfaced this past September when Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds was taunted with a banana thrown by a fan in a preseason game. There is also a gap, say the brothers, in promoting hockey to Black Canadians.

“There’s been a poor marketing job by professional hockey in making today’s game relevant to African-Canadians, culturally,” says George’s brother Darril. “When white Canadians had hockey heroes like Guy Lafleur, who were easily recognizable as sports heroes, for Blacks there wasn’t the same thing.”

(Originally published in the December 2012 (Winter) issue of Sway Magazine)

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