The first all-black hockey league: The colored hockey league of the maritimes
By Tara Bailey
-Did You Know-
→ Did you know Nova Scotia is the birthplace of hockey? Originated in the 1800s when students from Kings College in Canada merged their love for the field game of hurley with skating on their favorite pond. Over the years, ice hurley gradually transformed into ice hockey. From meager beginnings of a simple beloved game is now under the dominion of the National Hockey League (NHL).
→ Did you know Nova Scotia is also the birthplace of the first Colored Hockey League? The Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes (CHL) was an all-Black ice hockey league founded in 1895 in Halifax, Nova Scotia by a group of four Black intellectual men. Pastor James Borden, James A. R Kinney, Henry Sylvester Williams and James Robinson Johnston.
The founders intended to attract young Black men to Sunday Service. To do so, they promised the young men the game would be fast, physical and innovative, plus play against rival churches after worship. Using hockey to encourage church attendance proved successful. The CHL spanned 35 years with its creation in 1895, disbandment in 1911, rebirth in 1925, and concluded by the 1930s.
With the influence of the Black Nationalism movement in America combined with the growing interest in hockey, the CHL spearheaded the drive for equality for Black Canadians.
→ Did you know the contemporary writings of Booker T. Washington inspired those four pioneers of Black-ice hockey? Specifically, Washington’s passage from his “Up From Slavery” autobiography.
“I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.” From Washington’s quote, the founder’s organized the league’s first games and its purpose manifested.
Early in the 20th century, the CHL expanded from a three-team league to include the Jubilees, Stanleys, Eurekas, Sea-Sides, Victorias, Rangers, Royals and Moss Backs.
Upward of 12 teams and more than 1,000 spectators. Even with rising popularity, their counterparts did not treat Black hockey teams equally. The all-Black league season lasted from late January to early March. The reason being the Black teams only had access to natural ice or arenas when the whites-only league season ended.
→ Did you know the Colored Hockey League did not have an official rulebook? They took their cues from the Bible. The founders built the league’s foundation on spiritual attendance; it was only natural for the CHL to use the Bible to guide them on tactics. Later, the religious aspect of the CHL simmered and made way for secular rules.
The decline of the CHL in 1911 was not because of a lack of interest in the sport. The Black community in Halifax was in a dispute with the provincials and city officials about the proposed railroad annexation of their land. Because of the Black community resistance, some rink owners refused to rent to the league or any Black teams. Local newspaper coverage disappeared and with it the ability to promote the league. With the absence of resources, arenas, and promotions, they forced the CHL to resume playing on local ponds.
The obstacles that the local rink owners and city officials placed in front of the CHL silently dismantled the league. There was a brief reformation in the 1920s and by the 1930s, the CHL was finished. Even through trials and tribulations, the legacy of the Colored Hockey League survived among countrymen and future hockey players. In January 2020, Canada Post unveiled a postage stamp featuring the 1906 champion Halifax Eurekas to commemorate the history of Black players in Canada.
→ Did you know Willie O’Ree of the Boston Bruins was the NHL’s first Black player? The
media gave O’Ree the honorary title of the “Jackie Robinson of hockey.” Just like Robinson, he did not get the level of respect both deserved. Enduring racism in the league and his determination to succeed cost O’Ree his left eye, coupled with threats and violence.
O’Ree played 45 games with the Bruins from 1958 to 1961. He collected 14 points on four goals and 10 assists. After his professional career with the NHL, O’Ree played in the minors for the Western Hockey League. Not only did O’Ree break the color barrier by becoming the NHL’s first Black player. He opened the doors for potential Black people to play professionally.
There is no doubt the Colored Hockey League served as an inspiration to O’Ree. Just as O’Ree served as an inspiration to Toronto Maple Leafs star Wayne Simmonds, the second man of color to win MVP honors in the NHL All-Star game. In the Undefeated online article on Willie O’Ree, Simmons said, “He went through a lot. You can’t help but admire what he did.” Continued admiration for the CHL and the Black NHL players of today will undoubtedly attract more Black athletes.
→ Did you know 63 years after O’Ree’s debut, there are only 43 Black players in the NHL? The NHL has existed for over a century and less than five percent of the league’s players are Black or people of color. Out of 377 coaches, Paul Jerrard is the only Black coach behind an NHL bench. From the past to the present, Black players are enduring racial incidents on the ice or in the penalty box. The acceptance of Black players in the NHL have come a long way, but still have a long way to go. Progress is a slow process, and these 43 players are leading the way for future Black hockey players.