'Black Ice' is a crucial re-examination of Canadian hockey history

·13 min read
Black Ice, premiering this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, shines a light on the struggles of racialized players in hockey and the efforts made to enact social change in the sport. (UNINTERRUPTED)
Black Ice, premiering this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, shines a light on the struggles of racialized players in hockey and the efforts made to enact social change in the sport. (UNINTERRUPTED)

The greatest defect of Canada’s relationship to hockey is the erasure of Black contributions to the history of the sport. A new documentary called "Black Ice" debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) aims to re-center these pivotal accomplishments by Black men and women, while comprehensively detailing the state of the game for Black people within hockey through a contemporary lens.

Black Ice, presented by UNINTERRUPTED Canada, a subsidiary of Good Karma Productions, premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10. Directed by Oscar-nominee Hubert Davis, Black Ice aims to provide the first all-encompassing account of Black hockey history in Canada, while affording a clear window into how many current Black players are currently trying to affect positive change for a new generation of kids, clearly inspired by their respective impacts.

The majority of hockey fans are unaware of the existence of the Coloured Hockey League (1895-1930), an all-Black league based out of Nova Scotia that was governed by Baptist church leaders. It predates the National Hockey League by three decades and Eddie Martin of the Halifax Eureka was the first person to take a slapshot during a 1906 contest. In large part due to hockey’s tendency to whitewash Black accomplishments, along with an ignorance of Black historical contributions to hockey, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, a six-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens, has been widely credited with the development of the slapshot in established hockey publications and records.

Lebron James and Drake attending the Uninterrupted Canada launch in Toronto. (Getty Images)
Lebron James and Drake attending the Uninterrupted Canada launch in Toronto. (Getty Images)

Vinay Virmani, the producer of Black Ice and chief content officer for UNINTERRUPTED Canada, submitted that it was imperative to start with examining the history of the Coloured Hockey League, to further tell the story of Canadian hockey writ large.

“This project landed on my desk close to about five years ago now and when I learned about the history of the Coloured Hockey League getting back to the 1800s, I felt so many emotions as a Canadian,” Virmani told Yahoo Sports Canada. “I was intrigued, I was fascinated but also, I was embarrassed. I was let down. I was confused, I was angry. A mix of emotions as to, 'why don't we know this?'

"I asked a lot of people from different areas, history, business, sports fans, I asked them: 'Do you know about the Coloured Hockey League and the innovations they made to the sport of hockey?' ‘No, we've never heard of this.’ 'Do you know how instrumental the Coloured Hockey League was in terms of how the game was played, the innovations in terms of how they structured the league, in terms of what the league meant for the Black community, Black mobilization, Black independence, Black entrepreneurialism at that time?' And no.”

There are a number of previously untold stories, or stories that have only recently come to light, that the documentary will explore and re-contextualize. It wasn’t commonly known until the past two years ago that former Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe said that he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could turn Herb Carnegie, a standout Black player with aspirations of playing for the Maple Leafs, white. Carnegie’s family has fought hard after Herb’s death in 2012 to ensure that his legacy won’t be forgotten, and The Carnegie Initiative for Inclusion and Acceptance in Hockey held its inaugural summit in January.

“I think that the idea of Black erasure is important and we're talking about it in the doc, because it's really about contributions that just never made it into the mainstream,” Davis told Yahoo Sports Canada. “Another example in the doc is someone like Herb Carnegie, who really should've been the first Black NHL player, and he was a very good player. In a lot of ways he should've been the Jackie Robinson of hockey. And the fact that a lot of hockey fans have no idea who Herb Carnegie is, it speaks to the idea of a history that certain people know about, but it's so small and that narrative never got out to everyone."

