Hockey "has always been diverse": Uncovering the unsung history and racism in Canada's beloved sport

"Black Ice" director Hubert Davis on how Black players navigate discrimination in a predominantly white sport

Published July 14, 2023 5:06PM (EDT)

Black Ice (Roadside Attractions)
Black Ice (Roadside Attractions)

"Black Ice" tackles the thorny issue of racism in Canadian hockey, a sport that features very few Black athletes. The film's numerous talking heads include NHL players Anthony Duclair, P.K. Subban, cousins Sarah and Darnell Nurse, as well as many other Black men and women who have experienced discrimination in the sport.

"The one thing that Canadians generally try to explain is that there isn't a racism problem in Canada ... That's not true. It's everywhere."

Director Hubert Davis explores this topic through interviews with the athletes and their families to show the impact racism has in hockey. In addition, he reveals the little-known history of the Colored Hockey League, which was formed in Nova Scotia before 1900 — CHL players developed the slap shot years before it was adapted by white athletes in the NHL. 

Davis also features players like Craig Smith, who talk about how they "didn't see anyone like themselves" playing the game. Athlete Saroya Tinker explains how her father looks for Black history when he enters a rink, and how she changed to try to fit in as the only Black player on her team. Other stories recall incidents where epithets were used against a player, such as Mark Connors, or a banana was thrown on the ice to protest against a Black player. Akim Aliu publicly called out a coach for racist remarks, which created some controversy.

Why does hockey have a race problem, and why are they not doing anything to combat it? Salon spoke to Hubert Davis about "Black Ice" to find out.

What stories did you hear that prompted you to tackle this topic of systemic racism in hockey for a documentary? 

I heard Akim [Aliu]'s story — he was the first to come out and open the floodgates. Before then, it wasn't public knowledge that there were issues in hockey for Black players. Once I heard his story, and talked to him, and watched some roundtables of other players, and the Hockey Diversity Alliance started coming forward and telling their stories, I realized this was a common experience these players are having. Once you see that, you see there are issues. I went back to different players from different eras and heard stories. They kept piling up and I realized there is a problem here.

Why did you focus on Canadian players? Isn't the issue league-wide?

The one thing that Canadians generally try to explain is that there isn't a racism problem in Canada. The U.S. has the problem. I found that's not true. It's everywhere. There was an incident when we were filming, in the Czech Republic, an American player who is Black had an incident happened to him. It's not just Canada or the U.S.; it's in Europe, too. That was a big part of it — taking down the veil so that Canadians do not see it as their problem. Hopefully you see it is a problem with hockey itself. Wayne Simmonds had an incident when he was playing in Europe. We try to put racism in geographical areas. "It happens in the South or in Virginia, because that's a racist place." But it's actually everywhere, and we have to look at it as a bigger thing. It's such an insidious thing. It continues to be there if you don't address it.

Akim Aliu struggles with reporting an incident because he had to decide to "suck it up" or fight against someone who controls his fate in the game. Can you talk about the toll that racism takes on the mental health of these athletes who internalize so much pain just trying to play a game they love? 

There is a cost attached to speaking up and that is something very specific in hockey, because it is a closed sport. There is this idea of silence in the locker room — keep your head down. The economic cost for players who speak up is that they are seen as troublemakers as Akim was. "You're not a team guy." Until Akim spoke up, players didn't feel comfortable talking about it. P.K. Subban explains it: What was the benefit for him speaking up? He is trying to get his next contract. Why we are able to have player speak openly and honestly in the film is because a lot of them are at the tail end of career, so there is little economic consequence. The reason they come out and say it happened because they want a smoother path for younger players. They have made money and are comfortable, and that is the reason they have come forward.

Right, like a player coming out, at the end or after their career so they don't jeopardize things. I also think it was important that Akim's story was about the use of a certain unacceptable racial epithet.

When we are talking about something like systemic racism, I start with the blatant stuff because it's something we all understand. You are not supposed to use the N-word. But what's the source of where that comes from, and what are all the different ways that manifests itself? Sometimes it was a coach, sometimes it was another player, sometimes it was another team. But it wasn't the incident of what was said, but it was the reaction to it — that is where players really felt let down. This happened and there was zero accountability to say, "This is unacceptable in this space." It was usually dealt with on an individual basis. Something happens, they have "an investigation" and what that leads to is a strange situation where you take it on a case-to-case basis, rather than we have a problem in general and we need to work on policy of antiracism training through every level. That doesn't exist, so it's whack-a-mole. You're trying to catch up with something and never be able to solve it. That's a fundamental problem. 

