Established in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1895, it was a league consisting of teams from across the Maritimes that featured only black players. The league was established as a way to recruit blacks to the Baptist church. Very little was known about this league until recently, when two researchers, brothers George and Darril Fosty, discovered newspaper records of the CHL, its teams, and games.
Canada Post recently released a stamp honouring the CHL. It features a team photo of the 1904 Halifax Eurekas above which are listed the nicknames of many teams that played in the league – Jubilees, Stanleys, Eurekas, Sea-Sides, Victorias, Rangers, Royals, Moss Backs.
"It's a revelation of a piece of rather important and significant history, black history that is, that has been for the most part lost or strayed in the last couple of years," Wayne Adams told NHL.com recently. Adams, a former Nova Scotia provincial legislator, is connected to the league in that his grandfather, Augustus Adams, is among those pictured on the stamp.
The league’s “founding fathers” appear to have been four men: Pastor James Borden of Dartmouth Church; James A.R. Kinney, a Haligonian churchgoer; James Robinson Johnston, the first black graduate of the Dartmouth University law program; and, Henry Sylvester Williams, a Trinidadian law student at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Their intentions were pure and simple – come to church, and play hockey against other church teams afterwards. The season was short because teams had access to ice only after the season was over for whites-only leagues. That meant the black teams typically played from late January to early March on natural ice.
Reports indicate a fast and physical style of play. There was no formal rulebook that the league adhered to, but by all accounts the top black teams were equal to white teams. The league seems to have been the launching ground for two innovations usually credited much later to the white pro leagues.
Henry “Braces” Franklyn was a goalie who often fell to the ice to make a save, a move that was illegal until the first year of the NHL. As well, Eddie Martin developed a shot that appeared awfully close to what we would call a slapshot, generally popularized by Bernie Geoffrion many decades later in the NHL.
The peak years of play for the CHL were 1900-05 when there were as many as 12 teams and games attracted well over 1,000 fans. The top rivalry of the day was the Africville Sea-Sides of Halifax playing the Charlottetown West End Rangers.
Labour and land disputes between the black community of Halifax (Africville) and the City caused social friction in 1905, however, resulting in the loss of arena use, and the CHL all but vanished. There was a re-birth in 1921 as three teams made a go of it – the Truro Victorias, the Sea-Sides, and the Halifax All-Stars. Religion was no longer the basis for participation, though, and organization was lacking. Teams and players came and went. The NHL was now hugely popular. Worldwide political tensions intensified. By the mid-1930s, the league had all but vanished, never to return.
Today, little is known of the players, but thanks to the Fostys and Canada Post, the league is now entrenched in the game’s history.
"The stamp is just a beginning," Elizabeth Cooke-Sumbu told NHL.com. She is the executive director of Nova Scotia Works and a director of the Cumberland African Nova Scotian Association. Her grandfather, Frank Cooke, played for the Amherst Royals in 1901.
“We have to attach it to that history that we already have and start putting it on the billboards and make it that permanent marker it needs to be.”