Game On

Now in its fourth season, the Black Youth Ice Hockey Initiative aims to get more kids of African Canadian descent into the game and break down stereotypes in the process

Published in the March issue of Halifax Magazine

Wilf Jackson, President of the Black Ice Hockey & Sports Hall of Fame Society: “One of the underlining things we’re trying to give our young people with this program is a choice. And the new choice is that you can play hockey if you want to. In the past, that choice wasn’t really there because there had been so many stereotypes about our community playing the game.” (Hockey Nova Scotia)

Wilf Jackson, President of the Black Ice Hockey & Sports Hall of Fame Society: “One of the underlining things we’re trying to give our young people with this program is a choice. And the new choice is that you can play hockey if you want to. In the past, that choice wasn’t really there because there had been so many stereotypes about our community playing the game.” (Hockey Nova Scotia)

It’s Hockey Day in Canada, and the BMO Centre is buzzing with stressed-out parents, gossiping coaches and darting 10-year-olds. On Rink C, a dozen instructors put groups of kids of African-Canadian descent through skating drills. At the opposite end of the ice, the most skilled move smoothly in line around the faceoff circle, while at this end there are a few more falls, and the circle is a moving target. Up by the blue line, a girl with dark curls poking out under her helmet gets a pep talk from a female instructor before taking her first strides. She nods furiously.

That self-assurance is a big part of what this, the Black Youth Ice Hockey Initiative, is all about, says Bill Short, the program’s lead instructor. “When some of these kids step onto the ice, they’re ass over tea kettle, looking at the roof of the building, and scared,” he says. “So one of our main goals is just getting these kids to believe in themselves. Once they gain that confidence, they know they can do even more.”

Launched in 2010, the program is a partnership between Hockey Nova Scotia and the Black Ice Hockey & Sports Hall of Fame Society. For one hour every Saturday afternoon until the end of March, about 30 kids between four and eight years old with African Canadian backgrounds learn the fundamentals of the game. There are no registration costs and most of the equipment is provided, but players can only participate for one year, then organizers urge them to join a minor-hockey program.

As they do move on, the hope is that their example proves how wrong stereotypes about black hockey players have been, stereotypes Wilf Jackson, President of the Black Ice Hockey & Sports Hall of Fame Society, are familiar with. “It’s been said that we couldn’t stand the cold, that our ankles were too weak to play the game,” he says. “But when we learned about the Coloured Hockey League, we said, well, we’ve always played the game and we played it well. So these stereotypes are all hogwash.”

The Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes formed in 1895 in Halifax and lasted until 1925. Comprised mostly of the sons and grandsons of former American slaves, the league likely had up to a dozen teams and included more than 400 players from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. One of them was Eddie Martin of the Halifax Eurekas, who, according to historians George and Darril Fosty’s book,Black Ice: The Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925, introduced the slapshot to the sport in the early 1900s.

Coincidentally, the impetus to try to start a black youth ice program came shortly after the Fostys’ visits to Halifax in 2006 and 2007 to research their book. “We didn’t know a whole lot about the league until they did the research and presented it in a couple of sessions here,” says Jackson. “So when the Fostys left, we felt that because this was our history, we shouldn’t lose it again.” One way to do that, they thought, was to get more young people into the game.

So, after forming the Black Ice Hockey & Sports Hall of Fame Society, Jackson and four others took their idea to start an initiation program for black youth to Darren Cossar, the Executive Director of Hockey Nova Scotia, who got onboard. By 2010 they had secured enough funds through the help of organizations like the National Hockey League Players’ Association to outfit about 30 players with hockey equipment and waive fees.

Cossar is quick to point out, however, that the program is not about the underprivileged or kids who can’t afford to play hockey. “It’s about looking at the makeup of hockey within our province and recognizing that it’s not totally reflective of our population,” he says. “So we said that if we can provide the opportunity to experience hockey at minimal cost, we believe that kids are going to love it and stick with the game into the future.”

Bill Short says the program provides a secure, familiar starting ground from which to nurture future Jarome Iginlas. “I really believe there is a security and comfort level here,” he says. “You’ll see the parents and some of the kids know each other from their community, and that gives the kids the confidence to start somewhere and then move into those other minor hockey programs later on.”  

Jackson agrees. “One of the underlining things we’re trying to give our young people with this program is a choice,” he says, “and the new choice is that you can play hockey if you want to. In the past, that choice wasn’t really there because there had been so many stereotypes about our community playing the game.”

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