By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
They endured racial epithets from fans and opponents, had their ability questioned by the teams they were trying out for and were subject to public scrutiny from the media, but Black hockey players persevered and there are now more Black players in the NHL than in the league’s history.
As more Black youth take up the sport around the country, those numbers are expected to increase. Last week at The New 400 Theater, 6746 N. Sheridan Road, nearly a hundred people attended the Chicago screening of “Soul On Ice: Past, Present & Future” a documentary directed, produced and written by first-time filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason. The film chronicles the sport of hockey and Black participants.
Mason, a native of Canada, said growing up he always loved the sport and he knew he was not the only Black kid who did. The timing of the screening goes along with the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative as the league reaches out to new populations in order to attract more people from non-traditional fan bases to the sport.
“There are so many stories that need to be told and I wish I could have put even more of the guys in this film that I met,” Mason said. “The game of hockey has so many great stories and I think once you hear the stories of these people, it will inspire others.”
Getting more young Black kids to play hockey has been a challenge but it’s gaining traction in major American cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. There is a Black youth hockey team in the Austin community and a large youth league in Harlem, New York that was featured in “Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future.” The Chicago Blackhawks are building a new practice arena across the street from the United Center in the heart of the Black community on the West Side. The organization decided in addition to the team’s practice ice, they would construct a public ice rink in the same facility they say will be used to host hockey leagues from the community.
“I’m really excited about what this new facility is going to mean to the community,” said Jamal Mayers, a Black Canadian who played on the Blackhawks’ 2013 championship team and now serves as an ambassador and TV analyst for the team. “The principles of being a good teammate and person are traits you can take with you throughout life, which you learn in hockey. It’s a big commitment the Blackhawks are making and I’m happy to be a part of it. The message to all kids is there is going to be an expanded opportunity in Chicago to play hockey.”
In 2015, Scarborough, a national media research company conducted a study which showed African Americans as the fastest growing demographic group among new hockey fans. The number of Chicago area Black fans of the sport increased from 12.6 percent in 2011 to 22 percent in 2014. Many say the numbers have climbed even further since that time and it may be closer to 35 percent in 2017.
Marketing experts say the Blackhawks having winning teams that have Black players on them, have increased their interest in the Black community. Combined with community outreach initiatives by the NHL and more games on network and cable TV, Black hockey fans are not only playing but watching games as well. Those who watch or listen to the games on radio has increased from 28 percent in 2011 to nearly 43 percent now.
During the Q&A session of the screening, the Crusader asked Mayers and Coordinator of Fan Development for the Blackhawks, Spencer Montgomery what efforts the team is making to increase the number of Black fans who come to the games. Many Blacks do not attend because with success, comes increased ticket prices. Montgomery said it is something the organization has not thought about but realized it is an area worth looking into.
Soul on Ice also featured Willie O’Ree, the Jackie Robinson of the sport who broke the color barrier in 1957. Although he took a puck in the eye during his first season which left him partially blind in one eye, he continued to have a career of 18 years. Mike Marsh is another former NHL player. He said there were death threats made against him and at one point, the threats were deemed so credible the league had to get him a special security detail.
“The message here to young Black kids who say hockey is too hard to learn or they are tired at practice, is they are dealing with nothing compared to what some of the Black pioneers of the sport had to deal with,” Mason said.
“Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future” runs 1 hour and 25 minutes. It is available to be streamed on Amazon for $4.99.