The Maritimers who transformed hockey 

The players of the Colored Hockey League introduced innovations that reshaped the sport. Photo: Nova Scotia Archives

Long overdue recognition for the sport’s Black pioneers

They changed the way goalies defend the net. They invented what is now known as the slapshot. They transformed hockey. 

But for years, the Colored Hockey League and its stars went unheralded. 

“We didn’t know until later on,” says Wayne Adams. “All we knew is there were pictures of guys in long johns with hockey sticks.” 

The former cabinet minister’s grandfather, Augustus Adams, was part of the league, which showcased Black Maritimers. Other players, like goalie Henry Franklin, was the first to drop to his knees to stop incoming pucks, while Eddie Martin used a technique similar to the slapshot, as did other CHL players. 

“It’s certainly a part of building Canada, in terms of the sport that everybody reveres so highly,” says Adams. “We were doing things in the 1800s that the NHL is being credited for in the 1900s.” 

Founded in 1895, the CHL aimed to encourage young Black men to attend church. If the men attended the service, they were promised a hockey game against players from another church. The league lasted until 1930, with a break from 1914 to 1919 due to the First World War. 

Adams only found out about the league in the early 2000s, as did many of the players’ descendants. This was due to research done by historians and brothers George and Darril Fosty for their book, Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895 to 1925. The Fostys found a small mention of the league in a newspaper clipping, triggering a decade of research. 

“We found it through the most mundane little sources, little artifacts, little pictures,” says George Fosty. “It was a hidden history … It was a lost history that was in front of us, in plain view, but no one was recognizing or acknowledging it.” 

The league thrived for a time. One championship game drew 1,200 fans, and a regular season game 500. In contrast, the all-white leagues tallied about 300 to 400 fans per game in Halifax. 

The CHL existed in a perpetual fight against racism and segregation. Black teams were only allowed to use arenas after white leagues were done, which caused them to have a rushed season, from January to March. They sometimes played at night and often used lakes when arenas were unavailable. In the early 1900s, Africville community members faced the seizure of their land to make way for a railroad. When residents opposed the appropriation, arena owners wouldn’t let teams use their ice and newspapers stopped covering games. 

Today, the league is finally getting its due. In 2015, it was featured in Soul on Ice: Past Present & Future, a documentary about Black hockey players. In 2020, Canada Post released a commemorative stamp. In 2021, another documentary on the league was announced, with rapper Drake and NBA star LeBron James producing. 

For Adams, this recognition is just a start. 

“(We should) remember them as vividly as possible,” he says, adding that the hockey establishment has only recently started acknowledging the CHL’s contributions. “The NHL has a role to play in terms of sharing the truths they didn’t even know about … They should do more work and share the truth of the story behind hockey.” 

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