On February 23, Innis College hosted a screening of the documentary Black Ice, in collaboration with the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) and the Cinema Studies Institute. The screening was followed by a discussion between the director, Hubert Davis, and KPE Professors Simon Darnell and Janelle Joseph.
Black Ice premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, winning the People’s Choice Documentary Award and is now available on Crave. Davis has previously explored the social and cultural impacts of basketball in the Oscar-nominated documentary Hardwood and in Giants of Africa. In Black Ice, Davis turns to hockey with executive producers Drake and Lebron James.
After the viewing, Darnell, Joseph, and Davis discussed the major themes of the movie and how it connects to the real world.
“[Hockey] is an integral part of our identity,” Davis explained. “If we can talk about some of the issues going on in hockey, then we [can] have the chance to talk about some of the issues going on in the country.”
With impactful stories, Black Ice highlights the challenges Black hockey players face, ultimately exposing the systemic racism within the sport.
“When we look at history, we have to understand that the Black experience is often in the margins,” Davis explained. “[If] we can actually recentre those stories, then the history won’t get lost,” added Joseph.
When looking into the past, Black Ice identifies the contributions of Black hockey players, which the hockey community has overlooked. The Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes (CHL) pioneered both the slap shot and the rule enabling goaltenders to drop to the ice to block shots and often don’t get credit for these contributions.
Furthermore, the documentary highlights the historic discrimination faced by Black hockey players like Herbert Carnegie, considered one of Canada’s best hockey players despite the fact that he never played in the NHL. In 1938, Conn Smythe, the general manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs, stated that he would pay $10,000 for someone to make Carnegie white, despite being clearly impressed by Carnegie’s skills. In a piece of archival footage, Carnegie breaks down into tears when discussing this incident. He later founded the Future Aces Hockey School, the first hockey school in Canada. Carnegie’s contributions have continued to be underappreciated — he was only inducted posthumously into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2022.
“I assumed that [this history] wasn’t important because I wasn’t taught about it,” Davis said about the historic Black communities and individuals explored in Black Ice. “I was actually quite embarrassed [or] kind of ashamed… [that I] didn’t know this.”
Nevertheless, by focusing on this history, Black Ice unpacks how hockey’s issues with diversity are not as complicated as many believe. “[I learned] even after the CHL ended, we didn’t stop playing [hockey]. It’s always been part of our culture,” Davis said. So, why has hockey failed to embrace this community?
Abuse and alienation
Black Ice highlights that racism persists in hockey, providing numerous visceral examples of racial abuse. Former Calgary Flames player Akim Aliu received racial epithets from his coach, Bill Peters. A teammate of the Toronto Six’s Saroya Tinker directed a racial slur at her in their locker room when she was 12. Some parents directed monkey noises at the Florida Panthers’ Anthony Duclair when he was 10. Wayne Simmonds from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Matt Dumba from the Minnesota Wild are among other hockey players who share similar stories.
Davis noted that the lack of accountability for the players involved in such incidents made it seem like the players did not have allies within hockey. The lack of a support system resulted in a growing sense of alienation amongst Black hockey players.
“Hockey culture being so strong and so team-oriented… hammers down on athletes to not speak up on these issues,” Darnell said. “Hockey culture does not open that space easily at all.”
Yet, while Black Ice successfully evokes emotions like anger and frustration, it also creates a greater sense of respect — these players never gave up, with their love for hockey overpowering the hatred they faced. “I thought that was interesting,” Davis reflected. “The idea of loving something that doesn’t always love you back.”
With these stories, Black Ice emphasizes that racism directed towards hockey players is evidence of a larger system of racism. Hockey is deeply embedded in this country’s cultural fabric. Davis’ film doesn’t just expose hockey’s systemic racism, it also exposes how Canadian society has helped make it more pervasive. These problems can’t be ignored.
“Change in hockey is going to require an actually anti-racist approach,” Darnell suggested. This includes putting forward proactive policies and approaches within hockey organizations that break down racial stereotypes and structures. For example, Kirk Brooks runs the Seasides Hockey program in Scarborough that aims to make hockey more accessible for youth from diverse backgrounds. “They’re making this diversity thing too difficult,” Brooks said in Black Ice. “The NHL has been talking about diversity since 1993. They still don’t know what to do with it.”
Furthermore, Darnell added, “What goes along with the anti-Black racism in hockey is the normativity of whiteness in hockey… Kids go through a hockey season and really only see other white kids.” Black Ice highlights how increasing representation is essential to changing the racist structures that exist, and for inspiring others.
“Making sure that everyone who is there, is represented and is part of the storytelling [is important],” Joseph said.“[Then] we can change our ideas of who is a hockey player.”
Additionally, Joseph highlighted another approach to facilitating change — education. “Many of us have heard these stories,” she explained. “But some people haven’t, or haven’t heard it in a way that makes them feel as though this is their problem.”
Black Ice ensures everyone is aware of the systemic racism that pervades hockey. If hockey wants to survive in Canada’s increasingly diverse demographic, it should not belong to any one group — it should belong to everyone.