Soul on Ice: Racism and an Opportunity Missed

sibmjhv*Co-authored by Brett Pardy & Courtney Szto

As part of Hockey is for Everyone Month (HIFE), the NHL promoted screenings of Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future in franchise cities. We attended a free screening (sponsored by the Vancouver Canucks) as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival (no Canucks seemed to be in attendance). Soul on Ice is directed by Canadian and first time film maker Damon Kwame Mason, and for anyone who does not know the history of black hockey leagues in Canada and the contributions that these leagues made to the game played today, this should be required viewing. Players that are featured prominently include Herb Carnegie, Willie O’Ree, Kevin Weekes, Wayne Simmonds, Anson Carter (co-Executive producer), Val James, Georges Laraques, Joel Ward, and Ontario Hockey League prospect, Jaden Lindo. The film traces the history of black participation in hockey back to Canadian colonization and follows it through to Lindo’s sixth round draft selection by the Pittsburgh Penguins. While there is certainly value to be found in Soul on Ice, our main critique was that the narrative of racism in hockey was presented in the past tense.

Mason divides the film intro three overlapping sections, past, present, and future. The past is the only section to discuss racism, as if safely contained. But rather than presenting racism as a structure of exclusion, it is narrated as a barrier to be overcome through individual hard work. This creates an ambivalent portrait of Herb Carnegie, the Quebec Senior League (QSHL) star of the 1940s who was constantly overlooked by NHL teams. Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman euphemistically referred to Carnegie  as a “victim of circumstances”, essentially erasing the white hands responsible for the discrimination Carnegie faced throughout his career. Sports journalist Cecil Harris criticized Carnegie for refusing a minor league contract with the New York Rangers, as if he didn’t “want it enough”. But as Carnegie’s daughter defends, this would have meant leaving his family for a significant pay cut and no guarantees he’d ever get a fair shot at the NHL.  Fellow QSHL star Larry Kwong was also interviewed, though not credited as the player who actually “broke the colour barrier”. Ironically, Kwong was routinely passed over by white players for call ups despite stellar numbers and his NHL career ultimately consisting of a single shift, so perhaps Carnegie did make the wise decision.

During the Q & A session after the screening, Mason recalled in the initial stages of interviewing, he was often referred to black players who despite their talent, quit hockey because of the racism they encountered. This erasure is never once addressed in the film, as Mason argued the only way through racism is perseverance, and a film about overcoming (in true sports fashion) would be far more fulfilling (and arguably palatable). So despite sharing a title with Black Panther leader Eldrige Cleaver’s autobiography, this is not a film that ever asks questions beyond the scope of individual achievement and determination, though images hinting at this inevitably filter through. Perhaps the best summation of the politics reproduced by this film was illustrated by the appearance of activist and academic, Angela Davis, but only because her afro was “on fleek” (as the kids would say), rather than for any of her political insights. Soul on Ice is an education in racism-lite.

The “present” frames racism as something that develops mental toughness. The parents of Wayne Simmonds, Trevor Daley, and the Subbans all recall talking to their kids about the need to tune out discrimination and that the best revenge is winning. Yet despite hearing these stories from players who grew up in the 90s, at one point the narration informs viewers that hockey has reached the point where it is open to anyone with skill and hard work, regardless of the colour of their skin. Even fan racism is ignored – Joel Ward’s Game 7 overtime winner against Boston is shown, but there was no discussion of the racist fan reactions that took place online. To demonstrate “post-racial” elite level hockey, the film follows Jaden Lindo through his draft year. These segments depict, but never comment upon, the overwhelming whiteness of hockey’s gatekeepers in coaching, managing, and scouting. Several are interviewed, who attest to Lindo’s character, maturity, compete level, and family values. From this, a more nuanced description would be that “race” in elite level hockey is not a barrier as long as players still fit an image of respectability determined by whiteness. How would the narrative of Soul on Ice have been different if they interviewed Ray Emery, who has been maligned for his unapologetic blackness, or followed Joshua Ho-Sang (briefly interviewed in the film), who many NHL teams wrote off because he didn’t fit “organization values”, something Ho-Sang describes as, “when I do anything, I’m just another black kid with attitude”.

jaden-lindo

Jaden Lindo. Photo from Sportsnet.

