In 1895 the Coloured Hockey League began operating in the Canadian Maritime Provinces. It was the only Black hockey league in North America. Other Canadian professional and minor regional leagues were integrated, but most Canadian provinces were considered too large geographically to support Black hockey leagues of their own. The National Hockey League (NHL), the premiere professional hockey league founded in 1917, would not integrate until much later. This shut out talented Black hockey players—players such as Herb Carnegie, who won three consecutive awards as the most valuable player in the Quebec provincial league during the 1940s—from the highest level of play, despite their ability.1
Before the Coloured Hockey League ceased operations in 1930, it brought major innovations to the game of hockey. The first was an innovation in goaltending, allowing the goalie to leave his feet to cover a puck, which would be adopted by other leagues in 1917. Second, and perhaps most important, was the slap shot. The slap shot consists of a player stopping the puck on the ice, then winding up his stick and letting the puck fly. The beauty of the slap shot comes from its simplicity: the shot is incredibly hard to stop. In the modern day, slap shots have been clocked at over one hundred miles per hour. A white player, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion of the Montreal Canadiens, is widely considered the innovator of the slap shot; his nickname even derives from the power of his shots. However, the hockey historians George and Darril Fosty argue that it was actually Eddie Martin of the Coloured Hockey League’s Halifax Eureka who first used the slap shot in a game.2 This seems plausible as the Coloured Hockey League was the only one to allow players to raise their sticks above their waists, meaning the windup for a slap shot was only possible in that league.3
Despite such highly visible contributions to the game, players of color have long been estranged from the premier league, which has perpetuated a mythology of hockey as a white sport. In 1948 the Chinese Canadian Larry Kwong from British Columbia became the first player of Asian descent in the NHL, as well as the first nonwhite player.4 He played a single shift for the New York Rangers, lasting about a minute.5 He would never play again in the NHL but would continue his career in Europe and Canada.6 Thanks to a campaign by Chad Soon, a school teacher in Calgary, Kwong was honored at the Calgary Saddledome in 2008 and inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.7
Kwong was reluctant to admit to facing discrimination or racism in the NHL, but Willie O’Ree spoke out. O’Ree was a standout hockey player in the junior leagues, and in 1958 he was signed by the Boston Bruins. This was impressive because it meant he would become the first Black player in the NHL, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, and also because he was blind in one eye after being hit by a puck two years earlier, a condition that he hid, as it would have disqualified him from playing in the NHL. O’Ree played forty-five games for the Bruins between 1958 and 1961 and tallied fourteen points. He has stated that he faced racial taunting from fans, especially in American cities like Chicago, some yelling, “Go back to the South,” or, “How come you’re not picking cotton?”8 In 2018, almost sixty years later, O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the “builders” category.9
After O’Ree’s stint in the NHL ended in 1961, no subsequent Black player would enter the league until 1974, when Mike Marson was drafted by the Washington Capitals. The first Black player from the United States, Val James, played parts of two seasons for the Buffalo Sabres in the 1980s. James was an unlikely hockey player, not only because of his race but also because he was born in Florida and did not skate until he was thirteen years old.10 James was known as an “enforcer,” a tough player prized for size and fight ability. Black and Indigenous players sometimes fill these roles due to a false narrative that describes them as lacking in finesse. The recently retired Jordin Tootoo, the NHL’s first player of Inuit descent, was known for his fighting and “agitating” while on the ice.11 While enforcers have mostly been phased out by rule changes owing to concerns over head trauma and the safety of players who sacrifice their bodies to stay on NHL rosters, some Black players, such as the Vegas Golden Knights’ Ryan Reaves, continue to be praised for their toughness and willingness to fight.12
Playing enforcer took a toll on James, who had to retire due to injury after playing a handful of NHL games for the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs. Playing hockey also took a mental and emotional toll on James. Like O’Ree more than twenty years earlier, he faced discrimination and racial taunting from fans as well as opposing players.13 James said he was unable to watch hockey for years after his career ended; even seeing a game brought back memories of his painful experience as a person of color in the NHL.14 However, there was one bright spot for James. In 1983, he played for the Rochester Americans, the Buffalo Sabres’ minor league affiliate, during the Calder Cup playoffs. The Amerks made a deep run in the playoffs and were winning the final best-of-seven series against the Maine Mariners, three games to zero. Val James, the man who was paid to fight, scored the game winning goal in the fourth and final game of the series to win the Amerks the Calder Cup.15
