Brownstein: Film shows racism lurks just under the ice for Black hockey players

The documentary Black Ice, presented in conjunction with Black History Month, is screened for free Tuesday evening at the Bell Centre’s Taverne 1909.

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The film opens with a bucolic overhead shot of an outdoor Canadian countryside skating rink, soon to be filled with eager young hockey players. Ah, the innocence of it all.

Not exactly. Racism rears its ugly head in what soon ensues in the documentary Black Ice, a compelling and often frightening peek into the struggles of Black hockey players trying to make it in our national sport.

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The film, presented in conjunction with Black History Month, is shown for free Tuesday evening at the Bell Centre’s Taverne 1909. Its Oscar-nominated director, Hubert Davis, will be on hand for a Q&A following the screening.

Sadly, Davis discovers that systemic racism in the sport has not yet been fully addressed.

Interviews with pros like Akim Aliu, Matt Dumba, Wayne Simmonds, Saroya Tinker and former Hab P.K. Subban, among others, drive home a recurring narrative: The players wanting very much to fit into the Canadian hockey psyche had to contend with coaches, fans and fellow competitors throwing out every toxic epithet imaginable at them — starting from when they were innocent kids all the way up to the big leagues, long after they had lost their innocence.

Toronto’s Herb Carnegie was thought to be the best Black player never to get to the NHL — although he was later named to the Hockey Hall of Fame. It was Fredericton’s Willie O’Ree who broke the ice, the first Black player to make it into the NHL, with the Boston Bruins in 1957. They took more than their share of taunts along the way.

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But unbeknownst to most in this country, Black players made their mark in the sport long before. Davis sheds light on the creation of the Coloured Hockey League in 1895 in Nova Scotia. Home to the best Black male hockey players in Canada, the league, which lasted until 1930, was known for some of its game-changing innovations, such as having goalies falling to their knees in making saves. And it’s Eddie Martin of the Halifax Eurekas who is credited with being the first player to fire a slapshot at an opposing goalie in 1906 — well before Golden Jet Bobby Hull was even born.

The documentary is partly based on the book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925.

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Players and even former players are often reluctant to open up about race for fear of creating waves. But Davis manages to break through that sensitive terrain here.

“It’s not always the easiest thing,” he says in a phone interview. “I was very fortunate to get them at the right time to want to speak about it. We had a lot of really strong interviews, but the challenge was how to contextualize them all.

“It was a bit of a puzzle to figure out how it would all work together. There were so many stories, but the hope was that you could follow the theme and the connections between the stories.”

One of Black Ice’s most shocking stories focuses on 16-year-old Halifax goalie Mark Connors having a torrent of racial slurs tossed his way at a tournament in P.E.I. in 2021.

“Mark’s story was just unfolding as we were actually filming, so we got out there to speak to him as it was hitting the press. It was so important to get that in real time. I wanted it to feel urgent for kids playing right now.”

One of the long-held myths among Canadians is that this country doesn’t have the same racism issues the U.S. has. We see otherwise here.

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Black Ice director Hubert Davis.
“If the culture is not speaking out on this and no one addresses it, that’s why it just continues,” says Black Ice director Hubert Davis of racism in hockey. Photo by Kate Parkes /Elevation Pictures

“If the culture is not speaking out on this and no one addresses it, that’s why it just continues. If no one talks about it, it’s like it doesn’t exist.”

Davis says it may have helped his perspective that he doesn’t have a hockey background. Although born in B.C., he never played hockey as a kid. His sport was basketball, which is understandable since his dad, Mel Davis, was a Harlem Globetrotter. In fact, his Oscar-nominated doc Hardwood explores how his father’s decisions affected Davis and his family.

One would hope the NHL would be supportive of Black Ice. Guess again.

“I wouldn’t say the NHL at large has really embraced it,” Davis says. “Certain organizations like the Leafs allowed us to shoot with Wayne (Simmonds) and were very supportive. And the Canadiens are hosting this film (inside the Bell Centre). There are organizations which understand and want to address the issues, and there are others which don’t. That was also the case in the documentary, so you have these divisions even within the sport. It’s not like a collective saying: ‘Hey, we’re going to move forward on this.’ That kind of speaks to the problem.

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“This documentary started out as almost a love letter to hockey. When I heard their stories, I felt all the players must love it so much, because they’re fighting so hard for it, and you only fight for things you love. You can still have issues with something you love, but you don’t want to walk away from them, either, because your identity is so tied to that world.”


Black Ice is screened Tuesday, Feb. 20 at Taverne 1909 in the Bell Centre, in conjunction with Black History Month. The event, which includes a Q&A with director Hubert Davis, runs from 6 to 9 p.m. and admission is free.

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