Black Ice tells the story of a Nova Scotia hockey league plagued by institutional racism

Order of Canada recipient Herb Carnegie, pictured in 2009, was a star player with the Quebec Aces through the 1940s.  (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Order of Canada recipient Herb Carnegie, pictured in 2009, was a star player with the Quebec Aces through the 1940s. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Herb Carnegie is a name every hockey fan in Canada should know.

Carnegie, a Toronto-born hockey player of Jamaican descent, was widely considered one of the great players of the 1940s. But Carnegie never played in the NHL because he was Black, according to the new documentary Black Ice. He faced racism at every turn throughout his career.

In an interview with Hockey Night in Canada back in 2009, Carnegie explained why he never played for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"I was good enough for the Leafs. [Because] according to Conn Smythe, 'I would take Carnegie tomorrow for the Maple Leafs if someone can turn him white.'"

He played for Shawinigan and Sherbrooke of the Quebec Provincial League and was named most valuable player three times. In 1948, Carnegie tried out for the New York Rangers — he was offered contracts three times, all of them less than he was earning in the Quebec league.

It was only until this past June he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builder Category for founding one of Canada's first hockey schools, Future Aces.

Carnegie died 10 years earlier, in March 2012, at the age of 92. He never got to experience that moment of recognition. His story is an all-too familiar one in hockey.

Past, present players affected

His story, along with other players past and present, highlights the institutional racism in the sport and how it affected players then and how it affects them now.

This compelling documentary is based on the book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925 by George and Darril Fosty.

This past weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival Carnegie's story, along with many current racialized players, was showcased in the premiere of the film.

Oscar nominee Hubert Davis directed the film — NBA superstar LeBron James, Toronto rapper Drake and Maverick Carter are executive producers.

It tells the history and stories of the Coloured Hockey League in Nova Scotia in 1895 and brilliantly weaves in many of the same systemic ant-Black racist issues that past players faced and current players in hockey face today.

"My first reaction was that I didn't believe it. I had never even known we had a Coloured Hockey League," Davis told The Canadian Press during an interview at his Toronto office. "I grew up in Canada, but I never thought of these stories involving Black players as particularly Canadian."

At times the narratives and videos are intentionally uncomfortable, challenging mainstream ideas of what hockey means to Canadians and how it's not a safe space for everyone.

Alex Lupul/The Canadian Press
Alex Lupul/The Canadian Press

Gut-wrenching to listen to

Throughout the film Akim Aliu, Wayne Simmons, Matt Dumba, Anthony Duclair, Willy O'Ree, Saroya Tinker, Sarah Nurse, P.K. Subban, and Mark Connors speak candidly and vulnerably about the racism they've faced.

It is gut-wrenching to listen to and watch at times. And crucial to hear.

"It's a story about, in a lot of ways, my life and my experiences, but also tied into the experiences of so many other Black hockey players, and just to talk about the history of what we've been able to contribute to the sport that went overlooked for so long," Aliu said.

"It was one that really hit home for me because there's not many stories you can be part of that you can put yourself in that moment and remember what you felt like in that moment. So I think it's done in an authentic and incredible way and I just can't wait for the world to see it."

In a lot of ways it was Aliu who ignited in a way we hadn't seen before the topic of racism in hockey.

He was one of the first pro players to speak out in November 2019, when Aliu posted a series of tweets accusing his former minor league coach, Bill Peters, of directing racial slurs at him a decade earlier.

David Leyes via The Associated Press
David Leyes via The Associated Press

Aliu vilified

Peters resigned as coach of the Calgary Flames in the wake of it. Aliu was vilified in the sport and by fans for speaking out.

Hockey is so inextricably linked to the fabric of what it means to be Canadian and yet for people of colour it's been a place of extreme pain.

Throughout this documentary, Davis, along with those lending their voices to film, so powerfully articulate that they've been here all along — the sport and culture around it has whitewashed their existence.

Simmonds, of the Toronto Maple Leafs, shares his story about the time he was entering his third season with the L.A. Kings in 2011. The team was playing an exhibition game in London, Ont., when someone threw a banana on the ice. That man was fined $200.

For more than 90 minutes throughout this documentary past and current players open up about what they've endured.

Many in the audience at Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto repositioned themselves in their chairs as they tried to absorb what that must have been like for those players — many Canadians want to believe that doesn't happen here, couldn't happen in this country and in this sport so many people love.

And for people in the audience watching who knew of this kind of racial abuse, it must have been harrowing. The documentary, at many points, is triggering because this type of trauma gets re-lived all the time.

And racism continues to play out on the ice.

Willie O'Ree finally broke the colour barrier on Jan. 18, 1958. He's been honoured and celebrated, and rightfully so, made out to be a hero in hockey.

But he and many others acknowledge that there would be no Willie O'Ree if it were not for the Coloured Hockey League and people like Herb Carnegie, who came before him and faced the ugliness of anti-Blackness in hockey.

And that's why Aliu, Simmonds, Dumba, Nurse and Tinker have all put themselves out there in this documentary — because they know that ugliness still exists today.

Truly making space for everyone in the sport Canadians love and cherish is still a long ways away.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.