November 13, 2008

Black Ice by George and Darril Fosty

Brothers George and Darril Fosty have re-released their book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925

Though Willie O'Ree did not become the first black NHL hockey player until 1958, blacks playing hockey dates back to the 1870s, nearly as long as the great game itself.

Twenty-five years before the negro baseball leagues in the United States and twenty-two years before the birth of the National Hockey League, the Coloured League helped to pioneer not only black athletics in Canada but the entire emerging sport of ihockey. The authors argue that the black contributions to hockey were conveniently ignored or simply stolen by whites who observed such elements as the "flopping" goalie and the slap shot.

That's right. The authors suggest a 3'6" goalie named Henry "Braces" Franklin was the first goalie to drop down to the ice on his knees, back when standard rules prohibited such tactics. And a fellow named Eddie Martin may have originated the slap shot three decades before Boom Boom Geoffrion was born.

Starring the sons and grandsons of escaped American slaves, the Colored League was fascinatingly complex. It was led by black ministers of the Baptist Church. Proponents of black pride, these men represented a concept in sports never before seen: Their rule book was The Bible. Their game book comprised the coded words and oral history derived from the experiences of American slavery and the Underground Railroad. Their strategy was based on the principles and teachings of American black leader Booker T. Washington, a believer in the concept of racial equality through racial separation.

The book is a bit too academic, reading a little dry if you are not drawn into the topic fully. The book also seems angry. The authors tell it as they see it, and they clearly are disgusted with the treatment of the black people both in hockey and Canadian history.

It was interesting to read about teams like the Africville Brown Bombers, the New Glasglow Speed Boys, the Ralph Waldo Emersons and the Harlem Globetrotters-like Black Panthers. The league started on outdoor ponds, but soon enough moved into indoor arenas and turned pro, charging admission to pay the bills. The audience? Mostly middle class white people fascinated with the black's fast and clean style of play.

The book does not have a lot of great information on individual players. I always find that draws my interest further into the text. Still, I'm a sucker for stories about people, specifically players, and such biographical information is sparsely spread throughout the book.

This is partly because there is so little material out there on these players, despite the authors' obviously thorough research. How thorough? These guys are professional historians. They spent 7 years scouring through more than 6,000 sources of information, much of it quite obscure, to piece together Black Ice, originally published in 2004.

I have a special fondness for the authors of this book, neither of whom are black, by the way. The authors were born in my neck of the northern British Columbian woods. George, a Canadian historian and documentary filmmaker currently living in New York City, was born down the road in sleepy Prince Rupert. He later studied at the University of Hawaii and London City Polytechnic in England. Brother Darril was born in Terrace, and is also a Canadian historian and documentary filmmaker. He studied History and Journalism at Western Washington University.

In the early 1970s, before I was even born, both brothers were local youth stars here in Terrace. They later moved to the Okanagan before far more worldly adventures took them around the globe. In conversations with George, Northwest BC still remains deep in their hearts.

The duo also turned the original text into a short film which won rave reviews. At the Annual Roxbury Film Festival in Boston the Fostys won the best short film documentary award, beating out films by Spike Lee and Danny Glover, despite a tiny budget of just $40,000


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