Hockey is a crucial component of national identity in Canada, easily securing its position of honor as the national sport. The former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper called hockey the “common denominator” in Canada, bringing people together across socioeconomic boundaries and helping to assimilate immigrants into Canadian culture.16 Television ratings support Harper’s statement. The Canadian men’s national team gold medal game against the United States at the 2010 Olympics drew an average of 16.6 million Canadian viewers throughout the game, and as many as 26.5 million Canadians watched at least part of the game—a number that would account for about 78 percent of Canada’s population at the time.17
But there is more to the story of hockey as an assimilating force. The trauma and violence inflicted on Indigenous peoples at Canadian residential schools in the twentieth century has been well-documented; less well known is the role of hockey in state assimilation programs. Fred Sasakamoose was the first Indigenous player in the NHL, appearing in eleven games for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1953–54 season. Sasakamoose was subject to abuse at residential school, later recalling “the priests never talked twice. The second time, you got the strap.”18 The priests he mentioned were also the ones who encouraged Sasakamoose to pursue hockey. A standout at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, Sasakamoose was abused at school, leaving as soon as possible, at fifteen. When a priest tracked him down, bringing a hockey scout, Sasakamoose eluded them, thinking they had come to take him back to school. “I look at myself sometimes and say, ‘How in the hell did I ever get there?’” Sasakamoose remarked of his sporting success to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “I didn’t want to be an athlete, I didn’t want to be a hockey player, I didn’t want to be anything. All I wanted was my parents.”19
If hockey is Canada’s national sport and a unifying force, one must ask what the sport represents. A troubling answer is that hockey is indicative of a deep and painful history of settler colonialism that continues to leave many on the margins. Of the 680 players currently on rosters in the NHL, twenty-seven identify as Black. That works out to just under 4 percent. Only four players currently on contracts in the NHL identify as Indigenous. Despite the innovations they brought to the game, despite their long histories of skilled play and sportsmanship, and despite the national messaging about hockey as a unifying force, Indigenous and Black players make up only a fraction of the league. This can partially be attributed to economic factors, such as the expenses associated with buying children hockey equipment, or traveling to ice rinks for games and practice, but discrimination still lingers in the sport.
Racial taunting was not an isolated incident when it happened to Val James, Willie O’Ree, Herb Carnegie, and many others. While some would believe hockey has diversified since the 1970s, racial taunting continues. Washington Capitals winger Devante Smith-Pelly was taunted with racist chants while sitting in the penalty box during a road game against the Chicago Blackhawks in January of 2018.20 The few fans who taunted Smith-Pelly were summarily banned from the United Center, but the damage was already done and, worryingly, they felt comfortable enough to chant in the first place.21 Hockey has been appropriated by some white supremacists as an example of white superiority or dominance in sport due to the low numbers of nonwhite players, as exemplified by a group calling itself the Detroit Right Wings who carried a version of the Detroit Red Wings logo, modified to depict SS symbols inside the wheels, at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2017.22 Indigenous players have attested to similar discrimination and taunting in Canada, leaving some to leave the sport entirely.23
Sports can certainly serve as a unifying force, whipping up municipal or national support for local or national teams. It can cross socioeconomic boundaries. Hockey, however, seems not to cross boundaries when it comes to who is playing at the top level of the sport. Discrimination lingers and racial taunts against Black and Indigenous players, signaling that they do not truly belong, continue in the United States and Canada. These players do belong. Even if they are not well represented in the NHL, they have been playing and building the sport as long as anyone else. The idea of hockey as a whites-only sport may seem true if one looks at NHL players today, but the history of the sport holds a long-concealed narrative of Black and Indigenous excellence.
