A basement full of hockey players snacking on pizza doesn’t typically make for an intense environment. But this humid August evening is an exception.
Strewn across the considerable couch space at the beautiful home of Mike Wilson, famous Toronto memorabilia collector: Joel Ward, Devante Smith-Pelly and Anthony Stewart. They represent a small chunk of the NHL’s growing black population. Also on hand: retired trailblazer Mike Marson, one of the game’s first black players. Some other NHLers, such as Mike Hoffman and Michael Latta, have tagged along, too.
And there’s tension in the air. We all wait as intrepid documentarian Damon Kwame Mason tinkers with the audio of a giant home theatre setup. He’s about to unveil a rough cut of his labor of love, Soul On Ice: Past Present & Future, and he wants everything to be absolutely perfect. The sound system isn’t quite on point for the first few seconds of his film, and that just won’t cut it. He starts it from the top several times until he knows it’s just right.
And from the minute the opening credits of Soul On Ice arrive, bathed in edgy hip-hop, everyone in the room understands how important this screening is. Mason has spent the last several years pouring his energy into documenting the history of black players in hockey, what hardships the pioneers overcame to break into the sport and why our perception of black players in the game is changing. He’s on a mission to show that black hockey roots run deeper and longer than so many of us realize, and he wants to shatter stereotypes of what it means to be a black hockey player today.
The seeds of Mason’s project were planted in his childhood, playing road hockey on the streets of Toronto in the late 1970s. Every kid pretended to be his favorite player, and Mason loved Guy Lafleur. “No, you can’t be Lafleur,” he remembers one kid telling him, because Lafleur was white.
“I wasn’t upset about it, because it’s a fact that he’s not black, you know?” Mason said. “So I had to deal with that. You grow up thinking that: ‘We don’t play hockey. This is one of the games we don’t play.’