Akim Aliu continues to be a vocal, unrelenting advocate fighting racism in hockey since he disclosed the racial abuse he faced from former Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters in a November 2019 admission. Aliu has been a vocal leader of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, a group of former and current NHL players tangibly working to eradicate racism from the sport, making tremendous strides without the NHL, who was disavowed by the HDA for being performative and not listening to a detailed list of recommendations necessary for a successful partnership. Aliu also started the Time to Dream Foundation in 2020, an organization that aims to make sports, including but not limited to hockey, accessible and affordable for kids of all socioeconomic backgrounds, providing scholarships, equipment and professional-level instruction.

Former NHLer Akim Aliu has been one of the central figures pushing for change in hockey culture. (NHLI via Getty Images)
Former NHLer Akim Aliu has been one of the central figures pushing for change in hockey culture. (NHLI via Getty Images)

Aliu faced racial abuse at every step of his career, including a horrific series of incidents where he was called slurs by former teammate Steve Downie for several weeks. As a sixteen-year-old rookie for the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires, Aliu took a stand against the routine hazing rituals, drawing Downie’s racist wrath, culminating in a fight during practice. Downie received a five-game suspension, Aliu received a one-game suspension, along with a directive to take an anger management class. The Spitfires were fined $35,000 while head coach/general manager Moe Mantha received a one-year suspension from his role as general manager, and a 40-game suspension from his role as Windsor’s head coach. At the end of the season, Mantha was fired by the Spitfires for gross conduct.

Downie was then lionized by national media publications across Canada, drawing comparisons to Bobby Clarke for his style of play - and sharing a common missing-tooth gap - especially after he was named to the all-tournament team in the World Juniors, months after abusing Aliu. Aliu, on the other hand, was deemed uncoachable, was blatantly disregarded by Hockey Canada despite being among the best players from his age cohort, his NHL draft stock dropped the following year, even though he boasted top-grade marks from NHL Central Scouting for his straight-line speed and ability to box out defenders as a modern power forward.

I spoke to Aliu recently about the importance of having his story told by people who are genuinely invested in recounting his journey accurately.

“In the hazing incident when I really didn't do anything but stand up for myself against obviously disgusting rituals, I got completely written off by an institution right now that obviously we know what's going on with them, and how dysfunctional they are, and that being Hockey Canada,” Aliu told Yahoo Sports Canada.

“Growing up, you have these dreams of playing on the World Junior team and playing on different Canadian teams and not really understanding how brutal people who are actually running the show are. Now that's all coming to light. After my hazing incident, I got written off. I was the sixth-overall pick [in the 2005 OHL Draft], I never played on Team Ontario, I never got an opportunity with Hockey Canada at U-18s, World Juniors, when I obviously felt that I deserved to with my play on the ice.

"You look at what happened with Steve [Downie], he got every opportunity, he was a star with the World Juniors at one of the tournaments, and it seems like the person that created all the issues and made the rookies and all of us go through the things that we went through was rewarded for it, while I was completely written off.

"And it shows the culture of the game and I'm just so happy it's all coming to light now. A lot of people don't understand that it directly translates to the rest of my career and where I was drafted. People always had negative things to say but never had any backing behind it.”

There is now plenty of literature on the experience that racialized men face in hockey, but there’s very little on the subject when it comes to women prior to 1980. Saroya Tinker is an ascending star defenseman for the Toronto Six of the Premier Hockey Federation and one of the sport’s leading advocates against anti-Black racism.

Tinker, who graduated from Yale in 2020, also works as the executive director of the Black Girl Hockey Club, a community space to empower and amplify Black women within the sport of hockey, while providing financial aid and scholarships to Black women with a passion for the sport. She has also founded her own program titled Saroya Strong, a mentorship program for BIPOC women in sport, primarily but not exclusively limited to hockey, with most of the girls and women in the program based out of Toronto.

“I'm very proud of the fact that our film also takes into consideration the Black female lens in the sport of hockey as well. I'm very thankful to Saroya Tinker, Blake Bolden and Sarah Nurse who are part of the film. And who really showed us as filmmakers, and we really appreciated how honest they were,” Virmani said.