Jake Boomer (he/him/his) is a graduate student pursuing a Master’s degree in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. His research interests include tourism, immigration, and the role that sport plays in forming national identity. Past projects have involved explorations of Catholic religious practice in early colonial Mexico and mining in Bolivia.
- Bruce Deachman, “Herb Carnegie: The Best Black Hockey Player to Never Play in the NHL,” Ottawa Citizen, Apr. 10, 2019, https://ottawacitizen.com/news/national/herb-carnegie-the-best-black-hockey-player-to-never-play-in-the-nhl.
- Darril Fosty and George Fosty, Black Ice: The Lost History of the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895–1925 (Halifax, NS: Nimbus Publishing, 2004).
- Fosty and Fosty, 30.
- Richard Goldstein, “Larry Kwong, 94, Dies; N.H.L’s first player of Asian-descent,” New York Times, Mar. 19, 2018, B19.
- Goldstein, B19.
- Goldstein, B19.
- Goldstein, B19.
- Willie O’Ree and Michael McKinley, The Autobiography of Willie O’Ree: Hockey’s Black Pioneer, (Toronto: Somerville House, 2000).
- Joshua Clipperton, “Willie O’Ree, NHL’s First Black Player, Gets Hall of Fame Call,” CBC, June 26, 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/nhl/hockey-hall-of-fame-inductees-2018-1.4723167.
- David Sommerstein, “As First Black American NHL Player, Enforcer Was Defenseless Against Racism,” NPR, Feb. 26, 2015, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/02/26/389284068/as-first-black-american-nhl-player-enforcer-was-defenseless-vs-racism.
- Rick Morrissey, “With Signing of Jordin Tootoo, Blackhawks Bring in a Heavy Hitter,” Chicago Sun-Times, July 6, 2016, https://chicago.suntimes.com/2016/7/6/18336713/with-signing-of-jordin-tootoo-blackhawks-bring-in-a-heavy-hitter.
- Adam Hill, “Fight Knight: Ryan Reaves Perfects the Craft of Brawling,” Las Vegas Review Journal, Jan. 29, 2019, https://www.reviewjournal.com/sports/golden-knights-nhl/fight-knight-ryan-reaves-perfects-the-craft-of-brawling-1584977/.
- John Gallagher and Val James, Black Ice: The Val James Story (Toronto: ECW Press, 2015), 1.
- Sommerstein, “First Black American NHL Player.”
- Courtney Szto, “#LOL at Multiculturalism: Reactions to Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi From the Twitterverse,” Sociology of Sport Journal 33, no. 3 (2016): 208.
- Chris Zelkovich, “Gold-Medal Hockey Game Watched by Record 16.6 Million,” The Star, Mar. 1, 2010, https://www.thestar.com/sports/olympics/2010/03/01/goldmedal_hockey_game_watched_by_record_166_million.html.
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, The Survivors Speak: A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Canada, 2015, 193, http://www.trc.ca/assets/pdf/Survivors_Speak_English_Web.pdf.
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, The Survivors Speak, 193.
- Jay Cohen, “‘I Don’t Hold It Against the City’: Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly Starts in Return to United Center After Racist Taunts,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 20, 2019, https://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/blackhawks/ct-spt-blackhawks-capitals-smith-pelly-racist-taunts-20190120-story.html
- Cohen, “‘I Don’t Hold It Against the City.’”
- Brian Manzullo, “Why Were White Nationalists Using the Detroit Red Wings Logo in Charlottesville?” Detroit Free Press, Aug. 14, 2017, https://www.freep.com/story/sports/nhl/red-wings/2017/08/14/detroit-red-wings-logo-charlottesville/564139001/.
- Susan Bell, “Indigenous Players Subjected to Racist Taunts, Discriminatory Calls, Say Parents,” CBC, June 3, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/hockey-racism-discrimination-cree-quebec-first-nation-elites-1.5154490.