TAMPA -- During the question-and-answer session after filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason's documentary "Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future" premiered at the Gasparilla International Film Festival on Tuesday, he said, "This is not just black history or hockey history or sports history. This is our history."
Mason's 84-minute film takes a journey through the history of black athletes and their contributions in hockey and follows the season of forward prospect Jaden Lindo, who prepares for the 2014 NHL Draft playing for Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League.
"Soul on Ice" spotlights the earliest contributors of black athletes in hockey from the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes that was founded in 1895. The league, which predates the Negro baseball leagues by nearly 30 years, had more than 400 players from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.
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Hockey historians George and Darril Fosty, who wrote the book "Black Ice: The Lost History of the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895 to 1925", were interviewed for the film.
"When I learned about the league I was blown away," Mason said, "because it was a league where blacks were first-generation slaves that came across the Underground Railroad and wanted to do what everyone in the area was doing and they picked up the game of hockey. America talks a lot about the Negro baseball league and Canada should be talking more about the Coloured Hockey League because that's the first organized sport for blacks in North America."
Mason, a Toronto native, began work on the documentary in 2012. His first interview for the film was with Herb Carnegie, the first black player who was offered a tryout and contract to play for an NHL team. Carnegie, offered a minor-league contract with the New York Rangers in 1948, turned it down because he was making more money in the Quebec Senior Hockey League.
Carnegie died nine days after their interview in 2012 and Mason said that became his inspiration to continue the film even though he was struggling to get interviews.
"I would look at a picture of us together on my computer and I couldn't stop," Mason said. "This man didn't quit. You can't quit."
Mason added that Carnegie, who founded the Future Aces hockey school in 1953, is one of the most important people in the history of the sport and should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I felt very blessed to be in that environment with him," Mason said. "I wanted to tell his story and it's one that needs to be told."
Other interviews include Willie O'Ree, who became the first black player in the League with the Boston Bruins in 1958 and played professional hockey until 1979 despite losing most of his sight in his right eye early in his career.
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Val James, the first black NHL player born in the United States, was interviewed along with former players Georges Laraque, Grant Fuhr, Kevin Weekes and Tony McKegney. Parents of Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds and Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley were also interviewed.
There were stories of racial tension like the ones McKegney experienced when he signed with Birmingham of the World Hockey Association, only to have the owner destroy the contract when he claimed fans threatened to boycott the team for having a black player on the roster.
However, Mason said his goal was to help grow the sport among black fans in hopes that their love and knowledge of the game will continue to be passed down to the next generation of players.
"Hockey players are very much to themselves and when I came to them and wanted to talk about their experiences a lot of them didn't want to go there," Mason said. "But I was able to piece together what I thought was important. I wanted this film to be positive and inspirational."
In between interviews with former players, the film checks in on Lindo, who missed part of the 2014 OHL season with a torn ACL but was selected by the Penguins in the sixth round (No. 173) of the 2014 draft. He currently plays for Sarnia in the OHL.
During the film, Lindo talks about his friends questioning why he wasn't playing basketball or football and his answer was simply, "Why can't I play hockey?"
"I loved the fact that [Lindo] came from a strong black family," Mason said. "He's a hard worker and a great kid. I took an instant liking to him and we just connected. I just wanted to tell his story."
Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown and Executive Director of Community Hockey Development Jay Feaster joined Mason taking questions after the film.
Brown and his wife, Lexi Lafleur Brown, are heavily involved in the Lightning's Guide the Thunder program, which is funded by the NHL and NHLPA, and is designed to introduce middle-school students to hockey through a hands-on approach.
The students spend time working on their schoolwork with the help of mentors and tutors, and then spend an hour on the ice learning how to skate and the fundamentals of hockey.
Feaster said the program, which has 33 students, will add 35 each year. He also wants to work with the school system in hopes of showing "Soul on Ice" to the students around the Tampa Bay area.
Brown said the movie was about a bigger cause.
"They were talking about preserving more than just sports," Brown said. "I'm excited to see what [Mason] is going to do next. This is just part of the story. This is the way to get a generation of kids playing this game.