Jackie Robinson. Althea Gibson. Jack Johnson. In the sports world, these names are synonymous with Black firsts. But when it comes to hockey, the historic achievements of Black pioneers have gone untold until now. Hubert Davis' new documentary, Black Ice, analyzes why that is — and why it needs to change.
Black Ice, which won the People's Choice Award for documentary at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, explores the remarkable history of Black hockey players and the systemic challenges they have faced over the years. In the film, Hubert glides through history like a player on the ice, uncovering stories of Black hockey players from as early as the late 1800s. "The Black experience has always been in hockey, not just from the beginning but all the way through," Davis tells A.frame.
The fact that Black hockey players have had such a substantial role in the development of the sport without receiving proper due was enough to pique Davis' interest. "Learning about the Coloured Hockey League, that it existed, especially in the time that it did — the turn of the century — I don't think we think about Black people playing hockey in 1895," he says. "For some reason, that just wasn't in my head."
"If you took that outside of sports and applied that to anything else, you would probably find the same thing," Davis adds. "It's like, 'No, we've always been here. We've always contributed to this thing.' It's just that those stories, they were on the periphery. They were on the margins. You have to go and search a little harder to find them, but they exist."
Davis understands the value of searching beyond what can be found in history books. His directorial debut, 2005's Hardwood, delved into the legacy of his own father, the Harlem Globetrotters player Mel "Trick" Davis. For it, Davis received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short Film. For Black Ice, Davis tapped historians Darril Fosty and George Fosty, who've studied the Coloured Hockey League and the origins of hockey extensively.
"I can't underestimate the power of these historians, who are digging and finding these things and not really given a ton of credit," he says. As he continued to search, he discovered new treasures. "I was so amazed by the descendants of the Coloured Hockey League, these people who talked about their experience growing up in the Black communities of the East Coast of Canada."
"We hear stories of the underground railroad and it's like, 'But then what happened to all of these people and communities?' And to realize there were these thriving communities that revolved around the church, and that's how something like the Coloured Hockey League starts, because it's trying to get people in that community together," Davis explains, "that was just fascinating for me."
For the film, Davis interviewed Willie O'Ree, the first Black hockey player in the NHL, and the daughter of Herb Carnegie, who is considered Canada's first Black hockey star. In fact, there has been so much Black involvement throughout hockey's history that Davis was heartbroken at how much he wasn't able to include in the final cut. And the more Davis learned of the past, the more he was able to sees parallels to the struggles of players today.
"I use sports as a bit of a Trojan horse," Davis says. "It's my way in to talking about a subject that might be a little bit more difficult to talk about." Over the years, discrimination within the sport of hockey has gone largely unchecked, and as athletes like Akim Aliu and Sarah Nurse attest in Black Ice, there is an unwritten code amongst players — work hard and keep your head down — that can make speaking out feel nearly impossible. "We don't involve race in those discussions of athletes, because sports is seen as escapism," explains the director.
"If I'm talking about Michael Jordan, I'm not talking about race. I'm talking about Michael Jordan because he's the greatest basketball player." But Davis argues that you can't talk about the achievements of Black pioneers and players without fully acknowledging what they've overcome. "What people don't understand is those things are already intertwined."
The consensus from players, coaches and historians featured within the film is that there is a lot of work to be done when it comes to inclusion within the NHL and the greater hockey community. "Progress is not inevitable," Davis says for his part. "Progress is a thing that people have to fight for and have to work really hard at. I was hoping that the film, in that way, is a bit of a wake-up call to understand these things aren't a given. We have to work towards them, if you actually want to see change."
Knowing the stories of the ancestors who broke the ice, so to say, only helps champion the Black players of today. It's this sentiment that Davis hopes the audience to take from his film. It's what he took away from the experience of making Black Ice. "It was a sense of pride in the Black experience," he says. "Being part of something from the very beginning, and realizing we've always been here."
By Doriean Stevenson