“Because it's always about the male angle, it's always about the racialized male angle and I'm so honoured that we were given the opportunity to really talk about the Black female experience in this space as well. Because that often gets underlooked.”

Tinker founded her own program titled Saroya Strong, a mentorship program for BIPOC women in sport,  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Tinker founded her own program titled Saroya Strong, a mentorship program for BIPOC women in sport. (Getty Images)

Tinker also rose to prominence for fighting back against Barstool founder Dave Portnoy and CEO Erika Nardini in January 2021, when the latter tried to bully women’s hockey journalists and assert that her publication would be a net positive for the National Women’s Hockey League. In a tweet that called the attention of the women’s hockey community, Tinker asserted that Barstool upholds a culture of white supremacy and demanded that they stay away from women’s hockey. Portnoy responded that Tinker should be jailed for her commentary, then sicked his website’s legion of hardcore fans against her.

“When I tweeted, I didn't expect to have the publicity that I did, to be ridiculed online like I was, or supported online the way I was. I think at that point it was very easy to ignore the negatives because I was receiving a lot of outreach and support, but at the same, it was a huge moment in my career where I didn't realize how mean people really can be,” Tinker told Yahoo Sports Canada.

“Just the overall lack of understanding as to why these practices that these companies use aren't okay, and how many people have a lack of understanding regarding these matters. I think in that sense I wasn't prepared to face all the backlash I got, but honestly I'm glad I spoke up and said what I said. I'll always speak up and say what's on my mind.”

TIFF has evolved into the marquee film festival among serious movie-goers, a festival that often works as a bellwether of awards season. Debuting a film that is explicitly about hockey and re-centering Black contributions in the sport to a Toronto audience was always the plan for Davis and Virmani.

“The film was designed to be here. We talked about that even before we were starting that this would be the place for it. Someone like [TIFF CEO] Cameron Bailey, someone who I've known for years, I knew that once he saw the film he would understand exactly what we're talking about, because we're talking about the Black experience in hockey today, and the isolation you might feel being in a space that is not diverse,” Davis said.

“So in a way it's about hockey but it's also not, I think that other people could understand that. And I was hoping that the Toronto audience would get that, would be open to it and interested in a way the film is acting a mirror for us to look at ourselves and I hope, in two ways, if you are a Black person who is growing up in Canada or has moved to Canada, you feel this connection to Canada that maybe you didn't feel before and I definitely felt that making this film.”

There have been several groups that work with BIPOC communities in sport that have been invited to the premiere on the 10th, including but not limited to Black Girl Hockey Club and Seaside Hockey, an organization based out of Scarborough that runs free programming for children. This aspect isn’t lost on Virmani as a life-comes-full-circle moment.

“It's a huge honour,” Virmani said. “I was that kid who waited in lines to get in and see movies at that festival that inspired me, that entertained me, that made me think and really helped me solidify choosing a career in film. For me, to be able to present this film at home makes it even more special because I truly believe that this film has the power to change mindsets.

"And yeah the film will make you feel uncomfortable. It absolutely will but I think that's important and that's the power of film. And I think we've missed that, right? I mean, film in a theater, in a cinema, is such a unifying experience, taking in a movie with hundreds of strangers is such a unique experience, so I'm really happy that this film is going to be experienced with an audience, and a real passionate film audience.”

There are three screenings of Black Ice throughout TIFF, and Tinker neatly summarizes what she and the other subjects anticipate will arise after the public viewings.

“All I'm saying is that, I hope people are ready. I think it's going to give an amazing historical perspective on the game of hockey and show how Black individuals made the game, and really pushed the game forward. I think those things haven't been acknowledged and that's what the movie is aiming to do. I think it gives a good past, present and future into what we're looking at in hockey culture, and how to improve that.

“Obviously, it's going to be at TIFF so everybody's going to be seeing it and I think it's going to be a movie that everybody in Canada needs to watch, especially with hockey being our national sport. I bet people are going to learn quite a bit from the movie, and I can't wait for the premiere!”

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