Sunday, February 10, 2019

A "Cool" Piece of Black History

Me with a fellow reveler
Of the many fond memories 2018 left me with, one that I didn't anticipate was the excitement I gained from being swept up in Caps Fever. When the Washington Capitals hockey team forged a clear path toward clinching its first ever Stanley Cup win in franchise history, it didn't take long for Washingtonians to get on board the Celebration Train--yours included--in what we hoped would be an energy that would transform all of the city's sporting teams into something that would give us long-dreamed of bragging rights. What Caps Fever also did was bring everyone together (if only for a few weeks) regardless of age, race, or socioeconomic status. When bar and restaurant tables were full, quick friendships formed allowing extra space to be made for stray chairs to join in the commune. Fans bought drinks for strangers; fist bumps were aplenty; and high fives were exchanged as passing fans hopped bars along Chinatown's 7th Street stretch, that was blocked off for those watching all of the action taking place inside Capital One Arena via jumbotrons.

Devante Smith-Pelly
To say it was a period of DC pride would be accurate. To say it also was a moment of African-American pride due to one of the leading scorers on the Caps team being Devante Smith-Pelly--a 26-year-old Black Canadian power forward--would be an understatement. (Note: The Capitals second black player currently on the roster is Madison Bowey). Despite the Capitals having actually been among the most diverse in the league, with eleven black players playing a game for the team since 1974, racism surrounding black hockey players in general is both not uncommon nor a thing of the past. In fact, in February 2018, a Capitals game against the Chicago Blackhawks found Smith-Pelly at the center of racial taunts, leading to four fans being ejected from the arena and the Capitals issuing a public statement on the matter. "This has happened [to me] in hockey before," Smith-Pelly said. "It's disgusting, that in 2018 we're still talking about the same thing, over and over. It's sad that athletes like myself, 30, 40 years ago were standing in the same place." (Source: The Washington Post).

Even sadder is the long-held belief that hockey is a "white sport" in which blacks do not and should not belong when, in fact, at the foundation of hockey history are black players. Hence why it felt appropriate that for Black History Month and in February, which the National Hockey League has deemed "Hockey is for Everyone" month, that I spotlight a group of pioneers in the sport of hockey: the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes.

Coloured Hockey League players
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia: The Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes (CHL) was an all-Black men's hockey league founded in 1895 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Organized by Black Baptists and Black intellectuals, the league was designed as a way to attract young Black men to Sunday worship with the promise of a recreational hockey match between rival churches following religious services. Later, with the influence of the Black Nationalism Movement of the period — and with rising interest in the sport of hockey — the league came to be seen as a potential driving force for the equality of Black Canadians. By the early 20th century, the CHL had expanded from a humble three-team league in 1895 — which included its maiden club, the Dartmouth Jubilees — to involve newly formed regional challengers. Though the CHL would see its popularity grow--with game attendance bypassing that of its white counterparts' games--it would ultimately face its own eradication when racism in the form of a proposed railroad expansion that would adversely affect the black community in the north-end of Halifax caused black residents and white city officials to be at odds. During the legal battle, some rink owners refused to rent out their hockey rinks to the league or to any Black teams. Other rink owners agreed to only do so in late March when the natural ice surface was already beginning to melt. Local newspaper coverage of the league also disappeared virtually overnight, with only one article penned between 1905-06. With a poor playing surface slowing the game and no means of promotion, the league was forced to move back onto the local ponds, effectively killing the CHL as an economic and social Black movement. The last recorded newspaper account of the league during this era appeared in 1911. (The CHL's full history can be read here).

Wilie Eldon O'Ree
The National Hockey League eventually would organize in Canada in 1917 but would not expand to the United States until 1924. However, despite the impact of the CHL, it would not be until 1958 that Black-Canadian professional hockey player Willie Eldon O'Ree would become the first black player in the NHL, thus linking Black-Canadian and African-American sports history forever. O'Ree played as a winger for the Boston Bruins and was often referred to as the "Jackie Robinson of ice hockey" due to breaking the black color barrier in the sport. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2018.

J.T. Brown of the Tampa Bay Lightning
There's no arguing that hockey will always be viewed as a "white sport," due to the limited amount of players of color it boasts, as well as those who will always question our place in the sport's history altogether. However, thanks to the pioneers of the Coloured Hockey League that would influence the likes of Willie O'Ree and ultimately lead to the birth of present day hockey greats like Smith-Pelly and Bowey, we can agree with the National Hockey League's mantra that "hockey is for everyone" while raising a hockey stick proudly in the air alongside a power fist.

Photo Credits: N/A
Sources: The Washington Post, the Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia