The Forgotten Black Hockey Heroes
Inspired by all-Black baseball leagues and organized by Baptist pastors, Canada’s pioneering Colored Hockey League became a hotbed of invention.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some of hockey’s signature moves were pioneered by early Black players.
Goalie and team captain Henry “Braces” Franklyn of the Dartmouth Jubilees was putting on quite an exhibition in the league championship game against cross-harbor hockey rivals the Halifax Eurekas. In one sequence he flopped to the ice — forbidden by the rules in 1898 — and used every inch of his 3′6″ frame to block a shot. Then, in another exciting but unorthodox move, the pint-size netminder jumped to his feet, skated out of his crease and stickhandled up the ice until he could dump a pass off to one of his forwards.
It was the first recorded instance of a butterfly goaltending style and a wandering, offense-creating netminder, both of which were adopted decades later by pros in the National Hockey League. (Sadly, neither helped the Jubilees win the championship back in 1898.) But what was more groundbreaking about Franklyn, his teammates and their opponents was that they were all Black Canadians in the Colored Hockey League. Although Black Canadians had been playing the sport since at least the 1820s, the CHL was the only all-Black hockey league ever, and it remains an obscure footnote today, even among fans.
By 1900, the Colored Hockey League had five franchises across Nova Scotia.
Inspired by all-Black baseball leagues forming in the Canadian Maritimes, the hockey circuit was established in 1895 by Baptist ministers in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as an incentive to boost church attendance among the community’s young Black men, primarily the descendants of American slaves who had sought sanctuary in Canada via the Underground Railroad, as well as immigrants from what were at the time British colonies in the Caribbean. The basic proposition: Attend services and qualify to play hockey afterward.
The driving force behind the league was James A.R. Kinney, a diminutive church layman who had a pronounced limp and couldn’t play the game. Nevertheless, from the pulpit, “Kinney advocated Black pride, dignity and leadership,” wrote George and Darril Fosty in Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895–1925. Influenced by the writings of American educator and activist Booker T. Washington, Kinney envisioned the league as a tool to promote community building and racial equality.
Kinney and other church leaders helped publicize the informal three-team league and soon hundreds of spectators were attending CHL games. “Initially, the league started as a novelty, but the caliber of play improved, and a lot of players could make money,” George Fosty tells OZY. By 1900, the CHL had five franchises across Nova Scotia, and spectators, a majority of whom were white, were shelling out 25 to 35 cents per ticket to cheer on their hometown heroes.
Team names became a coded form of Black pride. While white fans might think the Dartmouth Jubilees were named in honor of the 1897 Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Canada’s monarch, the team name is a biblical reference to the year of jubilee in Leviticus, when enslaved people were freed. Similarly, the name of the Africville Seasides did not refer to the Halifax community’s coastal location; the SS logo on team jerseys was a sly but pointed reference to the SS brand that U.S. government officials employed to sear the hands of convicted “slave stealers” who tried to help runaways escape to Canada.
Even though the league was popular, racism wasn’t absent. Between periods, spectators demanded clowning around that mimicked the buffoonery of the minstrel show, and newspaper accounts of the games had an overt racist tone, even as they complimented the skill of the players. Kinney also faced chronic problems securing indoor rinks for league games, since operators prioritized ice time for white teams, according to the Fosty brothers.
Those challenges were amplified when Kinney rallied the Black community to fight an eminent domain claim that would have taken land away from residents. That, in turn, produced a powerful backlash against the league. When crowds dwindled, it meant less money for players. Some were forced to look for regular work rather than rely on an uncertain income from hockey. “Racism, [World War I], the Halifax Explosion and economic factors had all played their part in the league’s demise,” the Fostys write in Black Ice. By the 1920s, the league was defunct.
“It’s a shame it didn’t [continue],” says Kwame Mason, director of the documentary Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future. The league brought a new level of excitement to hockey, with fast skating, body-checking and even the original version of the slap shot. If the league had prospered, Mason believes, it would have made the sport more exciting and encouraged more young Black youth in Canada and the U.S. to take up the game.
The CHL’s legacy did live on, though. In 1950 Art Dorrington, a native of Truro, Nova Scotia, became the first Black player to sign an NHL contract, with the New York Rangers, although he never competed in a league game. The color barrier finally was broken in 1958, when another Maritimer, Willie O’Ree of Fredericton, New Brunswick, suited up for the Boston Bruins.
Today, NHL players who identify as Black or biracial hail from Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Norway, France and Finland, but the league is 94 percent white, and hockey usually is thought of as a white sport. “We’ve had some Black hockey players, but we haven’t had the Tiger Woods or the LeBron James,” says University of Central Florida’s Dr. C. Keith Harrison, who researches diversity and inclusion in sports. “If you get that type of celebrity, then you can connect it to the history.” And, George Fosty hopes, create a more diverse sport.