Kitchener-Waterloo

This rural Ontario black hockey line broke barriers — producing generations of star players

It was rare to see black hockey players in the 1950s, especially in rural Ontario. Unless you were in Mount Forest. Three black men were recruited to join the small-town Redmen team, where the trio dazzled packed arenas.

Howard Sheffield, Arthur Lowe and Gary Smith played for the Mount Forest Redmen in early 1950s

There weren't many black hockey players in rural Ontario in the 1950s, let alone hockey lines with multiple black players. Howard Sheffield, Arthur Lowe and Gary Smith played on a line for the Mount Forest Redmen during the early 1950s, where they were nicknamed the Black Flashes. (Mount Forest Museum & Archives)

An aged photo of three young black hockey players hangs in Darren Lowe's basement. His dad Arthur is in the centre, stick on the ice, hunched over beside teammates Howard Sheffield and Gary Smith.

It's a remarkable image. There weren't many black hockey players during the early 1950s, particularly not in rural Ontario. But Lowe wouldn't know this from his dad — he told him very little about his hockey history.

Seventy years since, their legacy has become more clear.

The three men dazzled crowds on a line together for the Mount Forest Redmen, an intermediate hockey team in the small Ontario town, 75 kilometres northwest of Kitchener. By all accounts, the three were skilled players and packed arenas wherever they played. Somewhere along the way, they earned the nickname the Black Flashes.

Shortly after the men arrived in town, the local paper the Mount Forest Confederate wrote that it was believed this was the only team in Canada to have a black line like this. This was eight years before Canadian Willie O'Ree became the first black player in the NHL. (Mount Forest Museum & Archives)

"There weren't a lot of people of colour playing hockey back then so it's quite unique," said Darren, who played a season in the NHL for the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the 1984 Olympics and coached hockey for more than 20 years at the University of Toronto.

"To be able to follow in those footsteps is kind of nice."

Darren is among the many star offspring from this Mount Forest team — brothers, children and grandchildren of Lowe, Sheffield and Smith have all played high level hockey or still play today.

That includes Darren's son, Nolan, who plays with the Georgetown Raiders in the Ontario Junior Hockey League. Like his dad, the 18-year-old hopes to make a career of it.

Darren Lowe made a career out of hockey, playing in the NHL and for Canada at the 1984 Olympics and coaching for the University of Toronto. Now his son Nolan is hoping to do the same. Darren's dad and Nolan's grandfather is Arthur Lowe, who played on the Mount Forest Redmen. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

"It can be kind of challenging trying to live up to those expectations, but it's always been fun," he said. "I'm going to keep playing until it stops being fun."

He too is just learning more about his grandfather's past. "It must have been a pretty cool experience for him."

'She was packed to the doors'

Intermediate hockey was a big deal in the 1950s — and in Mount Forest, that was largely thanks to Lowe, Sheffield and Smith.

The three men were brought to town by Warren (Curly) Stevenson, who coached and promoted the team. Sheffield came from Collingwood, Ont. Lowe and Smith were in Toronto.

The Redmen would pack the arena every game, largely because of Sheffield, Lowe and Smith, in the front row. The trio lived in a boarding house. (Mount Forest Museum & Archives)

Ken McLellan remembers how early you had to come to get a seat. He was a rink rat, so he had to be at each game to clear the ice with scrapers — this was pre-Zamboni. His brother Hap was the team's captain.

"They packed the arena, just jammed 'er full ...  every night, she was packed to the doors," he recalls.

Photos of the trio and their team hang around the Mount Forest rink today. McLellan still regularly goes to watch the junior hockey team play. He makes a point to look at the photos every time he's there and shares the story with anyone who will listen so it doesn't get lost.

Ken McLellan has been going to the Mount Forest arena for 75 years; he's turning 80 this year. He remembers the Redmen team of early 1950s fondly. 'I’d say that was the pinnacle of hockey in Mount Forest.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"We knew it was special. Curly kept telling us that this was the biggest thing that's ever going to hit Mount Forest, and it was," he said.

"There has been a lot of good things happen but nothing like that."

Lowe's sister married Sheffield's brother

Most of the team has since died, including Sheffield and Smith. Lowe is 95 but has dementia, so his memory is shaky.

But this hockey family is still very much together. While the boys were playing, Lowe's sister Jasmine fell in love with Sheffield's brother. They got married. So the hockey tradition continues today in a big way.

"We were just all hockey people," said Jasmine Sheffield. She had seven children, three of whom played competitive hockey. She would take them to games around Ontario. "I've been to so many arenas. It was just go, go, go."

Jasmine Sheffield and her son Frank flip through photos of their family's hockey players since the Mount Forest team. 'It plays a huge part in our history,' says Frank. 'The trickle-down effect or the Pandora’s box that’s opened up since they played together ... you could talk about it all day.' (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

A son, Ray, lives in Australia, where he has won the Goodall Cup several times — Australia's version of the Stanley Cup. Another son, Frank, played for the Ryerson University Rams hockey team and runs a website chronicling his family's impressive hockey history.

He continues to coach a team in his spare time. He says that has helped him see how much more diverse the sport has become since his uncles played — and how the racism he faced while playing has waned.

The little known tale of how a rural Ontario hockey team and its line with three black hockey players made history in the 50s and stemmed multiple generations of high-level players. 7:17

"You could say whatever you wanted to any other player on the ice ... as derogatory as you wanted to make it," Frank said. "The referees never paid any attention."

He recalls how he would snap after getting called racial slurs and end up in the penalty box, much to his mother's disapproval.

There are stories about how his uncles encountered similar slurs when the Redmen travelled to other towns; a Mount Forest historian wrote about how the team once had to be escorted from Walkerton, Ont., by police.

Arthur Lowe returned to the Mount Forest arena in 2016, 66 years after he played there with the Redmen. He has dementia but he still watches hockey all the time. (Darren Lowe)

"Thank God today is much different," he said. His kids have stopped playing hockey, but he continues to coach to keep his family legacy going.

"Hockey brings people together. It doesn't matter what colour you are."

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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