Black hockey team fan favourites in Charlottetown, says historian

Research on a hockey league in the Maritimes that featured only black players reveals the athletes were fan favourites, attracting large crowds for their games.

A new documentary film called Soul On Ice looks at what was called the Coloured Hockey League, which featured 400 players, including those on a Charlottetown team known as the West End Rangers.

Historian and lawyer Jim Hornby of Charlottetown is also studying the team, and told Island Morning's Matt Rainnie it formed in 1899 as part of a larger athletics club.

"An amateur athletic association, the West End Rangers, had formed with a membership of about 60," said Hornby. "They played football, rugby football and baseball. They were into track and field. One of the players on the Rangers, John Mills, or Jack Mills, the captain, had set a record ice skating from Charlottetown to Mount Stewart in 50 minutes, 18 miles."

The hockey team was quite popular from 1900 to 1904, lead by four of the Mills Brothers, said Hornby.

The biggest problem was travelling in the winter to meet the competition.

"Ice boats, or the Stanley Steamer, or they would be on trains that would be stuck in snow or ice, this was in the early 1900s, the travelling wasn't great," he said. "They played the Africville Seasides, the Halifax Eurekas, the Dartmouth Jubilees, the Truro Victorias."

Champs and local heroes

Hornby's research so far shows that the Rangers won the league championship at least once. 

He said hockey games were much bigger affairs in those days because they were far less common.

One newspaper description told of the Rangers welcoming the Truro team's arrival on the Steamer with banners, and driving them in sleighs to John Mills' home for a meal before the game. 500 spectators watched the Rangers win 15 - 0.

Hornby read a description of one episode in the game that stood out.

"'Some over-ardent admirer of the teams threw two roosters into the arena, causing quite a commotion among the players. A sad fate befell one of the roosters. Thinking it was a roost, the bird started in the direction of the Vic's goalnet, and was accidently decapitated by the Truro team's goalkeeper,'" he read. "Hockey Night In Canada doesn't have excitement like that, let me tell you."

The team's fans also came from the white community, said Hornby, quoting one newspaper headline that read, "Charlottetown is proud of her Rangers."

Working with the province's Black Cultural Society, which received a Canada 150 grant, Hornby will lead a tour July 15 of the area known as The Bog, where the athletic centre was based.

Although none of the buildings are left from that era in the west of the city, he'll have stories that go back to 1867, detailing everything from riots to hangings.

"It was around for about a century, so it's not insignificant in scope," said Hornby. "And certainly the most diverse community that has ever been seen in 19th century Prince Edward Island for sure."

Hornby has been working on a revised edition of his book Black Islanders, which came out 26 years ago and is now out of print.

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