As a child growing up in Vancouver, Hubert Davis was introduced to basketball by his father, Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis, when he was 11 and went on to make his directorial debut with the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated 2005 documentary Hardwood.
Mastering the slap shot, however, was never a concern. Davis was well aware of hockey’s role in Canadian identity, of course. He just never personally gravitated toward the game.
“Obviously hockey is a big part of the cultural fabric. I remember going to university and all my roommates would talk about it. It was very – kind of – in the DNA of being Canadian,” he said.
So, when film producer Vinay Virmani approached him with the idea of directing a documentary based on the book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925, by Darril and George Fosty, Davis was initially skeptical. Nevertheless, he was intrigued enough by the story to take on the project. The documentary, which features interviews with players from today’s major and minor leagues, including Akim Aliu, Saroya Tinker, Mark Connors, and Wayne Simmonds, will be broadcast Feb. 2 at 9 p.m. ET on TSN, as well as playing in select theatres.
The source material was surprising, Davis said. Until he started working on the project, he had never heard of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, an all-Black league established 25 years before the Negro baseball leagues in the United States – and 22 years before the start of the NHL. And like many Canadians, he was unaware of the challenges faced by Black players and their contributions to the sport, such as the slap shot.
Fascinated by the struggles of all professional athletes, and their ability to beat the odds, Davis figured he could bring an outsider’s perspective to the project.
“This is about the culture of hockey and about the issues we’re facing. We’re at a point where we have to evaluate what it means and what is, not only its significance, but also what are the systemic issues embedded within it,” he said in an interview a month after the film’s premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Award for best documentary.
Although Black Ice is steeped in history, it also highlights the experiences of Black players in Canadian hockey today. Aliu, Tinker and Simmonds talk about their experiences – from the racist language and behaviour of teammates in the locker room to the taunts from spectators in the stands.
The visceral reaction of the audience at a TIFF screening, as Simmonds recalls such an incident, stood out for Davis.
“There was this kind of collective moment, when you literally heard the audience go “Ugh” together. It kind of dawns on them, what we’ve been saying so far,” Davis said. “You can only get that reaction in front of an audience, you know … As a filmmaker you’re always hoping for a visible response to something that maybe they didn’t know before.”
Making a connection between the past and the present was a way for Davis to demonstrate why Black players belong on the ice, from a game of shinny on a frozen pond to the biggest arenas. Take a player like Simmonds, who currently plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“His lineage goes back to the East Coast, to the beginnings of hockey in Canada,” Davis said. Although Simmonds was aware of the historical connection, taking part in the documentary gave him a deeper connection to the game, the director said. “So, anyone who is saying that you don’t belong here – it actually, literally, does not make sense.”
Talking to people in the Black community on the East Coast, especially the descendants of players of the Colored Hockey League, was a process of learning about a part of Canadian history that Davis simply knew nothing about.
“I have grown up in Canada. I have studied Canadian history to a fair extent … I think we are led to believe that Canadian history by its nature is boring. Nothing happened here. We’re all really nice,” he said. Like any country, Canada has dark chapters in its history, but Canadian don’t want to delve into it – “it seems kind of un-Canadian.”
When asked if a cultural institution like Canadian hockey – which has recently been besieged by a series of sexual assault scandals – can be more transparent and inclusive, Davis is doubtful. There are people actively working to that end, he said, but at the same time, taking performative steps during Black History Month such as having a Black personality drop a puck does not represent change.
“There are people who don’t want to see actual meaningful change and are actively working against that. I can’t say it any more bluntly than that,” he said.
And yet, when he hears from people who want to use Black Ice as an educational tool, he’s hopeful.
“They want to see the film and have a discussion after. I think that’s fantastic,” he said. “The other thing I’m hoping for – for all people of colour to feel … a sense of belonging. That they do feel, by the end of the film, that their lineage is actually a crucial part of the story of this country.”
Special to The Globe and Mail