________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 10 . . . .January 20, 2006


Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey.

Cecil Harris.
Toronto, ON: Insomniac Press, 2005.
224 pp., cloth, $29.95.
ISBN 1-894663-58-6 (cl.)

Subject Headings:
Hockey players, Black-Canada-Biography.
Hockey players-Canada-Biography.
National Hockey League-Biography.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Dave Jenkinson.

**** /4



Jarome grew up as a black boy in a white world, without black friends because there were none in their neighborhood and without one black hockey teammate until he was fifteen (current Washington Capitals defenseman Jason Doig). Nevertheless, Jarome liked his station in life. “When I was growing up, I never felt different,” he said. “If I felt anything, I felt special.”

Ask Iginla when it all changed, when he became a player who inspired more questions about his status as an accomplished goal scorer (and role model) rather than his racial background, and he’ll say September 2001.

As the world was being rocked by the cataclysmic terrorist attacks, more than two dozen supremely gifted hockey players convened in Calgary, to forge the team that would represent Canada in the 2002 Olympic Games. Iginla, as wide-eyed as a kid on a movie set, was among the players but not yet among the stars. His place on Team Canada was far from assured.


Cecil Harris, a veteran sports journalist who has covered the NHL, has produced a most readable history of black hockey players in North America’s professional hockey leagues, but especially their participation in its preeminent league, the NHL. Between the NHL’s founding in 1917 and the conclusion of the 2003-04 season, only 38 blacks had played in the NHL, with that pre-lockout season seeing just 17 black players among the league’s more than 600 players. Though that number is small, according to Harris, it “represented a high watermark for blacks in any season in hockey’s premier league.”

     Working from interviews and secondary sources, Harris does not use a chronological approach to organizing the book’s contents but elects instead a thematic treatment. Breaking the Ice begins with a chapter on the black player who is currently likely the best known, Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames, but readers do meet the pioneers who led in blacks’ involvement in professional hockey. While Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958, is considered “the Jackie Robinson of hockey,” Harris also writes about Herb Carnegie who played professional hockey for three decades, commencing in the 1930's. Harris characterizes Carnegie as "the best player never to appear in the NHL." Despite Carnegie’s numerous achievements, because of his not having played in the NHL, he has not been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

     For the majority of those black players who have reached the NHL, Harris does not just conclude their stories with the end of their professional careers. Instead, he follows them into their post-hockey lives, and often these are not happy tales. Unlike white players who often find hockey-related employment, the same is not true of black players, and the NHL has yet to see a black coach or general manager. Common threads emerge from the life stories of the black players who have made it to the NHL. Often, as youngsters, they were discouraged from playing “a white man’s game,” and they were frequently on the receiving end of racial taunting by opposing players and even the parents of these players. When they turned pro and were playing in minor-league towns, in addition to having the fans hurling verbal abuse at them, the black players were taunted by spectators who would throw pieces of chicken or wave bananas.

     Harris devotes an entire chapter, “The N-Bomb,” just to the use of one racial epithet. Another chapter, “Hired Hands,” deals with the situation of black players who have been engaged as team “enforcers” or the tough guys, a situation which does not allow them to showcase their hockey skills. As Harris puts it, “For an inordinate number of black players, the role of hired hand is what got them into the NHL.”

     One of hockey’s most critical positions is that of goalie, and in the chapter, “Masked Men,” Harris writes principally about Kevin Weekes and Grant Fuhr, the only two blacks in the NHL’s almost 90 years of existence to be their respective team’s “clear-cut number-one goalie.” However, the chapter does not completely overlook black backup goalies, such as Freddie Brathwaite and Pokey Reddick. Grant Fuhr also has the distinction of being the only black player to be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

     While most of the black players who have played in the NHL have their roots in Canada, either as the children of immigrants or as immigrants themselves, Harris is clearly speaking to all black youth, but especially those in America, who likely have not perceived hockey to be a potential athletic career. In the same manner that the Edmonton Oilers goaltender Grant Fuhr was Iginla’s big idol, Harris hopes that today’s increased number of black players will inspire another generation of black youth to take up the sport. The penultimate chapter, “Tiger Hunting,” outlines the efforts being made to entice more black youth in America to play hockey. The book concludes with “Source Notes” and an index while 15 full-page black and white photos are distributed throughout the text.

     Interestingly, Harris, himself a Black American, encountered prejudice when he initially indicated he wanted to report on hockey, and, in his “Introduction,” he writes about having to deal with questions like, “What if the players don’t want to talk to you?” or “What if you’re the only black guy at the game?”

     While I was reading this book, I came across a brief piece in the sports section of the Winnipeg Free Press which illustrates that some of the prejudices experienced by the players in Breaking the Ice are still present. Gerald Coleman, a 20-year-old goalie who played for the 2005 Memorial Cup-winning London Knights of the O.H.L., was, in hockey jargon, “up for a cup of coffee” with the Tampa Bay Lightning when he spoke of his high school experiences in Evanston, Illinois. “In high school, my gym teacher gave me a bad grade because he was the basketball coach and he wanted me to play basketball and he frowned upon me playing hockey. Because according to him, it was a white man’s game, and I should be playing basketball because (at 6-foot-5) I was the second-tallest person in our high school.”

     A good recreational read, Breaking the Ice, because it also presents another facet of Black history in Canada and the United States, merits being in all high-school libraries and the youth collections of public libraries..

Highly Recommended.

Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in children’s and adolescent literature in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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