PROBLACK HOCKEY BLOG
Fredericton-born Willie O’Ree made hockey history in 1958 when he became the first black player in the NHL, joining the Boston Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadiens.
But as with most legends, there is a deeper and more complicated history to delve into, as Maritime filmmaker Sandi Rankaduwa reveals in her new National Film Board documentary Ice Breakers.
O’Ree’s status as hockey’s Jackie Robinson is a significant one, but the role of African-Canadians in developing the sport goes back a lot further, to the founding of the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes in 1895. In her upcoming film — part of a three-film series Re-Imagining My Nova Scotia, produced by the NFB Atlantic Studio’s Rohan Fernando — Rankaduwa tells the story of the league and explains its importance over a century later as more players of colour continue to rise through the ranks of the country’s national pastime.
“It’s an important part of our history; it’s part of Canadian history, hockey history, and something that we should be proud of, but we know so little about it, if anything,” says the filmmaker, writer and stand-up comedian during a break in editing at her part-time home in Brooklyn.
Rankaduwa’s pitch for Re-Imagining My Nova Scotia was inspired by the book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925 by George and Darril Fosty. The book details the league’s rise and eventual dissolution, with an East Coast circuit that included over a dozen teams and around 400 players at its peak.
She felt it was a story worth bringing to the screen, and adding a contemporary framework, especially because there is so little archival material on the league to draw on.
“It’s a bit tricky, because so much of the history has been lost, and it wasn’t given a lot of attention since then,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of visuals, so pitching a documentary on something without much imagery was an interesting process, but I do think it’s an important project.
“I hope this will help get the word out and people will do their own research into the story afterwards.”
Ice Breakers includes recent footage captured at a Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame Society game at Cole Harbour Place, as Rankaduwa views the importance of the CHLM through a contemporary lens. The film relates the efforts of the society and the rise of Cole Harbour hockey player Josh Crooks, formerly with the Dartmouth Voyageurs and now playing for the Halifax Macs.
“I follow Josh’s journey as he learns about the league, and finds out he has a great-great-great-uncle who was a star player in the CHLM and had a similar sort of playing style as he does now,” says Rankaduwa.
“That’s how we’re telling that story, and hopefully encouraging the powers that may be to invest more resources into learning more about the league and getting the word out about it.”
Viewers of the film will learn how members of the league were hockey pioneers in more ways than one. Its hockey firsts include Henry (Braces) Franklin’s use of butterfly goaltending for the Dartmouth Jubilees, and Halifax Eurekas player Eddie Martin’s hard-hitting slapshot, put into play 30 years before the birth of its credited white inventor, Quebec hockey legend Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion.
“And even in the case of Eddie Martin, he has the first documented slapshot, which was discovered by the authors of Black Ice, but he might not even have been the first,” says Rankaduwa.
“And Geoffrion might not have been aware that Martin had done this years before, but I think it is important to show that we can question the history and stories that we’re told.”
Making Ice Breakers has been a process of discovery for the filmmaker, and it also involved uncovering some ugly truths about the history of the game and the role racism has played in creating barriers for non-white players from several communities. Not just in the past, but also in the present day, to the point where some families “eventually decide it wasn’t worth it to be in that environment, no matter how much they love the sport.”
But Rankaduwa feels that a film like Ice Breakers, following on the heels of the book Black Ice, could have a positive effect for young players considering involvement in the sport.
Simply knowing more about the hockey’s African Nova Scotian heritage could inspire more players to take part, and carry on a tradition that had been buried for so long.
“The truth is, when you look at this history, the game has been molded in part by these black Canadians and Indigenous players, which makes it more frustrating when you read a story about racists taunts and slurs being hurled at players of all ages and abilities,” says Rankaduwa.
“I remember last year there were First Nations teams playing in a tournament in Quebec and they were subjected to overt racist acts and remarks. I hope this documentary will open people’s eyes and teach them more about a history that has been pushed aside.”
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