The Real Roots of Hockey
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
"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."
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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,"
Josh Brewster, a radio host and President – USA Hockey for
"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
"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
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
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
...Finally, Hockey Canada announced last week that it
was encouraging rules enforcement in youth leagues, cracking
down on holding, hooking, interference, tripping and stick
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?
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
is now on sale.