Despite being called ‘coon and monkey’, here’s how Black players influenced Canadian hockey

Michael Eli Dokosi May 31, 2020
Coloured Hockey League, 1910 via Wikimedia Commons

For the average African on the continent as well as the average Black in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and the Caribbean states, Blacks have nothing to do with ice hockey because it has been branded as a white sport.

It is argued that among the four major sporting options, ice hockey is the most white, but as scholar and historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke asserted that white culture is a teenage civilization, Blacks have a contributory hand in the sports of ice hockey.

The roots of modern Canadian hockey originate, in large part, from the influence of an even more surprising source, that of early African-Canadian hockey. For it was Black hockey players in the later half of the nineteenth century whose style of play and innovations helped shape the sport, effectively changing the game of hockey forever, according to “Black Ice”, a book about Black presence in the sport.

25-year-old left wing Willie O’Ree, the first black player of the National Hockey League, warms up in his Boston Bruins uniform, prior to the game with the New York Rangers, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, on November 23, 1960. AP Photo

The narrative continues “Among the first reports of hockey being played occur in 1815 along the isolated Northwest Arm, south of Halifax. The date is important for the simple fact that as late as October 1815 the region was not home to a large White settlement but was instead the site of a small Black enclave. Four Black families originally from the Chesapeake Bay area, with a total of fifteen children, had relocated and settled on the Arm.”

So if ice hockey isn’t “lily white” and indeed has a melanin contribution, what is it?

Hockey in Canada is thought to have started in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1802 and eventually spread across the country. Early records indicate that around 1815 Blacks were playing an early form of hockey amongst themselves on the frozen waters of the North West Arm area in Halifax, Nova Scotia. With the increased popularity in hockey by the 1880s, teams and leagues were formed across Canada. In Ontario, for example, in the late 1890s and early 1900s Blacks like Hipple “Hippo” Galloway, Charlie Lightfoot and Fred “Bud” Kelly played on White teams as did Herb and Ossie Carnegie and others in later years. However, in Nova Scotia, things for Blacks had changed over time. They were denied the opportunity to play on local White teams because of their race.”

Despite being called ‘coon and monkey’, here’s how Black players influenced Canadian hockey
Team photo of the St. Catharines Orioles (Photo provided by Donna Ford)

While mischievous whites claim Blacks couldn’t endure cold, have weak ankles for skating, the reality is that Blacks formed the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes. According to George and Darril Fosty, authors of the groundbreaking book “Black Ice”, all Black teams started forming around 1895 and by 1900 the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes was fully formed and based in Halifax. It ended coincidentally (or not) around the same time the NHL was formed, around the mid 1920’s.

“Led by skilled and educated leadership, the Colored League would emerge as a premier force in Canadian hockey and supply the resilience necessary to preserve a unique culture; a culture that exists to this day. Unfortunately, such was their fate, that their contributions were conveniently ignored, or simply stolen, as White teams and hockey officials, influenced by the Black league, copied elements of the Black style or sought to take self-credit for Black hockey innovations,” according to George and Fosty.

Then there is Henry Braces Franklyn of the Dartmouth Jubilees, who came up with the “butterfly style” of goaltending, not allowed in other leagues at the time. Twenty years later it would become the standard in goaltending. But as usual, with the thieving ways of the appropriator, hockey’s Hall-of-Fame brothers Lynn and Frank Patrick and their Pacific Coast Hockey League are credited as the first individuals and league to allow goaltenders to play in this manner. Due credit is denied Franklyn and the Colored League.

Image result for P.K. Subban.
New Jersey Devils defenceman P.K. Subban heads for ice and pregame warmup before NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 25, 2019.

Kwame Mason who directed “Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future,” touched on African-Canadian players and trailblazers such as Herb Carnegie, Willie O’Ree to superstar P.K. Subban.

He noted, because the Black hockey players were also baseball players, they started introducing baseball elements to hockey. An example being Eddie Martin of the Halifax Eurekas, who invented the “slap shot”, 25 years before Frank Cook introduced it to the National Hockey League.

With Blacks having soul and any social meet set to be fly, the Colored League was so popular sometimes recording 2000 fans including Whites because they entertained with live bands and skating contests to engage the audience. Stuff not offered at the White games at the time although its commonplace now.

Image result for Africville

Africville was the center of the Black population where the action was but a few decades on, the city of Halifax decided they needed large portions of land to run a railway right through community kicking Black people out of their homes ending the Colored Hockey League in 1930.

With as many as a dozen teams, over 400 African-Canadian players from across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island participated in competition.

Prominent players from the Colored League and lawyers fought back but it wasn’t to be. “The team stopped getting ice time or got poor ice, media stopped covering the games, people stopped coming, and the league was effectively killed off, left to play on outdoor ponds. There were several factors contributing to the gradual decline of the league, including World War I and the Halifax Explosion of 1917, but the Africville issue was perhaps the most critical factor.”

Around the same time all this was happening, the NHL was formed in 1917 and it took them 41 years to allow any Black players. New Brunswick native Willie O’Ree made his debut with the Boston Bruins in 1958.  It will take another 14 years before another Black player was signed to the NHL.

Image result for herb carnegie
Herb Carnegie via Bernice Carnegie

Herb Carnegie is known as the greatest hockey player to never play in the NHL simply because he was Black. Carnegie was fast and skilled and Kwame Mason reckons he must be inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame for his contributions to the game posthumously. Carnegie featured in Mason’s documentary. He described him as a man of foresight, who established a hockey school to teach the game which has become the norm in many parts of Canada.

The Canadian society gave a hard time to the players of color as racial slurs such as nigger, coon, spook, snowball and monkey were hurled at the few Black players during play.

“White people it seems had a perception that hockey was a White man’s sport, and Black people should stick to sports like basketball or baseball,” stated Bob Dawson, the first Black player in 1967 in the Atlantic Intercollegiate Hockey League.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: May 31, 2020


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