Against All Odds: The Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes and The Stanley Cup
by Bob Dawson,
February 5, 2019 – In the early 1820s up to the 1870s, people were playing pick-up hockey on frozen ponds and lakes throughout Nova Scotia. From the 1880s to the mid-1890s the new found love for the sport of hockey grew rapidly and continued to spread from Nova Scotia, which is considered by many to be the “birthplace of hockey”, across the rest of Canada. As a result, communities formed local teams and eventually established leagues.
The Stanley Cup
With the rise in popularity, the sport of hockey received an unexpected boost. After Lord Stanley of Preston was appointed the sixth Governor General of Canada in 1888, he and his family became highly enthusiastic about hockey. On seeing his first hockey game in 1889 in Montreal, Lord Stanley and his family were hooked. A few years later, his two sons convinced him there should be a trophy for the best team in Canada. So in 1892, Lord Stanley sent his aid, Captain Charles Colville, to London, England to purchase a silver bowl and donated it. He wanted the bowl to be called the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, but it was decided the trophy should be named after him, hence, the Stanley Cup.
Originally, Lord Stanley intended that the Cup should be (a) awarded to the top amateur hockey team in Canada and (b) decided by the acceptance of a challenge from another team. He established 5 general regulations one of which called for two trustees to oversee how the trophy should be defended and awarded. In time, those who controlled the Stanley Cup challenge controlled hockey. This, unfortunately, would have dire consequences for blacks. In affect, it would exclude them (black teams) from challenging for the Cup and ultimately, fail to recognize the skill level as well as the significant contributions of blacks to hockey.
The Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes
In Halifax, Nova Scotia, the growth and interest in hockey lead to the formation of the Halifax City Hockey League (HCHL). Between 1894 and 1920, according to the latest available information, this senior league consisted of 19 all-white teams. Of the 19 teams, the Dartmouth Chebuctos, Halifax Crescents and Halifax Wanderers were the only longstanding members of the league.
Sadly, blacks in the Halifax area could not play in the HCHL. By all accounts, the same was true in local white leagues in other parts of Nova Scotia as well as the rest of the Maritimes. This was due in large part to the racist doctrines and theories that fuelled the beliefs that blacks couldn’t endure the cold, had ankles too weak to skate effectively, possessed weak knees, lacked the skills and intelligence to play the game.
With no league in which to play, Henry Sylvester Williams, a Trinidadian law student at Dalhousie University, with the help of Pastor James Borden of the Dartmouth Lake Baptist Church founded the Colored Hockey League (CHL) in 1895. Composed of the sons and grandsons of former American slaves, the league, whose rulebook was the Bible, consisted initially of the Halifax Eurekas, Halifax Stanley and Dartmouth Jubilees. In March 1899, the Halifax Eurekas played an exhibition game against the Dartmouth Chebuctos of the Halifax City Hockey League, marking the first recorded game against an all-white team at that time. The Eurekas won the game 9 to 7. It was clear that a black team could not only compete with the white teams, but also beat them.
With growing interest in hockey in other black communities, the 3-team CHL expanded in 1900 to include the Africville Sea-Sides, Hammond Plains Moss Backs, Truro Victorias/ Sheiks, Amherst Royals and Charlottetown West End Rangers of Prince Edward Island, thus, becoming the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes (CHLM). Under the leadership of James A. R. Kinney, a businessman, and James Robinson Johnston, a lawyer, things began to change. The league was organized on a “challenge cup system” with the previous year’s winner retaining the title of league champion while other contending teams would vie for the right to compete for the title. Teams would recruit successful black men to serve as managers and team spokesmen. Johnston’s business and law connections added credibility to the league while Kinney used his business connections to promote the league through advertisements and press coverage.
Despite the challenges of racism and competition for ice time with white teams, Kinney and Johnson turned the league into one of the top sports draws in Nova Scotia. In the media accounts of the day, the league’s brand of hockey was described as “highly physical, fast-moving and entertaining”. The skills of the players rivaled those of their white counterparts in the senior leagues at the time. What’s more, game changing innovations such as a goaltender dropping to his knees to stop a puck (Henry “Braces” Franklyn, Dartmouth Jubilees) and an early form of the slap shot (Eddie Martin, Halifax Eurekas) were pioneered decades prior to professional hockey league play where such actions were prohibited. During the league’s peak years (1900-1905), the games often out-drew those in the all-white Halifax City Hockey League with attendance between 1,200 to 1,500 spectators.
