The director of a documentary chronicling the experiences of Black Canadian hockey players said it wasn’t until he and his crew visited Nova Scotia that he was able to make the connection between today’s Black players and those of the former Maritime Colored Hockey League.
“That was the throughline I actually thought was really interesting and I didn’t realize that at the time,” Hubert Davis said during a Q&A following the screening of Black Ice at the FIN Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax. “I had assumed it was kinda a blip, but actually it was a lineage that has always existed.”
Black Ice, named after and based in part on the 2004 book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925, written by brothers Darril and George Fosty, is set to debut at the Calgary International Film Festival this week.
It premiered earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival before screening at the FIN Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax.
Davis was on hand at the Halifax screening along with several people featured in the film, including 17-year-old Mark Connors, a Black hockey player in a minor league in Halifax. Connors was one of several Black Canadian players whose experiences dealing with isolation and racism within the sport were told in the film.
Besides Connors, the film also shared the stories of other Black hockey players, including NHL players Akim Aliu, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Dumba, Anthony Duclair, and P.K. Subban, Premier Hockey Federation player Saroya Tinker, and Canadian women’s national team member Sarah Nurse.
Many of these players’ stories shared similar threads, such as being taunted with the n-word and other racial slurs by players and people in the stands only to have it be brushed aside by coaches and officials.
Duclair recalled being taunted as a young child in the arena hallways by white parents of opposing players who would make monkey noises at him.
Saroya Tinker recalled running out of the dressing room after being called the n-word by a teammate. When no repercussions resulted, she said she internalized the incident and chose to assimilate.
As she matured and gained confidence, Tinker said she began to embrace her Blackness and made a conscious effort not to assimilate by the time she was in her second year of university.
In 2019, former NHL player Akim Aliu made headlines when he shared that Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters used the n-word toward him a decade earlier when he coached him in the AHL when Aliu was in his early 20s.
Peters resigned as head coach of the Flames days after admitting to the accusation.
In Black Ice, Aliu spoke in detail about the incident. He said Peters came into the dressing room one day where Aliu’s music was plugged into the speaker playing music by rapper Lil Wayne.
Aliu said Peters singled him out, and, in front of the team, ripped the cord from the speaker and yelled at Aliu, saying he didn’t want to hear any of the “n***** s***.” He said many of his white teammates looked away, which he said made him feel further isolated.
After that incident, Aliu said he was later pulled aside by Peters and reprimanded for having a poor attitude and was told he was at risk of being cut if his attitude didn’t improve.
Aliu talked about the stress and loss of sleep he suffered as a result of being made to feel he was obligated to cater to the feelings of a grown man who called him the n-word or risk not making it to the NHL.
At one point in the film, Aliu has a virtual meeting where he compares notes and shares encouragement with Halifax’s Mark Connors.
Connors and his father Wayne Connors (who is white) appeared in the film and talked about two racist incidents faced by Connors that made headlines.
In the first incident in 2018, a player on an opposing team was suspended after calling Connors the n-word during a game. Wayne Connors said the player’s father was the coach of the team, and despite the suspension he never forced his son to give a written apology. He said the player would never look at Mark and refused to shake his hand following future games.
Then in 2021, five minor hockey players from PEI were suspended for calling Connors the n-word from the stands during a tournament in PEI and for later approaching and threatening Connors at a hotel.
The film also tells the story of the Colored Hockey League, where Black Canadian players in the Maritimes helped pioneer the sport.
The Examiner spoke with Davis in October 2021 when he and his crew visited Nova Scotia to interview descendants, family, and others connected to the former Colored Hockey League.
Though racism was prevalent in those days, so too was racial segregation. That meant unlike today’s Black players, members of the all-Black league were free of the racism, isolation, and pressure to code-switch on the ice and in the locker room.
As the league grew in popularity, exhibition games were held with teams of white players where admission to the games was charged.
Racist depictions of Black players then started popping up in local newspapers, which to that point had only reported general coverage of the Colored Hockey League and game results.
When the city of Halifax began its efforts to relocate the people of Africville, residents of that community, including members of the Africville Seasides hockey team, protested the proposition.
The film suggests that this directly resulted in the league receiving less media coverage and that local rinks suddenly started becoming unavailable, eventually leading to the end of the league.
“Tying it together with Africville, I didn’t realize that the last resident of Africville (Stan “Pa” Carvery) actually played on the (Africville) Seasides,” Davis said in an audience Q&A following the Halifax screening.
Speaking with the Halifax Examiner last year following his interview for the film, Paul Byard (my father), whose father St. Clair “Pansy” Byard played in the league, mentioned the Carnegie brothers, Manny McIntyre, Art Dorrington, John Mentis, Chook Maxwell, and others who were influenced by and carried on the legacy of the players in the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes.
“When my father and those guys played, their skills and things were passed down from somebody else and then they passed it down,” said Byard. “And I think as the country grew and as Blacks got more involved in sports, in hockey in particular, by the time the 1940s and 50s came, there was just an explosion of talent—of Black talent. And it just couldn’t be held down any more, it was all over Canada.”
During the Q&A in Halifax, Davis said that it wasn’t until he and his crew came to Nova Scotia last year during the production of the film that he learned of the surprising lineage of Black Canadian hockey players dating back to the Colored Hockey League.
“I assumed that when the Colored Hockey League ended in the 30s that that was kind of the end of it. But it was like no, that experience carried on,” Davis said.
The documentary also included interviews with the Fosty brothers, NHL Hall OF Famer Willie O’Ree who was the first Black player in the NHL, and an old interview with the late Herb Carnegie who despite once rejecting a low-ball offer to play for the New York Rangers was later posthumously inducted to the NHLs “Builders” category.
Black Ice debuts at the Calgary International Film Festival on Sept. 26 with another screening at the festival scheduled for Oct. 1. Black Ice will be in theatres next fall.