Growing up as the only Black hockey player on Prince Edward Island, Ryan Maxwell said he knows what it’s like to stand out.
Maxwell was five years old when he and his mother, Anne Maxwell, moved from Dartmouth, N.S., to Anne’s hometown of Charlottetown, P.E.I.
With hockey roots on both sides of his family, Maxwell started playing organized hockey as a minor, then as a junior, before moving on to play semi-pro.
After suffering a series of injuries, Maxwell, 42, retired in his late 20s and went on to coach both women’s and men’s teams at P.E.I.’s Holland College from 2010 to 2018 before moving on to coach minor girls hockey in Charlottetown.
“Both my daughters play hockey so it was one of those things where I’d be away with Holland College and end up missing their games,” he said.
“So once they got to a certain age I decided that it’d be better for me to put my efforts into coaching my own kids, which I coach my oldest daughter, Georgia now for the last three years. So I don’t miss many games anymore and kind of give back at a grassroots level I suppose.”
Two Sundays ago, Maxwell coached his 14-year-old daughter Georgia’s team’s final game of the regular season at the Cody Banks Arena in Charlottetown.
Prior to that game, Maxwell spoke to the Halifax Examiner about his career as a former player, his family’s storied roots in the game, and the evolution of racism in hockey over the years, including his own experience as the sole Black hockey player growing up in P.E.I.
Maxwell’s family roots in hockey run deep on both sides of his family, although he said it was through his father’s side where he first gained an interest in the game.
“Growing up, because of my Maxwell roots in Truro, having so many aunts and uncles – my father’s one of 14 – and all of them being super athletic, that’s kinda where I … feel like I got my passion for hockey,” he said.
Ryan’s father, Scotty Maxwell, played for the Truro Jr. Bearcats in the early 60’s. One of his uncles, Darrell Maxwell (who also founded the Apex golf tournament – one of the longest-running annual gatherings of Black people in Canada) was part of the first-ever all-Black hockey line in Canadian university sports while playing for the Saint Mary’s Huskies alongside Bob Dawson and former African Nova Scotian Affairs Minister, Percy Paris.
Another one of his uncles, the late Stan “Chook” Maxwell, was a friend and contemporary of Willie O’Ree and played minor pro in Canada and the U.S., and once played a pro exhibition game with the Boston Bruins.
“Uncle Chook is obviously a local legend in Truro and a lot of people really revere him, as do I and as I did as a young hockey player,” Maxwell said.
“But learning more and more about the other side of my family and their roots and how they’re connected to the game is really interesting to me. It’s something I’m still researching myself and learning more about every day.”
Maxwell’s mother, Anne Maxwell, was born and raised in Charlottetown. Her grandparents on both sides of her family were from a long-forgotten Black neighbourhood/community known as The Bog.
In an interview with the Halifax Examiner, Anne said that she had two great-grandfathers, one on each side of her family, who played in the former Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes for the West End Rangers. The Rangers were the sole team in the Colored Hockey League out of P.E.I.
“John Thomas Mills started the team, he was president of the West End Rangers,” she said, speaking about her mother’s side of the family. “And his sons – there were four of them – played on the team. (One of his sons) was also named John Thomas Mills.”
“So (John Thomas Mills Sr.) the one who started it would have been my great-great-grandfather. And Jack Mills, one of (his sons) who played on the team … would have been my great grandfather.”
She said her great grandfather on her father’s side, Al Ryan, also played on the team.
Anne was also the president of the former Black Islanders Cooperative, a volunteer research group that studied the genealogy of Black people living on P.E.I.
Anne said she always knew she was a descendant from one of ‘The Seven Sheppard Sisters’ from P.E.I. Through a genealogy project with the Cooperative, she was able to trace her roots back even further to the first Black people to ever inhabit the Island.
In 1786, the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, Edmund Fanning, became lieutenant governor of P.E.I. When he arrived on Prince Edward Island (known then as John’s Island) Anne said he brought with him four enslaved people of African descent. Two of them were a husband-and-wife couple, David Sheppard and Keisha Wilson Sheppard.
“So Keisha and David, I think they had five kids. One son, Benjamin, is responsible for a lot of us. There’s a whole lot of descendants. So Benjamin, I think, had 10 kids. And one of them, Edmund Sheppard, had those seven Sheppard sisters,” she said.
“On my mother’s side, one of the Sheppard sisters, Caroline Sheppard, married Jonas Gallant, a sailor from Rustico P.E.I. And on my father’s side, Elizabeth Sheppard married (Edmund or Ralph) Walsh.”
After Fanning’s arrival, she said a number of British generals also brought enslaved people of African descent to the island, some of whom are ancestors of Rocky Johnson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“There was definitely a slave population here, and slave laws,” she said.
She said a genealogy researcher from Montague, P.E.I. estimates that about 40% of that island’s present-day, predominately white population are descendants of former slaves.
“When we did the research a lot of people were reluctant to claim their ancestry,” she said.
“I had one man…he was an older man, like my parents’ age, he came down to my place of work and said to me, ‘It took us 100 years to live this down, now you’re bringing it all up again.’”
“A weird space”
Though the Island was once home to a large Black population and an all-Black Colored Hockey League team, over time The Bog ceased to exist, and the population of Black islanders dwindled.
“When Ryan and I moved back to P.E.I we were it, in terms of Black people in P.E.I.,” she recalled.
At present, five P.E.I. minor hockey players are appealing their respective 25-game suspensions and mandatory anti-racist training stemming from a series of alleged incidents at a hockey tournament in Charlottetown last year.
Mark Connors, a 16-year-old Black player from Halifax, said he had the n-word yelled at him from the stands during a game, and later to his face at a hotel where other racist remarks were made.
In 2018, Connors was also called the n-word by an opposing player in Tantallon, N.S. during a game that landed the player a 45-game suspension.
Ryan Maxwell declined to comment directly about the most recent alleged incident involving Connors because the appeal is ongoing and because he coaches for Hockey PEI, the organization that issued the suspensions.
Still, he said he knows what it’s like to have to deal with racism as the only Black player on a team in a predominately white sport.
“It’s a weird space man, it’s a really weird space because I love hockey, it’s literally in my roots, and it’s done a lot for me. And 90% of the people, maybe more, have been good to me through the sport. White people. They’ve been really good to me, I’ve had a lot of support,” he said.
“So when you’re one of one, for the most part…and something like this happens, it just further alienates you. And the last thing you wanna do is bring more attention to it because then you gotta sit in that for a long time. And it’s uncomfortable.”
Following Connors’ most recent allegations, Maxwell said that Hockey Nova Scotia rallied behind Connors and pulled all of their players indefinitely from any future hockey tournaments in P.E.I.
Maxwell said he was “really impressed” with how Hockey Nova Scotia handled things and with the solidarity they showed Connors when he told them what had happened.
“Not that long ago, that just wouldn’t happen. I shouldn’t say it wouldn’t happen. It didn’t happen,” he said.
“(It wasn’t) every day, it’s not like that. And sometimes it’s more subtle, but a lot of times it wasn’t. Whether it was going to a small town in New Brunswick or traveling to Quebec and having fans screaming (racial obscenities) at you. At the time it was a motivator for me. Obviously, I internalized it a bit, but I used that internalization as motivation. So that’s kind of how I dealt with it at the time.”
After his interview with the Halifax Examiner two weeks ago, Maxwell went on to coach his daughter Georgia’s team to a 2-1 victory. That same day, his nine-year-old daughter Mia’s game ended in a 3-3 tie.