In the new sports documentary Black Ice, viewers learn that in 1906 hockey player Eddie Martin became the first to use a technique known as the slapshot — a back swing of the stick known for its power as it makes contact with the puck.
But Martin, a Black man who played for the Halifax Eureka in what was then known as the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, went largely unrecognized for his innovative method.
This is one among the many vital moments of sport history marred by anti-Black racism explored in the doc, directed by Hubert Davis, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival and will screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival later this month.
Using archival footage of the Maritimes league along with in-person interviews with past and present Black hockey players, Black Ice challenges the idea that hockey is an all-welcoming Canadian sport.
Based on the book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925 by George and Darril Fosty, the documentary looks deep into the annals of hockey history.
Adapting the book was eye-opening for Davis, who says he wasn’t aware that the all-Black hockey league existed. It was established by a group of Black Baptists and intellectuals to give Black players who had an interest in the sport a chance to play, because they were not allowed to join the NHL until Willie O’Ree broke the colour barrier on Jan. 18, 1958.
“My first reaction was that I didn’t believe it. I had never even known we had a Coloured Hockey League,” says Davis during an interview at his Toronto office. “I grew up in Canada, but I never thought of these stories involving Black players as particularly Canadian.”
Davis, who previously directed Hardwood and was nominated for an Oscar for the short film in 2005, wanted to spotlight the league, its contribution to hockey, and the systemic racism within the sport.
“Going into this, I wondered why these histories were ignored and how that relates to the problems that remain present within the sport,” said Davis about Black Ice, which was co-produced by basketball great LeBron James, hip-hop star Drake and sports marketer Maverick Carter. “The idea of saying that something doesn’t exist can be really dangerous, because it allows issues to keep existing.”
One story involves the late Herb Carnegie, a Toronto-born hockey player who is described as one of the most talented Canadian players during the 1940s and ’50s. He was only included in the Hockey Hall of Fame a full decade after his death earlier this year.
It’s another example of the unfortunate practice of general disregard against Black contributors to the game that Davis can’t separate from the current players he spoke to.
“It was personally difficult to get these people to speak, but if someone sits down, it means they have something to say,” says Davis, the son of the late athlete, Mel Davis of the Harlem Globetrotters.
“If you’ve never dealt with something like that, you’ll know that it’s not the moment, but it’s the hurt that they feel when no one sees you or does anything when you ask for help.”