Ottawa man pays fitting tribute to hockey's black trailblazers
Bob Dawson, 73, was a hockey pioneer in his own right
An Ottawa man has realized his dream of honouring a pioneering black Canadian hockey league with a stamp.
Bob Dawson conceived the idea in 2016, then spent two years rallying community support.
"I felt it was something that had to be done given the unique history of the league," the Kanata resident said.
The Colored Hockey League — that was the word they used at the time, and the way they spelled it — was one of the most influential forces in the game's early history, yet for decades its contributions to the sport's development went unrecognized.
- Willie O'Ree, NHL's first black player, in Ottawa for outdoor classic
- Hockey still dealing with racism 61 years after Willie O'Ree made history as first black NHL player
"The majority of historians and mainstream writers had overlooked its story as a result of certain misconceptions about the ability of blacks," Dawson noted.
Now, over a century after its founding, the league's innovations are finally being acknowledged as having revolutionized the game.
It features an image of the the winners of the 1904 Colored Hockey Championship, the Halifax Eurekas.
Bob Dawson became intrigued by the league in 2005 after reading the groundbreaking book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925 by George and Darril Fosty.
For the last 15 years Dawson has been a kind of roving hockey evangelist, black hockey historian and crusader, spreading the gospel of the league. He's written articles and organized conferences and exhibitions to keep the memory of the men who played in it alive.
The hardship and racism that they had to overcome … that's a great testament to them and their families.- Bob Dawson
Dawson's own hockey story began in the 1950s, when he spent his days playing shinny on the frozen ponds and lakes in and around his hometown of Dartmouth, N.S. When he couldn't get to a rink, the hockey-mad kid would spend winter nights skating on the ice-covered sidewalk in front of his home.
Once, his devotion nearly cost him his life. When he was around 14, Dawson fell through the ice while playing on nearby Sullivan's Pond. He was rescued by a friend and trudged home soaked and frozen.
"I caught pneumonia and caught heck from my mother," he recalled.
73-year-old rink rat
These days, Dawson is still a rink rat. At 73, he still plays hockey three times a week, 12 months a year. He's slender but sturdy, and looks every bit the athlete he's been his entire life.
And while he may be a little slower and a few pounds heavier than he was in his prime, he remains a force on the ice.
"He still has all the tricks down," said Dan Séguin, longtime CBC sports broadcaster and Dawson's former masters league teammate.
A half-century ago, Dawson was a talented 160-pound puck-moving defenceman for the Saint Mary's University Huskies who wasn't afraid of physical play.
During Canada's centennial year in 1967, Dawson became the first black player ever to play in what was then the Atlantic Intercollegiate Hockey League.
Three years later, his coach moved him up to play alongside Darrell Maxwell and Percy Paris, making Dawson one-third of the first-ever all-black forward line in Canadian university hockey history.
The Colored Hockey League made its debut in 1895, a full 22 years before the National Hockey League got its start.
According to Dawson, the league's founders had more than hockey in mind when they created the league. They had divine inspiration, too.
"The league came into being as a result of Baptist ministers and laypeople who were trying to find a way of bringing young people back to the church," he said.
The league was also a product of the racial segregation that existed at the time.
"Blacks could not play in the white leagues, so that's what led to the formation of the [Colored Hockey League]," Dawson said.
Its first two teams were the Halifax Eurekas and Dartmouth Jubilees, and it would eventually include teams based in Truro and Amherst, N.S., and as far afield as Charlottetown, P.E.I.
"They did not have access to available ice surfaces in the local area because white teams had dibs for the prime times for ice. These games were played after hours when the ice was in bad shape," Dawson said.
Butterflies and slapshots
The upstart league introduced new elements to the game.
The butterfly style of goaltending was invented by the diminutive backstopper Henry "Braces" Franklyn of the Dartmouth Jubilees. It allowed netminders to drop to their knees to block the puck.
"He was a bit of a pioneer in terms of going out of the goal crease to play the puck and move the puck up the ice. And those innovations, particularly in terms of the goaltending style, predated the NHL," Dawson noted.
A growing number of hockey scholars now believe the slapshot was invented by Eddie Martin of the Halifax Eurekas, who first unleashed it in 1903. Martin's genius was adapting his baseball batting swing to the ice.
Games in the Colored Hockey League were intense and fast-paced, and fans loved it. At the league's height (1900-1905) crowds of 1,000 to 1,500 were common. Fixtures became so popular they outdrew the all-white Halifax City League.
Truro-born Ottawa residents and cousins Hazel Lucas and Robert Downey have ancestral connections to the Colored Hockey League. Downey's great-uncle, James Tude Talbot, suited up for the Truro Victorias, while Lucas's father, St. Clair "Pansy" Byard, played for the Truro Sheikhs, winners of the 1930 Colored Hockey Championship.
"My father was never one to hype himself. I don't think they realized that they were trailblazers," Lucas said.
Downey believes the league "opened the doors for the Jarome Iginlas, the Darnell Nurses, the Anthony Duclairs and the Grant Fuhrs. Without the Colored Hockey League there would have been no Willie O'Ree. There would be no Herb Carnegie. There would have been no 30-plus players of African descent playing in the National Hockey League today."
"Obviously back then it was a hard time for black people. It's nice to see that the game has grown," said Duclair, a 24-year-old sniper with the Ottawa Senators.
The Montreal-born son of Haitian immigrants believes hockey should be for everyone. "No matter where you come from, religion … race, it doesn't really matter."
After 35 years, the Colored Hockey League succumbed to economic pressures and disbanded in 1930.
Dawson believes the league's legacy endures in two important ways.
"The style of play, the innovations are the mainstays of our game today," he said.
Then there's the human legacy, demonstrated by the resilience of those early players.
"The hardship and racism that they had to overcome … that's a great testament to them and their families."
CBC TV will be broadcasting live Monday evening from the Canadian Tire Centre, where there will be a commemorative hockey game honouring the players of the Colored Hockey League. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Willie O'Ree will act as an honorary head coach, and Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean will be honorary head referee.