Director Hubert Davis on 'Black Ice' and the untold Black hockey experience

·6 min read

TORONTO — In the new sports documentary "Black Ice," viewers learn that in 1906 hockey player Eddie Martin became the first to use a technique known as the slapshot — a back swing of the stick known for its power as it makes contact with the puck.

But Martin, a Black man who played for the Halifax Eureka in what was then known as the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, went largely unrecognized for his innovative method.

This is one among the many vital moments of sport history marred by anti-Black racism explored in the doc, directed by Hubert Davis, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival and will screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival later this month.

Using archival footage of the Maritimes league along with in-person interviews with past and present Black hockey players, “Black Ice” challenges the idea that hockey is an all-welcoming Canadian sport.

Based on the book “Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925" by George and Darril Fosty, the documentary looks deep into the annals of hockey history.

Adapting the book was eye-opening for Davis, who says he wasn't aware that the all-Black hockey league existed. It was established by a group of Black Baptists and intellectuals to give Black players who had an interest in the sport a chance to play, because they were not allowed to join the NHL until Willie O'Ree broke the colour barrier on Jan. 18, 1958.

“My first reaction was that I didn't believe it. I had never even known we had a Coloured Hockey League,” says Davis 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."

Davis, who previously directed "Hardwood" and was nominated for an Oscar for the short film in 2005, wanted to spotlight the league, its contribution to hockey, and the systemic racism within the sport that ripples through to today.

"Going into this, I wondered why these histories were ignored and how that relates to the problems that remain present within the sport,” said Davis about "Black Ice," which was co-produced by basketball great LeBron James, hip-hop star Drake and sports marketer Maverick Carter. “The idea of saying that something doesn't exist can be really dangerous, because it allows issues to keep existing.”

One story involves the late Herb Carnegie, a Toronto-born hockey player who is described as one of the most talented Canadian players during the 1940s and '50s. He was only included in the Hockey Hall of Fame a full decade after his death earlier this year.

It's another example of the unfortunate practice of general disregard against Black contributors to the game that Davis can’t separate from the current players he spoke to.

“It was personally difficult to get these people to speak, but if someone sits down, it means they have something to say,” says Davis, the son of the late athlete, Mel Davis of the Harlem Globetrotters.

“If you've never dealt with something like that, you'll know that it's not the moment, but it's the hurt that they feel when no one sees you or does anything when you ask for help."

In one scene, a player recounts a moment in his younger years when his coach referred to him using a racist remark as his teammates stood silent. In another, a series of racist incidents befall a player and when he reports them to both coach and the referees, his complaints are met with inaction.

"Some of these players thought they were crazy because they hadn't heard these stories that matched their own," says Davis. “There’s an adult in the room who doesn't hear you, so the response is to just do nothing.”

To Davis, it’s the way the heads of the sport handled racism — whether through apathy, malice, or ignorance — that best explained why so many Black people have viewed hockey with a sense of apprehension.

“I’ve always felt that it was supposed to be like this and that you had to ignore certain sports in order to assimilate,” he says, noting it’s an experience that extends beyond the athletics world.

“We don't talk about what it's like to be the only Black people in the room, or ... the kind of effect that has on your decisions, because I’ve even felt it in the film world."

As the documentary premiered in Toronto on Saturday, sparking these important discussions with Canadian audiences, a lawsuit loomed in the background.

On Sept. 4, Billy Hunter, former head of the National Basketball Players Association, filed the lawsuit filed in New York County Supreme Court alleging that the creation of the “Black Ice” doc was a breach of a 2019 agreement between him and George and Darril Fosty, after which he paid $265,000 for exclusive rights to develop screen projects based on their book.

In the filing, Hunter says that after he retired from the NBPA, he turned to his passion projects of "pursuing social and racial justice," and sought to make a movie based on the book.

The lawsuit says Hunter made an agreement with the authors to obtain the option "to purchase the worldwide and exclusive license to develop and produce, among other things, any 'motion picture, television series' or 'other audiovisual adaptation' of the property."

The filing names the film's production companies First Take Entertainment and Uninterrupted Canada, as well as Drake, James, Carter and the Frosty brothers among the defendants, with Hunter seeking $10 million in damages.

The lawsuit alleges Hunter told producers this "was a passion project of his, and he had no interest in selling his exclusive option or any portion of his rights."

In a statement emailed to The Canadian Press, Scott Moore, the CEO of Uninterrupted Canada, called the lawsuit "ill-founded and unnecessary."

"We have instructed our counsel to file a motion to dismiss, and will address this matter through the courts," Moore said.

"We stand by this documentary which is based upon the Black experience, both past and present, with the sport of hockey."

Davis says he's not familiar with the details of the lawsuit, but that he doesn't believe it will overshadow the essential message of the documentary.

"It’s largely out of my realm of knowledge," he says. "It’s such an important documentary that I felt that as long as people saw it, and when they see it, it would be the most important thing.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sep 15, 2022.

Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press