An Interview With George and Darril Fosty, the Authors of "Black Ice"

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In August, I reviewed Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925 and told you all that "...The words of the leaders of these black communities resonated long after I was done reading..."  They resonated so much that I reached out to the authors, George and Darril Fosty and asked if they would mind answering a few questions.  The ensuing conversation is below the jump.  We explored a couple of controversial topics and the authors were very forthcoming.  During the interview, George mentioned that they are working on a follow-up to Black Ice - we eagerly await the results.

C& B: What was the catalyst that started you on this project?

GEORGE:  We were researching the history of Hockey for our first book, Splendid is the Sun: The 5,000 Year History of Hockey when we came across a few obscure references to the Colored Hockey League. At the time we simply put the information to the side, believing that the story would either be incorporated into a footnote or as a small reference in the book.


C&B: This obviously took a monumental amount of research.  Where did you start?

GEORGE:  The first references to the league were discovered in 1996.  We reviewed thousands of books and sources and found 3-references. From there we started to look at non-sports histories including early black histories and regional Canadian histories from the Maritimes and the Northeastern United States. 


C&B: The average hockey fan doesn't know much about black history in hockey beyond Willie O'Ree.  How was this received by the hockey world? 

GEORGE:  It was initially ignored, then it was met with disdain and skepticism. Four years on, it remains controversial even though everything in the book has been substantiated.  In fact, Black Ice remains the most scrutinized book in hockey history for the simple fact that it flies in the face of traditional hockey history and belief. 

DARRIL:  Overall, it has been positively received. The NHL has supported the book and helped us promote it because it helps in promoting diversity in a sport that has not traditionally fared well compared to the other major sports when it comes to attracting minorities in the United States.

 

C&B: What about the black community, both in the Maritimes and Canada in general?  Was there an awareness of their history?

GEORGE:  No. The history has been eliminated from the public record. Only a few people were aware of early black hockey traditions -many of these people were able to give us small bits of information. No one had a complete picture of the history. 


C&B: When ESPN featured your story, they accused modern hockey of being racist in an almost sensationalist way.  You spend a good portion of the book dealing with the institutional racism of the past -- do you feel that lingers?

GEORGE:  Yes institutional racism exists in hockey. Unfortunately hockey has been slow in confronting and recognizing it. It is as if the sport is in a state of denial -preferring to believe that racial issues are exceptions rather than a consistent undercurrent.  Seeing the response we have received in relationship to our research, it is apparent to us that racism in hockey is alive and well.  What disturbs us the most is the level of racism that exists at the Junior/Amateur levels in hockey.  No one has addressed that issue.  it needs to be discussed and confronted. 

DARRIL:  Unfortunately, hockey has been late in coming to realize that racism existed inside the sport. Speak with the number of minority hockey players and the picture is pretty clear that racism still plays a negative role in widening the reach of the sport. But hockey is not alone in this; golf and auto racing still have similar problems along with baseball which is experiencing a decline in black American participation. Over the last decade or so, Gary Bettman and the NHL have done a lot to change this, but they are only at the beginning of the road in regards to accomplishing this, not at the end.

 

C&B: Your brother mentioned that Junior leagues still struggle with the issue.  Policy implementation would be difficult because they aren't united, so how can they recognize the problem and begin to address it? 

DARRIL:  Somehow, I don't think spearheading a diversity initiative in Brandon or Prince George is of high priority for junior hockey.  Overall, it is about creating awareness inside hockey as a whole, with the NHL leading the way, so if particular junior hockey teams do have problems, either within an organization or in the stands, then they need to recognize it and address it.

 

C&B: We know the importance of the church for the league, but what was the effect of the league on the church?

GEORGE:  Most of the players were on teams from the same parishes. So the league brought the community/churches together by creating a bond among the congregations. In some ways, each team was 'God's Chosen'  reflecting the 'best representation' of each church. Later on, as the league developed, the churches and league moved away from each other. 

C&B: Is this a history that was close to being lost, or was it a matter of research and putting it all together?

GEORGE:  Darril and I have been researching the Colored Hockey League  for 14-years. We calculate that we have only been able to recover approximately 30% of the game accounts and 20% of the black team rosters.  As for player profiles, we have only documented and identified approximately 15% of the players and their personal histories.  Honestly, I  personally do not believe we will be able to recover the full story as so much of the history has been lost or destroyed. Ironically, almost all of the information we have found has come from white Canadian newspaper and biographic sources. Ninety-eight percent of the black histories and documents have been lost or destroyed.  The CHL history exists because a handful of white Baptist church newspapers and a few white Baptist sportswriters decided to record the history for religious purposes and as a way of recognizing the contributions of the black Baptist churches in Canada. 

 

C&B:  Has this turned out to be a source of pride for the church?

GEORGE:  Ironically, we have never been approached by the Baptist churches with regard to our research.  To date, the only religious group that has worked with us in any substantive way, or has publicly acknowledged our research,  has been the Society of Friends (the Quakers) out on Long Island, New York.  The Society of Friends were the great emancipators of the 19th Century and they have great pride in their history.  A couple years ago, I spoke briefly to the congregation at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  The Cornwallis Street Baptist Church was one of the original Baptist churches of the Colored Hockey League.  They are the only Baptist church to invite us to speak to their group. 

 

C&B: Speaking of saving the history, what is the status of the Colored Hockey Hall of Fame?


