Sportsman's Daily


Soul on Ice: New Documentary to Focus on Little Known Negro Hockey League

Willie O'Ree

First black NHL player Willie O'Ree circa 1958. New documentary "Soul on Ice" to reveal previously little known history of Negro Hockey League.

TORONTO (Sportsman’s Daily Wire Service) — The first National Hockey League (NHL) game was played on December 9, 1917. It would take another forty-one years for a black player to break the color barrier when on January 18, 1958, Willie O'Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins to replace an injured player and made his debut against the Montreal Canadiens. While many hoped O’Ree would pave the way for an influx of talented black hockey players – to become, in effect, the sport’s Jackie Robinson -- NHL rosters have since remained the near-exclusive domain of white, plodding Canadians.

Because blacks – or African Americans – have come to dominate every major sport but hockey, many have come to view the dearth of black hockey players as a predetermined historical/racial/ethnic fact, a natural mismatch between requirements and native skills or inclinations, i.e., blacks are to hockey as Jewish males are to home repair. But documentary film maker Ernest Aimes is about to shatter this myth – not the one about Jewish males and home repairs, which is firmly established – but the one about blacks and hockey.

“While everyone knows about the Josh Gibsons and the Satchell Paiges, the Slappy Maxwells and Boom Boom Jeffersons – giants of the short-lived Negro Hockey League -- have been lost to history,” said Aimes, whose previous documentaries include “Gutter Ball: The Ugly Underside of Professional Bowling” and “Stick a Fork in It: The History of Utensils.”

“The league was short lived and lasted only three winters – 1941 through 1943 – but the stories, the exploits and the rivalries are every bit as entertaining and rich as the ones associated with its baseball counterpart, the Negro League, on which the hockey league was obviously patterned.”

The Negro League boasted five franchises (coincidentally the same number as the NHL at its inception): The Toronto Flash, Monte and the Montreal Meadowlarks (when they weren’t playing hockey, the Meadowlarks toured as a rhythm and blues act), the Ottawa Blades, the Windsor Squires and the Halifax Jacks. The clubs played a 24 game schedule and occasionally barnstormed across Canada, playing pick-up games against established NHL stars.

“The league didn’t have the means to play in heated arenas. The games were played on frozen ponds with makeshift seating. When it got real cold, they’d just call it a draw and find a warm place to play cards. But playing on frozen ponds carried risks – there were at least two documented occasions when spectators fell through the ice, and any number of times when they had to stop play to fish a player from the freezing water. One time a fight broke out and before long both teams were underwater – the refs had to thaw them out before they could be pried apart.”

According to Aimes, it was a very different game from the one we’re accustomed to watching.

“While the settings were pretty ordinary, this was showtime hockey. The athleticism was startling. The speed, the power, the no-look passes, players taking off from the blue line…guys with 48 inch verticals on skates! Imagine Lebron James leading a charge from behind his own net, carrying three defenders as he gathers a head of steam, puts the last defense man on his butt with a stutter step and cross-over, then slams the puck between the hapless goalie’s legs…that’s what we’re talking about! Hockey played above the ice. Just breathtaking.”

Soul on Ice will include rare 16 millimeter footage, photographs, and interviews with former Negro League players, NHL players who played against them, and an assortment of talking heads, including rappers Snoop Dogg, Ice-T and Ice Cube. Michael Eric Dyson, author of, among other books, “Know What I Mean?: Reflections on Hip Hop,” served as one of several consultants in the making of the film.

“Those cats could flat out play hockey. Now, I’ll tell you the truth, it’s not a game I know a lot about. I never played it, don’t watch it – in fact, I don’t much like ice or anything on ice. But why act surprised when you find out brothers can ball – or whatever the hockey equivalent to ball is. Over the years I heard stories about Slappy Maxwell and Boom Boom Jefferson and Slats Robinson and Jean Claude Jones…the dudes were stone cold pimps! And they were bringing it in sub-freezing weather – not ideal conditions for a brother, I hasten to add… now, imagine if they were playing in today’s heated rinks. Which, actually, they are, but usually after the rinks are converted into basketball courts.”

Soul on Ice is slated to be released around the time of the Stanley Cup finals. The documentary has the support and blessing of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

“It’s a fascinating and important story, one that needs to be told. And if it inspires just one African American kid from Saskatchewan or South Central to lace up a pair of skates and play this beautiful game, great. Though Chris Rock makes a point: there aren’t a lot of brothers going to go anywhere there’s a bunch of crazy white people wearing masks and carrying sticks.”

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