The Lost Hockey League

By Kim Horrocks
Updated: April 2, 2007

VICTORIA, B.C. — One cold January morning at the age of 17, I lent my Dad’s pair of rusty CCM hockey skates (most likely bought at the local Canadian Tire) to my best friend and we trudged down to a nearby outdoor rink so I could teach her the basics.

A second generation Canadian of Jamaican decent, she had never been on skates before and was looking forward to learning how to glide across the ice like one of the pros.

But as she took her first few deliberate steps onto the slippery surface, knees bent inward and legs wobbling dangerously, she looked up at me with an air of uncertainty.

“Black people weren’t meant to be hockey players,” she said, and raised her arms out to her sides for balance. “We don’t do ice. Or snow.”

At the time, watching her teeter-totter precariously down the ice in the frigid -35 degree weather, I admit that I was inclined to agree with her. But despite the current lack of minority players in the game, hockey’s roots aren’t as white as most people think.

After doing some research online in February of 2007 related to Black History Month, I came across a book review link for George and Darril Fosty’s Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes and immediately Googled the title to investigate further.

The Colored Hockey League? I thought, as I skimmed through a list of recent articles.

Who’s ever heard of the Colored Hockey League?

“As it stands, very few people know of its existence,” said Tony McClean, a journalist from the online Black Athlete Sports Network who wrote the review.

“When he [Fosty] contacted us about the book, I was happily surprised. Finding out that there was an entire black community tuned in to a non-traditional black sport intrigued me immensely.”

Founded in 1885 by black Nova Scotia ministers looking to bolster church attendance, the Coloured Hockey League was primarily made up of the sons and grandsons of runaway slaves that escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

Although it initially started out as a recreational league between congregations, according to hockey historian and Black Ice co-author George Fosty, the league’s popularity quickly helped it evolve into Canada’s first professional hockey league — years before the NHL came on the scene.

“We consider it to be the first professional league because it was the first to pay its players from ticket sales, and all the players had free agency,” explains Fosty.

“The fact that references to this league have been eliminated from most historical records goes to show that Canadian history has been bleached; there’s no real mention of minorities and their contributions to the game.”

Fosty, who wrote Black Ice with the help of his brother Darril, is the founder and president of the Society of North American Hockey Historians and Researchers (SONAHHR).

He first discovered references to the relatively unknown Colored Hockey League while researching his first book, Splendid is the Sun: The 5,000 Year History of Hockey.

“When you look at the info that’s out there you realize that there’s been little original work in the last 50 years; everyone focuses so much on the NHL that the other 5,000 hockey leagues that preceded it get forgotten,” said Fosty.

“People assume that the NHL is hockey. The NHL is just one aspect of hockey, one league and when you’re talking about thousands of leagues whose history has never been written, then how can you know what the hell hockey is?”

Other contributions to the evolution of the game that Fosty suggests can be traced back to the Colored Hockey League include the slapshot and a revolutionary goalie style, unheard of at the time, that had netminders going down on their knees to stop shots — a technique now commonplace in the modern game.

But if these claims are true and such important developments to the game were pioneered in this league, then why has it taken Canada so long to acknowledge these important aspects of hockey history?

“I’m not surprised,” said Dr. James Dopp, University of Victoria English Professor and head of the 2007 Canada and the League of Hockey Nations Conference organizing committee.

“There are a lot of issues to consider when you examine historical cause and effect relationships. The fact that something happened in a certain place and time doesn’t make it originary if it didn’t have the effect of shaping later events.”

“This hockey league was a fairly isolated local phenomenon so the question becomes: did whatever happen in those leagues actually determine the evolution of hockey in other places like central Canada, where the first indoor ice was, and as the game became professionalized in the 19th century?”

“I don’t know. It could be, or it could be a historical accident that it happened in more than one place at one time.” But Fosty disagrees.

He believes that the reason the history behind the Colored Hockey League has remained a secret for so long is due in part to the fact that his research embarrasses a large number of other hockey historians, who have put all their sweat and energy into researching what Fosty considers “inaccurate” information.

“Historians are taking shots at us and criticizing us because they’ve based their careers on the idea that hockey is a white man’s game,” said Fosty.

“It’s easier for them to dismiss black history and discredit the research even when we provide physical proof and articles to back us up, because they don’t want to see the truth.”

Fosty also claims that along with the economic pressures following the First World War, the demise of the Colored Hockey League and its players can be linked to what he calls “creative racism”.

Fosty asserts that after the black teams started making more money from ticket sales than the white teams, the Colored Hockey League was seen as a threat and strategic changes were made to their schedules to inhibit any future monetary success.

“The people in charge of assigning ice times were white,” said Fosty. “So they said to the black players, ‘you can play hockey but we’ll move your schedule ahead a month’, and by middle march these guys were skating on water.”

“No one can play good hockey in those conditions and nobody’s going to come watch hockey players swimming.”

Bob Dawson, the first black to play in the Atlantic Intercollegiate Hockey League (AIHL) in the1960s, recalls his own experiences on the ice.

“Players would take cheap shots at you, slash you behind the legs where’s no padding or elbow you,” explains Dawson. “At the time I was the only black player on the ice so I was a target.”

Dawson believes that although the demographic within the minor and national hockey leagues is changing, there’s still a long way for hockey to go before it can be considered an inclusive sport.

“Although there is a significant number of minority players coming up in the leagues now, that resistance is still there. I mean, you have to ask yourself why isn’t there a black coach in the NHL?”

“Why aren’t ex-professional players like Grant Fuhr, Bill Riley, Mike Marsen, Tony Mckegney; why aren’t those guys assistant coaches or involved in the management or involved in the organization of NHL teams?”

“Why aren’t there black NHL commentators, colour commentators or analysts? The racial issue is certainly a factor. I think too that the view may be that blacks aren’t as competent as others to aspire to achieve in certain areas.”

Fosty believes the future to helping hockey develop as a sport lies in its ability to attract minority players and fans before it alienates and marginalizes and increasingly diverse Canadian population.

“Children of color might be more comfortable with hockey if they knew about the black tradition behind the sport,” says Fosty. “When a child shows up to the arena as the only minority on the ice, it gives them a sense of pause.”

“Traditionally minorities flock toward each other as a natural buffer against being outnumbered or in an awkward situation. Think about it: if you visit another country and run into another Canadian next thing you know you’re hanging out with that person because you’ve got something in common and it’s natural.”

“In terms of hockey, if you make hockey more minority friendly they would feel its part of their tradition too.”

NOTE: This story first appeared on BASN in the winter of 2007.