The film’s coverage of PK Subban dances around the issue of blackness, acknowledging that his criticisms for being exuberant may be racially motivated, but chooses instead to focus on his popularity (PK Subban joins Jarome Iginla, Dustin Byfuglien, Evander Kane, and Seth Jones as noticeable absences from the film). In a surprising turn, Don Cherry even praises PK for being a great ambassador, future broadcaster, and snappy dresser. From the film alone, one would think this is a minor storyline about Subban rather than a divisive issue that ultimately lead to Montreal dealing him because he allegedly lacked character and leadership. Anson Carter suggests that white norms are a barrier for black players, discussing how hockey wants players to suppress individuality. A deeper look could have considered how, as Ho-Sang alludes to, hockey’s white gatekeepers view “race” with suspicion and need players to emphasize their fit into the NHL’s trademark bland culture.

Instead, “the future” portion of the film situates an all-black line as the true barometer of racial equality, asking nearly all the interviewees how far away this reality might be. Most suggest it’s about half a decade away. Yet, it is here where Carter reflects that such a development would put those players under intense scrutiny. This acknowledgement should beg the question: If hard work is enough to equalize race relations, then why the fear of scrutiny? Conversely, Laraque recalls being on the 2000-01 Edmonton Oilers with four other black players (Sean Brown, Carter, Joaquin Gage, and Mike Grier) a moment that emphasizes that progression is hardly linear. That this has been replicated only once in the subsequent 16 seasons (2010-11 Atlanta Thrashers) seems to go against the narrative that representation alone will lead to substantially more black players.

With this discourse on how it’s solely up to black players to prove themselves and make the NHL, it’s unsurprising the NHL has embraced the film as a staple of this year`s HIFE celebrations (coinciding with Black History Month) and nine teams have organized screenings. It fits the League’s message that anyone is accepted if they play the game a certain way (*ahem* the white way). The cost of hockey is overlooked as a potential barrier, and, as an audience member pointed out, so too is the lack of black coaches and black female players. Still, even with this neoliberal, colour-blind friendly frame, Soul on Ice was unable to find the support of a Canadian broadcaster. Mason said that he had contacted outlets such as TSN to help with distribution but he was merely met with responses of “that’s cute.”  This is a significant fact because if Canadian media is reluctant to promote a film that essentially has no villains what hope is there of addressing the systemic racism that exists within our borders?

Admittedly, an hour and a half documentary cannot tell the full story of oppression in North American hockey, but as Richard Gruneau (1989) has argued, media production is “always the result of a complex process of selection: what items to report, what to leave out, what to reply, and what to downplay” (p.134). Soul on Ice seems like it missed a great opportunity to foster a meaningful dialogue about racism in hockey and how it has adjusted with the times. Mason stated outright that he chose to exclude the “quitters” in his narrative and that is certainly his right; however, as a result:

(1) A false dichotomy is created between those who “succumb” to racism and those who “overcome” it, which nullifies non-participation as a form of resistance and/or participation as being complicit in the system of oppression

and

(2) This partial truth performs an erasure of hurdles that exist for some hockey players and not all.  Not all players are “victims of circumstance” because the circumstances for players are not equal. Racism makes certain people more susceptible to victimhood. This reality may make for an “unsavoury” film that would likely not receive NHL support but as Angela Davis asserts, “I have a hard time accepting diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity is a corporate strategy. It’s a strategy designed to ensure that the institution functions in the same way, except now that you have some brown and black faces.” In other words, the League’s stamp of approval on this film is proof of a partial truth that serves as an alibi against claims of institutional discrimination. This is what happens when we choose to talk about “race” instead of racism.

power

Angela Davis.

Works Cited

Gruneau, R. (1989).  Making Spectacle: A Case Study in Television Sports Production. In L. Wenner (eds.), Media, Sports, and Society (pp.134-154). London: Sage.

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