Simmonds, the Maple Leafs forward, is holding court at a Toronto hockey clinic brimming with school-aged skaters, many of them Black, when one of the kids asks: Have you ever experienced racism?
It’s a particularly startling query when posed with squeaky-voiced innocence. And in that moment Simmonds, once a skinny kid from Scarborough who made it all the way to the NHL despite being regularly showered with racial epithets and the occasional banana, has to acknowledge a sad truth. Yes, of course. For Black and BIPOC players, and certainly for him, racism is a part of the game.
“Some people don’t want us to play this sport,” Simmonds tells the kids. “But we’ve got news for them. This is our sport … You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. Exactly.”
Therein lies the defiant beauty of “Black Ice.”
Directed by Oscar-nominated Canadian Hubert Davis, it’s in part a chronicle of the triumph of contemporary Black and BIPOC players such as Simmonds and peers P.K. Subban, Akim Aliu, Matt Dumba, Nazem Kadri and Sarah Nurse, among others — well-known names who have carved out a niche in a sport that remains overwhelmingly white. But it’s also a mainstream shot at popularizing the vital contribution Black players have made to the game well beyond the current moment — contributions that, to this point, have been largely unknown to the hockey-loving masses.
Not only does the film touch on the blatant racism that kept Toronto’s Herb Carnegie out of the NHL, an injustice that took a happier turn with his posthumous induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame this year. The film also pays homage to the important stories unearthed by historians George and Darril Fosty in their 2004 book, “Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes.”
The Colored Hockey League, formed by the sons and grandsons of escaped slaves, was in operation in Halifax and surrounding towns from 1895 into the 1920s, predating baseball’s Negro Leagues and the NHL by most of a quarter-century. The book paints the league as home to an athletic style of play that inspired innovation. There’s evidence, for instance, that it’s Eddie Martin of the Colored Hockey League, not a player from the NHL as popularly believed, who ought to get credit for pioneering the slapshot, and that goaltenders first dropped to their knees there, laying the groundwork for the now-ubiquitous butterfly style.
Simmonds, if he’d been aware of the league since reading “Black Ice” years ago, said he only recently found out in a conversation with the Fostys that he’s likely related to two men who played there: Frank L. Symonds played for the Halifax Eurekas when they won the championship in 1898; Walter Simmonds Clyke played for the Truro Sheiks when they won it in 1920. The different spellings of the surname, George Fosty said, wasn’t uncommon at the time. Considering Wayne Simmonds’s family has always traced its roots to the Maritimes, and that the Black community in those parts was tiny during the league’s heyday, Fosty said it’s almost certain there’s an ancestral connection. Which would mean Simmonds is the only known NHLer who can trace his roots to this league that predates the NHL.
“Just to be able to get that type of history out there — just to show Black people have always been involved in hockey — I think, for me personally, it’s huge,” Simmonds said in an interview this past week. “Because I never knew anything like that when I was younger. And now we know.”
It’s missing-link stuff. And when the film stacks the league’s forgotten history atop stories of the ongoing struggle of BIPOC players, many of whom have been told more than once that they don’t belong on a hockey rink on account of their skin colour, it hits powerfully. Which helps explain why “Black Ice,” which premiered last month at a gala screening at Roy Thomson Hall, won the Toronto International Film Festival people’s choice award for documentaries.
“It’s unbelievable that two big names like that would come and grab a hockey story and run with it and help us tell our story,” Simmonds said, “because I think it’s extremely important that it gets out there.”
While Simmonds called walking the TIFF red carpet “a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he’s currently engaged in a decidedly less glamorous pursuit. Preparing for his 15th season as an NHLer means going through what has to rank as his most challenging training camp in recent memory. While he’s had a remarkable career in the world’s best league — averaging 30 goals a year during a highwater four-season stretch with the Philadelphia Flyers — he’s well aware that, at age 34, he’s hardly a shoo-in for a nightly role in Toronto’s bottom six. Last spring in the playoffs, Simmonds played in the opening two games of the first-round series against the Lightning. But after taking a couple of costly minor penalties in a Game 2 loss, he was taken out of the lineup never to return.
The question for him, and for many veterans of the NHL grind, is: Can his old legs keep up in a league that always seems to get faster? After spending an off-season improving his speed — “I feel a little bit more pop in my stride,” he said — Simmonds showed flashes of his still-relentless physicality in Friday’s pre-season win over the Senators in Belleville, levelling star defenceman Thomas Chabot and partaking in another rub-out that directly led to a Toronto goal.
It’s an element the Leafs don’t have in abundance. Still, with plenty of would-be fourth-liners in camp, Simmonds understands nothing is a given.
“We’re all pushing each other … We’re all part of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization,” Simmonds said. “So, the more internal competition there is, I think the better it is for everybody.”
No matter how or when it ends, Simmonds’s career has already been remarkable. Of the millions who’ve participated in the game and the thousands who’ve played professionally, he’s one of 367 players, and five Black players, who’ve suited up for 1,000 NHL games.
Which still can’t make it easy to stand in front of a group of BIPOC kids, as Simmonds did during that scene in “Black Ice,” and explain why life in hockey is more difficult for them. What makes the conversation easier, Simmonds said, is the once-lost knowledge, now showing in a revelatory film, that Black players are a vital part of the game’s history, not to mention its future.
“You’re looking at a bunch of kids who look like you, and you kind of realize at that point in time that they’re going to be subjected to the same things that you were subjected to,” Simmonds said. “But you’re saying to them: Stand up, be proud, you’re in the right place. Black people have been playing this game for a long, long time. You’re where you’re supposed to be. And never let anybody take that from you.”
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