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September 12, 2006
  

The Real Roots of Hockey
As the NHL struggles to attract a more diverse fan base, columnist Greg Wyshynski writes that everything from goaltending styles to the slapshot could be traced back to hockey's forgotten black pioneers.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Henry Braces Franklyn was a hockey pioneer, playing a style of goalie near the turn of the 20th century that seems practically revolutionary by NHL standards.

"By all accounts, he moved down the ice like Jacques Plante," said hockey historian George Fosty. "He was the captain of the team, so he called the plays from behind his net. And at the same time, he was vicious with his stick, like Ron Hextall."

That he did this standing at just 3-foot-6 is due to the fact that Franklyn was a remarkable athlete.

That you've never heard of him before is due to the fact that Franklyn was black.

So was Fred Borden, another goalie, who moved across the ice like a spider —
a Version 1.0 model of Tony Esposito. So was Eddie Martin, a former baseball player who turned to hockey and uncorked what Fosty believes could be the first slapshot — almost 30-years before "Boom Boom" Geoffrion was born.

They all played in the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes, a league featured in a book by George and Darril Fosty called "Black Ice" — covering the history of black hockey players and leagues from 1895-1925. They were innovators, entertainers, and trailblazers, whose remarkable journey from being the sons and grandsons of escaped American slaves to professional hockey players is one of the most regrettably-kept secrets in sports history.

It's a secret George Fosty and other aficionados of alternative hockey history are just now beginning to reveal.

"It's starting to shake people up a little bit, rewriting history. Getting people to start looking into their own closets," he said.

Even if it means these revelations infuriate and embarrass scores of mainstream hockey historians, who have long built their reputations on what Fosty considers a fairy tale.

"They're angry at us. Some of them have staked their careers on the myth that hockey is a Canadian white man's game. The idea that the game may not have originated from white leagues is, for some people, unsettling," said Fosty, who is white. "I'm not saying they're bigoted — I know that they're not. They're just close-minded."

THE LEAGUE

Fosty, who lives in New York City, is the founder and president of The Society of North American Hockey Historians and Researchers (SONAHHR) and has authored two books on hockey history. He started to discover references to the Coloured Hockey League while researching "Splendid Is the Sun: The 5,000 Year History of Hockey," and eventually decided to explore what was a rather uncharted era. The authors went to Nova Scotia seven years ago and found families whose ancestors had played in the league. Many were unaware of the league or their connections to it; they’ve since provided valuable pieces to an ever-building puzzle.

According to Fosty, half the players in the Coloured Hockey League were from families who came to Canada during the American Revolution; another quarter had relatives who came across the border through the Underground Railroad.

Amateur players soon became paid professionals, as teams started charging fans to watch the games. Eventually, teams would begin to bid on the best players on the open market, bolstering some teams and crippling others. (Talk about your harbingers of things to come.)

The league began on ponds but soon moved to arenas, although the Coloured League wasn't exactly given V.I.P. treatment — games were held late at night and late in the season, so ice surfaces were lousy. The quality of the hockey, however, was not.

"The caliber of hockey was just awesome," said Fosty. "In some of these accounts, people are saying it's some of the best hockey they've seen played."

It was a wide-open style, in contrast to the controlled and conservative play of some of the all-white leagues of the day. Many of the innovations from the Coloured League were quickly co-opted by white players around the region — like suburban high school basketball players stealing moves they saw on a city playground.

"I have a feeling that this area in Canada, between 1880 and 1905, had to be the leaders in style. I don't know if they were playing this style of play before the Coloured Hockey League," said Fosty.

That style kept fans coming back, as games drew up to 1,200 people per match. The audience, according to the authors' research, was comprised of white middle-class patrons.

White fans paying to watch elite black athletes? My, how times have changed.

But before we venture too far into Rush Limbaugh and Jimmy the Greek territory, remember that today's stereotypes of the stronger, faster, naturally gifted black athlete didn't exist back then. Ironically, the Coloured League may have thrived because of another stereotype, which was practically the opposite of today's — the European belief that blacks were inferior to whites, even in athletics. Fosty believes that expectations for black men playing professional hockey were so low that the games were better than expected, and therefore grew in popularity.

Although popular, all the leagues had disappeared before the calendar flipped to 1930. Land grabs from railroad companies affected venues. The Stanley Cup gained prominence in the early 20th century, creating an elite league that started to smother others.

"Once they established that Cup, they ensured that other groups couldn't participate — these sub-regional groups that weren't in the mainstream," Fosty said.

But the author claims what destroyed black hockey wasn't racism. It was World War I, which killed hundreds of players on the battlefield. Fosty asserts that 48 black Canadians died in one month alone at the Battle of Cambrai. "These guys were being used as canon fodder."

