BUFFALO -- The Buffalo Sabres hosted a showing of the documentary "Soul on Ice: Past, Present, and Future" on Wednesday to benefit Hasek's Heroes, a charity started by Hall of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek.
Hasek's Heroes helps economically underprivileged children in Western New York to play ice hockey and the documentary, directed by Damon Kwame Mason, discusses the history of black hockey players from prior to 1900 through the modern NHL.
"One of the things that came to my mind was that there wasn't a lot of black athletes in the game of hockey, but I saw a lot of guys coming up like Evander Kane, P.K. Subban, and Wayne Simmonds so I went home and started doing some research," Mason said. "When I found out about the Coloured Hockey League of Nova Scotia… the first thing that came to my mind that bothered me was I grew up in Canada, hockey is Canada's national sport, and I'm only finding out about the Coloured Hockey League in Nova Scotia [now] and that was really surprising to me. So I took it upon myself to gather up as much information as I could with the intent that one day I would do a documentary and, fast forward to 2012, circumstances put me in the right place and I just went for it… and just put all that information on the silver screen."
Two of the players featured in the film, former Sabres Tony McKegney and Val James, took part in a question and answer session that followed the screening.
"The impact that I hope the film has on everyone is that they get the knowledge of how the black hockey player started and that it tells everyone they can achieve any goal that they would like to if they work hard enough at it," James said. "There will be tons of people around you to give you help if you work hard enough at it."
Willie O'Ree of the Boston Bruins was the first black player in the NHL, making his debut in 1958. James became the first black American in the League when he played seven games with the Sabres in 1981-82. He played four more with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1986-87 but spent the majority of his career with the Rochester Americans in the American Hockey League. He and McKegney were teammates during the 1981-82 season.
"In those days, I was alone, but there was just a handful of [black players] out there," James said. "It could get testy at times. There were a lot of people out there that figured if they threw around some racial names, that would throw you off your game and I'm pretty much sure that was their intention… I've got to be grateful and thankful that all the players and coaches that I played with were good people and they made sure that anything like that didn't get too out of hand."
McKegney was selected in the second round (No. 32) of the 1978 NHL Draft by Buffalo and scored 127 of his 320 goals with the Sabres. He finished his NHL career with 639 points in 912 NHL games over 13 seasons.
"I always felt, 'Who was going to be the first Michael Jordan' that gets turned on to hockey versus basketball and the whole thing is the cost of playing hockey is very expensive," McKegney said. "So that's probably holding it back from that one guy who would be a star running back in the NFL, but they got turned on to hockey, the athletic ability would be humungous… I think Jarome Iginla is as close to being that person as anybody. His numbers are tremendous, obviously a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame."
The cost of playing hockey is where Hasek's Heroes comes into play in the Buffalo area. The charity's ability to provide equipment and ice time for kids who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford it, helps to break down those barriers.
"I think it's so important that there are more outlets for the introduction of the game to communities that wouldn't necessarily pick up the game of hockey as its first sport because of its economic restraints," Mason said. "I think something like Hasek's Heroes is so important because now you're introducing a group of kids to a game of hockey. Those kids may not become the next Evander Kane, but when they get to the age of Evander Kane and they have children, what sport do you think they're going to put their kid in? It's going to be hockey."