Lightning's J.T. Brown praises documentary on black athletes in hockey

Lightning right wing J.T. Brown, right, says of Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future: “I felt the movie was awesome.’’
Lightning right wing J.T. Brown, right, says of Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future: “I felt the movie was awesome.’’
Published March 8, 2017

TAMPA — You'll meet Herb Carnegie, who would have been the first black to play in the NHL if it weren't for a contract dispute with the New York Rangers.

You'll meet Willie O'Ree, who broke the color barrier in 1958 with the Bruins and played until 1979. You'll also be surprised to know O'Ree played most of his career while nearly completely blind in his right eye.

You'll learn about the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, which was formed in 1895 and predates baseball's Negro Leagues.

There is so much to learn about the history of black hockey players and what it means to be a black hockey player in director Damon Kwame Mason's groundbreaking documentary Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future.

The 84-minute film was shown Tuesday as part of the Gasparilla International Film Festival, held at Muvico Centre Ybor.

"I felt the movie was awesome," Lightning forward J.T. Brown said. "Obviously it was about the culture and African-Americans and Canadians playing hockey, but there was still a lot more to the movie than just learning about that history. They were talking about persevering more so than just sports."

Mason is a Toronto native. He clearly remembers the day when he was playing street hockey with friends and told them he was Canadiens Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur.

"You can't be Guy Lefleur," one of his friends said.

The reason: Mason wasn't white.

Like his buddies, Mason was a big hockey fan, but he began to wonder if the game was for him. He didn't see black hockey players on TV. He didn't see black fans in the stands.

In 2012, Mason began work on the documentary. His first interview was with Carnegie, who died a few months later.

As months went along and the interviews weren't coming together as quickly as Mason hoped, he thought of Carnegie and would look at the photo of the two he kept on his computer.

"That was my inspiration. You can't stop," Mason said. "This man didn't quit. You can't quit."

Mason interviewed former players like Tony McKegney, Grant Fuhr and Val James, who was born in Ocala, raised in Hauppauge, N.Y., and became the first American-born black to play in the NHL.

Though racial tension is discussed in the film, Mason did not want to make it the central theme.

"I really wanted this film to be positive. I wanted it to be inspirational," Mason said. "I didn't want it to be controversial, because we all know those stories are there."

Mason's hope is to help grow his favorite sport among blacks. The idea isn't necessarily to cultivate future NHL prospects but to generate hockey fans.

"I'm excited to see what he's going to do next," Brown said. "This is just a part of the story. There's plenty more that can be done and shed light on it."