The starry team behind a documentary debuting at TIFF about the history of Black hockey players in Canada, which includes Drake and LeBron James, is hitting back at a US$10-million lawsuit launched this week by an aspiring film producer who claims he had the exclusive right to make a film on the subject.
Black Ice, which is set to have its world premiere with a glitzy Saturday afternoon screening at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, traces the little-known history of Black hockey players in Canada, from the creation of the Colored Hockey League in 1895 to the successes of – and harsh treatment experienced by – contemporary players such as P.K. Subban, Akim Aliu, Wayne Simmonds and Olympic gold medalist Sarah Nurse.
In promotional interviews, director Hubert Davis (Hardwood, Giants of Africa) noted the documentary is based in part on the 2004 book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925, by George and Darril Fosty.
But Billy Hunter, a former U.S. attorney for California who previously tussled with James as the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, claimed this week in a New York County Supreme Court filing that he bought the exclusive rights from the Fosty brothers to develop a “motion picture” or “other audiovisual adaptation” of their book in 2019. He said he aimed to “bring its heartening story to the masses and make it part of the cultural zeitgeist” with a dramatic feature film.
Hunter alleged he was approached in October, 2020, by Scott Moore and Vinay Virmani of the Canadian production company First Take Entertainment, who said they were working with James’s Springhill Entertainment and hoped to buy the rights from him to make a documentary. He refused the request, saying the film was “a passion project of his.”
In the filing, Hunter says he learned about a year later that the documentary had proceeded with the backing of James’s production company, headed by Maverick Carter, and that Drake and his production company, DreamCrew Entertainment, led by Abel “Future” Nur, had joined the project. They are among the film’s executive producers.
“While the defendants LeBron James, Drake and Maverick Carter are internationally known and renowned in their respective fields of basketball and music, it does not afford them the right to steal another’s intellectual property,” the filing says. “Yet that is exactly what occurred herein.”
In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Moore, who is chief executive officer of First Take as well as Uninterrupted Canada, a production company also named in the lawsuit, said the legal action, “is ill-founded and unnecessary. We have instructed our counsel to file a motion to dismiss, and will address this matter through the courts.” He added: “We stand by this documentary, which is based upon the Black experience, both past and present, with the sport of hockey.”
The story of anti-Black racism in hockey, which had always been a toxic but little-discussed element of the game, exploded into view three years ago, when Aliu alleged his former minor-league coach, Bill Peters, had racially abused him when the two were with the Rockford IceHogs a decade earlier. Within days of Aliu’s statement, the Calgary Flames fired Peters, helping to spur a reckoning in the game. But members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, a group of NHL players of colour that was founded in the spring of 2020, have been frustrated at the slow pace of change.
In his statement, Moore said, “Black Ice is inspired by the players who, despite decades of contribution to the game they love, sadly continue to face persistent episodes of racism both within their sport, and in society in general. Black Ice is dedicated to all who continue to strive to make the sport of hockey more inclusive. We very much look forward to sharing the important message of this documentary.”
The legal spat doesn’t seem to have dimmed enthusiasm for the film’s premiere, which will be preceded by a red carpet with a guest list that includes Drake, Hayden Christensen, and Peter Mansbridge, as well as hockey players Nurse, Aliu, Simmonds, Saroya Tinker, Subban, Nazem Kadri, Matt Dumba, Anthony Duclair and Mitch Marner, along with basketball players Fred VanVleet and Cory Joseph.
The film will be distributed to Canadian theatres by Elevation Pictures, and later be available on the Bell Media-owned platforms CTV, TSN and Crave.