GEORGE:  The Black Ice Hockey And Sports Hall of Fame Conference was established in 2005. In 2006, 2007 and 2008 we had an annual three-day convention in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Last year we incurred our first convention debt  when one of our corporate sponsors failed to fulfill their financial promises and obligations. This year, because of that incident and the current recession, we postponed the 4th Conference until 2010, preferring to pay down the expenses which were incurred during the 2008 conference. It is expected that the 4th  Black Hall of Fame Conference will take place next August. By then, we expect that our current sponsors will be fully recovered from the recession and will be able to work with us to ensure that we will be able to move forward with our efforts.


C&B: Some people bristle at the suggestion that this league invented the slap shot.  Is this a case of the first *recorded* slapshot, or was it really invented in the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes?

GEORGE: 
Since the book came out, we have learned of two more newspaper references to the use of the slapshot.  Based on the new evidence, the slapshot was a part of early pond hockey in the Dartmouth Lakes Region of Nova Scotia  dating as far back as 1892. However, the CHL was the only hockey league to allow it as a part of organized game play. Eddie Martin of the 1903 Halifax Eurekas is the only person we have been able to identify to credit with its use/mastery. We may never know who the first person was that used a slapshot in hockey - but as it stands, the CHL and Eddie Martin are the first to allow it and to use it in organized league play. 

DARRIL:  Here is the thing, what qualifies as a slap shot? If you have ever put a hockey stick in the hands of a three-year old the first thing they do is lift the stick above their head and swing down on the ball. Shoot a ball at them and the first thing they do is drop to their knees to stop it. So, to state anyone "invented" either of these things is, by definition, a misnomer. No one can "invent" basic human movement.  But, if people feel the need to "credit" others with innovation by being the first to do these types of things in an organized amateur, professional, or semi-professional hockey league then the Colored Hockey League and their players deserve the credit for being the first.  During this period, other leagues didn't permit the stick coming over the waist, whereas the Colored Hockey League didn't have any such rule.  Because of this, they were able to be innovative without intending to be innovative. They allowed goaltenders to drop to the ice, which is a natural movement, when other leagues didn't permit it. By not having any restrictions on how high the stick can come in the air, it appears some, not all, but some, did swing the stick in a manner similar to what we now think of as a slap shot. For certain it was not as effective as that of Boom Boom Geoffrion but they deserve recognition for being the first league to allow shooting the puck in that manner and it is clear Eddie Martin was the first player to do so, and the best at doing so, to the point that other teams protested.


C&B: When will a hockey junkie like myself be able to purchase a New Glasgow Speed Boys sweater?

GEORGE:  
Our company, Stryker-Indigo New York has partnered with Matter, Inc. to form the Colored Hockey League, LLC.  We are currently working on a number of hockey product-lines based on our 14-years of CHL and International hockey research. In 2008 we released our first  CHL prototype designs when we test-marked a number of baseball cap concepts.  We expect to be in a position to begin development of the CHL uniforms and other hockey products soon, once a number of trademark and design copyrights currently pending at the U.S. Trademark Office are finalized.   


C&B: Of all of the tidbits that you uncovered during your research, which was the most surprising?

GEORGE: 
The most amazing thing for me, aside from the fact that this history had been eliminated from the history of hockey, was that there were at least 40 other all-black hockey teams in existence across North America between 1890-1940. Last year we completed research on a follow-up book to Black ice. The second book will take this story to yet another level.  We will release that book in 2010-2011.  

DARRIL:  For me, it was the standard of play. It is clear that some of these players and teams played at a level that rivaled most teams in the country and I am sure that at its peak they were good enough to put together a team that could legitimately contend for the Stanley Cup. I am not saying they would have won the thing but they certainly belonged in the discussion.


C&B: How much of a personal impact did this process and the book have on you?

GEORGE: 
It changed my life. It has revealed all the positives and negatives one must contend with when "discovering"  history.  For every person excited by your work, there is always someone else who is angered by it.  I never thought history could evoke so many extreme responses.

DARRIL:  Many positive things have happened due to the book's success but because of this success I feel people view us as "hockey writers" and not as "writers" who happened to write about hockey history. It is not that it is a particularly bad thing, but my writing interests go beyond that of just hockey. I think Canadians understand that better than Americans. In Canada, hockey is part of the fabric of Canadian culture and because it is so intertwined with Canadian history the academic study of hockey isn't considered a novelty or frivolous; whereas, in the U.S. most people cannot conceptualize the union that hockey has with Canadian culture and Canadian history and they therefore assume that we are writing about old box scores and whether or not Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky is the greatest player of all-time.  The idea of discussing the Underground Railroad, Booker T. Washington, and institutional racism in a hockey book seems contrasting and unrelated. By the way, Bobby Orr is the greatest player of all-time, I know this because I have read the box scores. 


C&B: Thank you for your work.  This was a story that needed a voice.

GEORGE:
I just wanted to bring to your attention the website to SONAHHR -The Society of North American Hockey Historians and Researchers. Darril and I founded SONAHHR in 2004. Thirty percent of the executive members are direct descendants of the players who played in the Colored Hockey League. At the moment, descendants representing twenty-two (22) of the original families of the Colored Hockey league are represented in SONAHHR. Check it out at www.sonahhr.com.  You will be amazed.  You can also find Darril's and my bios in the Executive Section as well.  

P.S. Also check out: The Black Ice Project www.theblackiceproject.com 

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