Stanley Cup Challenges
Photo: Halifax Eurekas, 1903 (Courtesy of Stryker-Indigo New York)
The Halifax Eurekas of the CHLM became the “flagship of the league”. Between 1895 and 1900 the team won a record 5 consecutive league titles (1896-1900). Their success was due in large part to the likes of (1) Charles Allison, known for his goal scoring, along with the Adams brothers (Augustus and George) who were the top forward line in the league, (2) Herbert W. Allison, the team’s star goaltender, (3) Eddie Martin, a star player on the team and in the league, (4) George Taylor, team captain and outstanding player, and (5) George “Charlie” Tolliver, a top player known for his physical play.
During the winter of 1900, the Halifax Crescents, a white team, dominated the Halifax City Hockey League. At the end of the season, they finished atop of the league’s standings. Hockey officials crowned them the Maritime Hockey League Champions without holding a structured playoff tournament to determine the champion. While there should have been a playoff match between the Halifax Eurekas (Champions of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes) and the Halifax Crescents for the right to challenge for the Stanley Cup, the hockey establishment at the time disapproved of the idea. Instead, team officials for the Crescents submitted their challenge to the Stanley Cup trustees, who ordered the Montreal Shamrocks to defend their Cup title.
As the story goes, the Halifax Crescents were short of the necessary funds to travel to Montreal to face the Shamrocks for the Stanley Cup. In a show of support, the Halifax Eurekas played their arch rivals the Africville Sea-Sides on March 19, 1900 in a benefit match to help raise the needed money for the Crescents. It’s reported that over 700 people were on hand to witness an emotional filled game in which the Eurekas lost by a score of 5 to 1. As for the Crescents, they did not fair well in their challenge for the Stanley Cup against the powerful Montreal Shamrocks. Led by future Hall of Fame player Judah Trihey, the Shamrocks crushed the Crescents in the best-of-three series 2 games to 0 by scores of 10-2 and 11-0.
From 1904 to 1906, the Halifax Eurekas once again demonstrated their dominance by capturing the league title 3 years in a row. In 1906, it would appear that they were denied an opportunity by the hockey powers that be to play the New Glasgow Cubs for the title of Champions of the Maritime Hockey League and the right to challenge the Montreal Wanderers for the Stanley Cup. Accordingly, in a two-game total goal series, the Wanderers easily defeated the Cubs in both matches, 10-3 and 7-2 (17 goals to 5). It’s believed to be the first series in which professional players played for the Stanley Cup, as the Wanderers and other teams in the Eastern Canadian Amateur Hockey Association were starting to mix amateurs with professionals on their teams.
Based on the incredible research into the African Canadian ice hockey history by historians George and Darril Fosty (authors of Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925) that led to the first ever compilation of all-black team rosters, it’s estimated that approximately 400 blacks played on a dozen or so teams in the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes between 1895 and 1930.
While it’s not widely accepted or recognized, the CHLM was a vital contributor to hockey’s growth and development. Through the players’ style of play and innovations, the league by all accounts provided some of the most exciting hockey ever played in the Maritimes. According to George Fosty, the CHLM’s teams were on par with many other senior top-level teams in the Maritimes. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for teams that challenged for the Stanley Cup to bolster their rosters.
Imagine, how hockey history might have unfolded had the Halifax Eurekas been allowed to play for and captured the title of Champions of the Maritime Hockey League in 1900 as well as 1906 and then bolstered with other players faced off against the Montreal Shamrocks and Montreal Wanderers for the Stanley Cup. It would have certainly made for interesting headlines, especially, if it had ever happened.
As Champions of the Maritime Hockey League, the Halifax Crescents (1900), New Glasgow Cubs (1906), Moncton Victorias (1912) and Sydney Millionaires (1913) were outmatched and unsuccessful in their challenges for the Stanley Cup. Given the deep pool of black talent, just think of what might have happened, if the white teams had bolstered their rosters with top players from the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes. What a missed opportunity for Maritime hockey! More importantly, what a lost opportunity for improving race relations and social inclusion through the sport of hockey!