After the War, economic depression hit. Black-on-black violence followed. The proud traditions established by decades of black hockey players had been forgotten by the generations that came after them.

Fosty and other researchers are trying to re-establish those traditions, and in turn reinvigorate minority interest in the game.

MODERN TIMES

The first great step in recognizing the contributions of black hockey players and their leagues is the establishment of a permanent Black Hockey And Sports Hall Of Fame facility in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. SONAHHR had initially established the Hall of Fame as a conference; this year, it was spun off into its own entity, with RCMP Corporal and African-Canadian Craig Marshall Smith recently named President. The group inducted 50 men during a ceremony in August, including former Washington Capital Bill Riley and former Canadian lightweight boxing champion Buddy Daye. Plans for a facility are ongoing.

The next step is bringing the stories of these legends to mainstream hockey fans and, more importantly, black sports fans that are unaware of the game's colorful roots.

"I honestly don't think hockey's invited them yet. I don't think hockey's made a serious effort to recognize minorities," said Fosty.

Josh Brewster, a radio host and President – USA Hockey for SONAHHR, disagrees.

"I think that in general, the modern hockey world welcomes black players," he said. "Willie O'Ree has been totally enfranchised by the league."

O'Ree was named the Director of Youth Development for NHL Diversity in 1998, and has been an enduring symbol of the league's frequently overlooked moments of diversity. But that's not enough to tap an untapped fan base. In 1998, when the Washington Capitals were in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Associated Press asked the NHL about indifference in the city's African-American community. Then-spokeswoman Bernadette Mansur replied that the league doesn't keep stats on the racial make-up of fans, yet it knows "our fan base is not as diverse as we would like."

It's one thing to sell black fans Willie O'Ree and Mike Grier; it's another when you can sell them the influence of black athletes in shaping today's game.

Fosty believes that the NHL needs to try harder to attract minority fans before it discovers it's been marginalized by an ever-diverse populace.

"We're not a white society; we're a mixed society of 200 cultures. If you're going to attract those kids, you have to let them know there are black heroes and there are Native American heroes," he said. "And you've got to bring down the cost of hockey. Fifty-percent of people who live in New York City are at or below the poverty level. In the 1920s, you had hockey leagues in the high schools here. They can't afford that now."

Fosty's vision for turning young minority fans onto hockey matches some of the NHL's recent initiatives in American inner cities, such as building rinks and donating equipment to urban communities. But Fosty thinks it needs to go beyond hockey advocacy — that the NHL needs to be a public advocate for economic polices that will expand their fan bases.

"You're relying on a middle class to pay for those contracts. Well, guess what? The middle class in America is shrinking. The working wage in this country is stagnant, and the middle class is under attack," he said. "If you don't raise the minimum wage in this country, then those people stop buying tickets. What they have to do is promote an increase in the minimum wage."

Over a century ago, a league of black hockey players changed the game. Increasing the spectrum of the NHL's players and fans could significantly change it again, and for the better.

AND NOW, SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS...

...Here's a fun new drinking game I recently tried: Take a shot every time the words "cloak and dagger" are used to describe Evgeni Malkin's journey to the NHL. After reading the first batch of media previews, I was stumbling around like Zdeno Chara trying to find a puck in his skates.

...A new ad campaign from the Thunder Bay District Health Unit features a handful of NHL players, including Eric Staal, urging youngsters to stay away from using tobacco.

Another player in the anti-tobacco campaign is Florida Panthers goalie Alex Auld, considered an expert on the subject after having been smoked for most of his career.

...Speaking of the Panthers, Todd Bertuzzi gave a remarkable interview to Tony Gallagher of The Province in Vancouver recently about his final days with the Canucks. He slaughters former coach Marc Crawford for misusing his friends (like Brad May) and his line, which saw its ice time drop off and its offensive spark relegated to playing "like the Minnesota Wild," according to Bertuzzi.

But the most shocking moment in the entire piece came at the end, after a brief discussion about Florida's Jan. 7, 2007 visit to the Canucks. Bertuzzi waxes nostalgic about his time in Vancouver; about the friends and the fans he had to leave. The interview ends like this: "In fact, at the end of this year, I'm an unrestricted free agent again. You never know, stranger things have happened."

That sound you hear is thousands of Panthers fans trying to rationalize having traded Roberto Luongo, Lukas Krajicek, and a 6th-rounder for Bryan Allen, Alex Auld and one season of Todd Bertuzzi.

...Finally, Hockey Canada announced last week that it was encouraging rules enforcement in youth leagues, cracking down on holding, hooking, interference, tripping and stick fouls.

Notice anything missing from that list, something the NHL promised draconian enforcement for last year?

Then again, how do you enforce diving for a bunch of Pee-Wee players who keep tripping over their own skate laces?
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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