Canadians have long been defined by the game of hockey, some more than others. Despite the NHL success of black Canadian players like Grant Fuhr, Tony McKegney, Devante Smith-Pelly, Wayne Simmonds, Darnell Nurse, Evander Kane and PK Subban, the nation’s winter sport has remained a bastion of wisdom.
With the documentary black ice, which will be screened at TIFF, executive producers Drake, LeBron James and Maverick Carter seek to shed light on the racial divides that have plagued the sport for decades. The 97-minute film travels back and forth in time to chronicle the Maritimes’ Colored Hockey League, which was based in Nova Scotia and essentially prohibited black players from playing alongside whites from 1895-1925.
“black ice is one of the greatest sports stories never told. We try to speak about racism through the Canadian lens and context, and there’s no better way to do that than through the institution of hockey,” said Vinay Virmani, chief content officer at Uninterrupted Canada. The Canadian branch of Uninterrupted, the platform for promoting diversity in sports created by James and Carter, helped with the funding black ice.
Knowing that a century of black Canadian ice hockey spans multiple eras, black ice Director Hubert Davis uses parallel narratives, shifting between past and present, to make it clear that the sport’s historical problems with racism have yet to be overcome. While Black Canadian players are no longer racially segregated, their community lane can feel like a no-go zone for some.
“We’re at an interesting point where we can say, ‘Okay, are we going to actually bring up these things and talk about them and deal with them?'” says Davis. “Or do we just stay in our bubble? A lot of people are facing that choice right now.”
A documentary about the Maritimes League, which was filled with the descendants of runaway slaves traveling north to freedom on the Underground Railroad, could have been spun as an origin story, but Davis says he didn’t want to do the usual film about racism going back in time to show how much progress has been made, allowing the audience to feel better.
In a revealing scene from the film, captured on home video, a 16-year-old black player named Mark, who faced multiple racist incidents during a game at his local rink, tells his teammates, who then tell the coach who then informs the umpire.
But instead of addressing the alleged racism on the ice, the camera catches everyone who freezes and doesn’t act. They don’t even acknowledge the incident. “They don’t do anything,” Davis says. “You are uncomfortable. They don’t know how to deal with it. So they do nothing.”
He adds that young black hockey players, whether boys or girls, are told to keep their heads on the ice. That may help win games, but it doesn’t solve the problem of systemic racism in sport, and that can hurt an athlete’s self-esteem.
“When incidents do occur, they can be small or big,” Davis says. “But it tends to grow and fester, and what is the experience like for the individual who internalizes it [these incidents] and faces them throughout her career?”
black ice also spotlights legendary black player Herb Carnegie, who was born in Toronto in 1919 to Jamaican immigrants. Despite being one of the most talented Canadian players of his day – and serving as a mentor to the Montreal Canadiens great Jean Béliveau – he never had a realistic opportunity to play in the NHL and was only inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this year, a decade after his death.
While the documentaries are being screened in Toronto, Canadians who deny racism in hockey may have to contend with other revelations about their beloved sport, including youth hockey sexual abuse scandals and misconduct settlements by the governing body Hockey Canada.
for Virmani, black ice is about breaking the silence on the country’s cultural obsession that allows white Canadians to feel comfortable watching their children lace up skates and smack a puck across the ice and feel a sense of belonging to the country – a privilege denied to many black Canadian families.
“I hope this film succeeds in asking the question: if we as Canadians let hockey define us at home and abroad, and it’s such an important part of our national identity and hockey is our religion, we hear everyone Tag these horror stories about race and abuse in this culture of cover-up and silence – what does that say about us Canadians?”
Meanwhile, Virmani emphasizes that hockey in Canada needs black coaches, umpires and team owners. Otherwise, parents from different communities will have little incentive to place their children in youth leagues and instead steer them towards basketball, football, soccer and other sports.
“On all those other levels, there’s no representation at play,” he says. “So it’s very difficult to retain and attract new, diverse participation in ice hockey.”