Yes, I was incensed by the story of a coach's kid who said racist things and cursed at a Black player and refused to write an apology, nor was he sufficiently punished for his actions. He wasn't held accountable in part because he was the coach's son.

Where is teaching for that coach? What they are saying as an organization is "We don't care." We know these things are going to happen and it doesn't matter. This is not just in hockey but at the world we are looking at.

Black IceCanadian hockey player Sarah Nurse in "Black Ice" (Roadside Attractions)With the emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion, why is hockey not holding folks more accountable? Was there a suitable punishment for a racist incident? Your film didn't show it.

"If you are the only Black person in that space, who do you feel you have to be in that space in order to thrive or be accepted?"

Generally, it would be after the fact. Mark Connors was a recent story, and one case, inside the arena, the kids were punished and suspended, but a second case outside the arena, they said there wasn't enough evidence. I don't think they were looking for punishment so much as change to policy for future things. He wasn't looking for punitive damage, it was more why does this keep happening? Mark Connors' white father was frustrated with the process. Why is there a long investigation, and that's more important. The problem with saying OK, stricter punishment for the kids who are doing it, is that they say it never happened, lawyers get involved, and parents get involved. They try to backtrack on the incident rather than this space, and this is what is acceptable. Training at the beginning is the key. Do they want to change it at the highest level? The answer is obviously no. If you don't implement those things, it shows you don't want to change it, and that's part of the problem.

Several subjects in the film talk about feeling alone or like they don't belong or have to change to fit in to prove themselves. Can you talk about the impact of these Black athletes trying to integrate into a predominantly white space? There are some very heartening scenes of Black coaches encouraging young kids that they have the right to play and that this is "our game." They have to codeswitch to belong. 

It was interesting that Saroya talks about having to hide parts of herself and identity to fit in socially with teams she was on. That was more powerful than the other things we're talking about because she is understanding "this is what's acceptable," and "I will be accepted in this space if I act and talk like this." The internal part of how that works is interesting because we are talking about that in the locker room, but we could be talking about the board room. If you are the only Black person in that space, who do you feel you have to be in that space in order to thrive or be accepted? For most of the players, they were the only person of color on their team. The difference when they weren't the only ones, at Yale, when there was another Black player on Saroya's team, that was different because she felt she had someone to go to, and talk to, and share. She wasn't as isolated. She didn't have to be the one person who stands up if something was said. Is one person supposed to speak for everyone? That is not a healthy position for them to be in. 

"Black Ice" uncovers the Colored Hockey League and its contributions to the sport, which includes aspects of the game that were adopted by white athletes years later. You also recount the history of Africville, which was a Black town where the league started and was later demolished. Can you talk about including this story in your film? 

It's interesting how this idea of innovation that wasn't given the credit it was due was because it wasn't part of narrative of the hockey origin story. It didn't quite fit into the box. People like Kirk Brooks, a coach we talked to, knew about it, and he grew up knowing about it. It wasn't a secret in the community. Here was this League and this legacy of Black players that have played since the beginning of hockey, and they never got their due. This film can bring this into the light and give them exposure. That goes against this idea that it is just about diversity now. The sport has always been diverse, beyond the Black experience, the Indigenous and Asian communities have had teams that go back during the same time. It recontextualizes this idea of diversity being a recent thing. These [players of color] don't just want to join the league now, they have been there the whole time, they just haven't been seen or celebrated.

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The racism in the film extends to both male and female players, professional and younger athletes. One subject in the film says they are "perceived to be un-coachable." Is it easier for men than women? Do NHL stars have to work twice as hard to prove their worth? Who do you think suffers the most and why? 

It was happening at all different levels, all different times, and all different places; it was a collective experience. What people were facing was different. In the beginning we talked about blatant uses of racist language, but as film progressed, you see a professional player said he didn't have any crazy things said to him when he was younger, but professionally, his management and coaches were giving him mixed compliments like, "You're so articulate," or they were surprised at how good his hockey IQ was. It showed how it wasn't blatant, but that to him was the stumbling block at professional career. With women versus men, a lot of it was economics. Saroya was going through the same thing with less money, whereas Akim was afraid to call people out because he knows how much money he can make later on. That was a differential where she was able to come forward because there wasn't so much money on the line. It affected people in different ways, and I didn't want it to feel like it was one-note. It actually all comes from the same source but is manifested in a lot of different ways. That's why you have to dissect it.

"Black Ice" opens theatrically in AMC theaters nationwide on July 14.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Black Ice Canada Hubert Davis Ice Hockey Interview Movies Racism