The history of black players in hockey, and the importance it can play in teaching aspiring players, is so important to Kwame Mason that he risked his own financial security to tell the story.
When the idea of telling a narrative about the black experience in hockey took hold in Mason's mind, the erstwhile radio DJ in Edmonton took the ultimate plunge.
"I sold my condo, which is not advice I would give a first-time filmmaker, took all my money out and started working on the project," said Mason, 42.
The result is "Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future," which explores the experiences of black players at all levels of hockey. The film, which received the People's Choice Award for feature film at the Edmonton International Film Festival, delves into the black experience throughout the history of hockey and how those experiences have encouraged more participation in the game.
"It's a passion for me," said Mason, who taught himself many of the filming techniques to make what is his first feature film." It's coming up on four years in February; I haven't had a paycheck in four years."
Despite the financial hardship, Mason said he never imagined not finishing this project.
"I had to sacrifice a lot for the history of the game and to tell the story of that history in a way that I wanted, and it is all worth it," he said Monday, two days before the film's American debut in Washington, D.C.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and several other guests, including Willie O'Ree, who was the first black player in the NHL, former Edmonton Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr, and NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes will be among those in attendance Wednesday for the screening.
Weekes grew up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough and lived the journey that Mason explores in his film. He immersed himself in the sport of hockey, despite the lack of high-profile black role models in the game. He played major junior hockey in Canada and reached the NHL, playing for seven different NHL teams. He won 105 games and had 19 shutouts before turning to a role as a TV analyst.
Weekes has seen the film and loves the story it tells.
"This is a little snapshot into our experience into this great game, and it is something that I am exceptionally proud of and humbled by," Weekes said. "I think it's a great story and speaks to the growth of our game."
Anson Carter, who also will be at the Wednesday screening, is another product of the youth hockey initiatives in and around Scarborough. He played college hockey at Michigan State and then had 202 goals in 674 NHL games for eight teams during an 11-season career.
Carter is an analyst for NBC, the League's national TV partner in the United States. He also is an executive producer of "Soul on Ice."
"It's great because I see ['Soul on Ice'] more as an educational tool than anything else," Carter said. "I know when I was coming through, I wasn't really aware of the black players in the history of hockey. My mind was blown when I first learned about Willie O'Ree. I didn't know about him. I knew about Val James, Tony McKegney and that was it. I knew Grant Fuhr too, but I also knew he played goal and he had his mask on the whole time. When I decided to sit down and do this with Kwame, I said, 'Let's do a project that can be an educational piece.' My original goal was to create something that I could take to every single city."
The "Soul on Ice" narrative touches on O'Ree, who played with the Boston Bruins for parts of two seasons, scoring four goals in 45 games despite being legally blind in one eye. It discusses the life of Herb Carnegie, a black player who played in a mining league in Quebec before playing in the Quebec Senior Hockey League, where he was teammates with Montreal Canadiens icon Jean Beliveau. It focuses on Michael Marson, another Scarborough product, who was a second-round pick of the Washington Capitals in 1974. It also focuses on black players in the NHL right now and those in the development pipeline.
'I'm hoping this film is a great opportunity to spread the message of hockey's history and get that message about the impact of these players in that history," Mason said.
Carter said that goal was achieved.
"Everyone that has seen it is like, 'Wow, we didn't really know that this existed,'" Carter said. "It's about the depth of the piece. It wasn't about being a black hockey player is hard. That wasn't the kind of piece I wanted to put together. Everyone knows that story. Everyone knows that if you're going to be a minority playing any sport, it's not going to be easy. It's more of a celebration of it, the evolution of it, the story that nobody knew."