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HomeSportsHockeyThe Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes: A Brief History

The Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes: A Brief History

How Black Nova Scotians paved the way for future generations of Black hockey players

Hockey is often said to be a white sport, played by white people, for white people. In a 2022 report on diversity and inclusion, the NHL found that 83.6 per cent of all its employees are white, and a 2020 poll by fivethirtyeight.com found that 77.1 per cent of casual hockey watchers are white.  

Despite these numbers today, hockey has a long history in Black communities, specifically in Nova Scotia, the birthplace of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes (CHL). 

First founded in Halifax in ​​1895, the league branched out to include Black hockey teams from across Nova Scotia and even stretched to include one team in P.E.I. 

The CHL faced various challenges related to race across its 25 years of existence, that time split by a period of inactivity between 1911 and 1921. 

Notably, despite having expanded into a 12-team circuit in the early 1900s, the league was only allowed to use arenas when white leagues had finished, leaving them with much worse playing conditions and less time to hold their season. 

The league was gone by the start of Second World War. However, the NHL wouldn’t see its first Black player until 1958, with the debut of Willie O’Ree, despite having no formal rules against players of any ethnicity.

Innovation

Despite receiving less attention and less government funding than the NHL, the CHL is responsible for some unique innovations in the sport of hockey.

The sport’s physicality can be traced back to the CHL. This may have been due to its lack of an official rule book prior to 1921, other than the Bible, which would have allowed as much checking and fighting as the players saw necessary. 

Other, more technical styles are also believed to have had their start in the CHL. 

The butterfly, a play style for goaltenders created to stop pucks from being able to slide across the ice and into the net, forcing shooters to lift the puck to score, is credited to Tony Esposito, who played in the CHL in the 1960s. 

However, the early step in creating the butterfly involving a goaltender dropping to their knees to stop any play was first seen in the CHL, where Henry “Braces” Franklyn did it for the first time. 

Additionally, the move now known as the slapshot got popular when Bernard Geoffrion and Maurice “Rocket” Richard, two white players playing for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1950s, began using it and is officially credited to Alex Shibiky who did it in 1937.

However, the move has a history long before this, being used in the CHL by Eddie Martin.

Discrimination and Politics

In addition to the aforementioned restrictions on arena use, the CHL faced several restrictions based on their race. 

In 1905, Africville, an area of Halifax where a large number of CHL players and their families lived, was experiencing tensions with the municipal and provincial governments over a planned annexation of Africville land.

The white community in Halifax, which included the owners of the arenas that the CHL used, did not side with the Black community, resulting in some owners refusing to let the CHL use their rinks and others only letting them use the ice in the months when it was at its very worst. 

After the CHL went defunct, Black hockey players also continued to face discrimination in other leagues. When Willie O’Ree, a Black player from the Maritimes, began playing in the NHL, he faced racial taunts and discrimination from opposing teams’ fans and has said he could hear opposing players and fans calling him the N-word at every game. 

Despite being rather humble about his impact on the NHL, suggesting he didn’t have to face the “real problems” that other athletes like Jackie Robinson had to, O’Ree managed to secure a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018 for breaking the league’s colour barrier. 

The Legacy Today

The CHL began receiving more recognition from the hockey community when Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925, a book by George Robert Fosty and Darril Fosty, was published in 2008, bringing attention to the importance of the league in the history of hockey. 

Now, about 90 years after the existence of the CHL, the Maritimes still have a prominent role in hockey, recently hosting the IIHF World Juniors tournament. However, they are still working to get more Black youth into the game. In 2022, Hockey Nova Scotia announced two awards it will be presenting to Nova Scotian youth of African descent, named after Bill Riley, the first Black player from Nova Scotia and third Black player ever to play in the NHL.

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