The history of the Coloured Hockey League

How the league came to be despite adversity

photo of two players taking a faceoff.
PHOTO: Markus Spiske / Unsplash

By: Simran Sarai, Sports Writer

There’s hardly a Canadian who hasn’t heard of the National Hockey League (NHL) at least once in their life. Hockey, the official winter sport of Canada, has been popular across the country since its inception in the late 1800’s.

As sports do, the early rise of hockey brought communities and movements together. Perhaps one of the most important of these hockey movements was the Coloured Hockey League (CHL) — an all-Black hockey league founded by four Nova Scotian men in 1895. Despite its popularity and importance in the pursuit of equality for Black Canadians, many current-day Canadians might know little about the league and its significance. 

In 1895, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Pastor James Borden, James A.R. Kinney, James Robinson, and Henry Sylvester Williams founded the CHL. The group of four men were not just athletes or hockey players. They were some of the first Black academics in Nova Scotia. They were pathfinders.

When the CHL first started, teams could only play games between the end of January and the beginning of March. This was because Black players were not allowed to access the arena rinks until players on white teams had completed their season. There were no formal rules introduced to the game: just what was written in the Bible. This lack of “structured” play established CHL players to be talented, fast, and hard-hitting. They were the innovators of moves, like the slapshot, that would later be replicated by other professional hockey teams.

The CHL initially started as three teams. However, it grew fast, and quickly added teams from across the province. By the early 1900’s, the league was composed of 12+ teams with thousands of community members attending championship games. However, the league would face near extinction in the 1910’s, after conflict between government officials in Nova Scotia and families from Africville erupted when the government attempted to take over land in Africville. Africville was a vibrant African-Canadian community near Halifax, Nova Scotia, that would end up being razed by Halifax’s municipal government in the 1960’s. 

The CHL would make one final comeback in the 1920’s, but with a smaller number of teams competing, and a largely new makeup of players. The league would face significant challenges, including a lack of media coverage as the NHL gained notoriety, and constant turnover in players and leagues. The arrival of the Second World War would ultimately bring the league to a close. However, Black community members across Canada continued their push for equality across the nation, and the storied legacy of the CHL and contributing communities like Africville would be immortalized.

Thanks to the work of four Black men, a plethora of Black athletes have staked their claim in the NHL. Including Willie O’Ree, the first Black NHL player, and Grant Fuhr, the first Black player to be introduced into the Hockey Hall of Fame. As we reflect on the accomplishments and contributions of the trailblazers of the CHL, let’s not forget that the path towards meaningful inclusion and support in athletics is still long ahead. Honouring the work done by the founders and players of the CHL to break down social and racial injustice in Canada is just the first stepping stone in the continued pursuit of equity for all.