Damon Kwame Mason wanted to start a conversation. No one was talking about hockey players who looked like him and that just wouldn’t do.
Mason wrote, directed and produced the documentary “Soul on Ice: Past Present and Future.” The film, released in 2015, traces back to the roots of black athletes playing hockey, features interviews with current players and legends of the game, and follows the path of a young player in his draft year.
Organized hockey has been played for more than 100 years and Black people have been playing it for just as long, but the history of Black players wasn’t talked about and it certainly wasn’t celebrated before Mason’s film.
In the 2017 documentary “The NHL: 100 Years,” Willie O’Ree is shown and mentioned as the first Black NHL player as a segue into how the League was innovating and the birth of the NHL Players Association. More time is dedicated to an animated film and children’s book on Maurice “Rocket” Richard than what O’Ree faced on and off the ice.
“You hear stuff here and there, but there was no comprehensive conversation about the history of Black athletes in the game of hockey. There was no celebration of this during Black History Month. It was just not there,” Mason said. “So one of the biggest things, I don’t know where I got this idea from, but one of the things from my head was if we don’t tell our own history and we’re told to have someone else do it, and somebody else will do it the way they want to.
“And so I was like ‘This is something that needs to be talked about.’ Especially coming from Canada, it’s like our number one commodity as far as sports goes.”
Mason, who is first-generation Guyanese and was born and raised in Toronto, was always playing hockey somewhere — floor, street or ice — or throwing hockey cards in the bathroom. He wanted to be an actor when he was a child, but he didn’t have the encouragement, he said. He wanted to do something in entertainment and worked as a radio DJ, a TV host and even spent a couple of years touring with Public Enemy.
“Soul on Ice,” available to buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon and YouTube, was Mason’s first documentary film. Mason, a self-professed film nerd who said he’s always loved films, never went to film school. Growing up, he bought books about screenwriting and read documentary how-to books.
Mason said learning about the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes solidified his goal of making a documentary celebrating Black players.
“Here was an organization where a group of Black teams were playing against each other, challenging each other,” Mason said. “This was around the beginnings of hockey. This is the descendants of slaves and how is it that you’re not talking about that? This is like the first, one of the first organized groups of sporting events done by Blacks in the history of our world and if no one’s talking about it, then there’s a disconnect there.”
So Mason did what most do when they want more information — he turned to the internet. Mason’s search landed him on the book “Black Ice,” which chronicled the rise and fall of the Colored Hockey League in Nova Scotia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. From there he began to plan out his film.
He started to figure out interviews. He had a list of people he wanted to interview — P.K. Subban, Jarome Iginla, Bryce Salvador — but chief on his list was Herb Carnegie, hailed as the greatest Black player to never play in the NHL. Mason contacted Carnegie’s daughter to find out if her father was available to talk to him and if he would.
Carnegie, 92, suffered from dementia, but when it came to talking about hockey and his playing days, he was focused and clear.
Mason described the interview with Carnegie, who died shortly after speaking with Mason, as the most meaningful. Carnegie’s hockey career began in the late 30s and ended when he retired in 1954, four years before O’Ree would step onto the ice for the Boston Bruins in 1958.
“92 years old, a guy who for all accounts people said should have been in the NHL. A guy who Willie O’Ree will even say to you, like ‘Yo, he should have been there way before me.’ And he still doesn’t get the credit he deserves from the hockey world, and I was able to at least give the hockey world a glimpse of who this guy was. So maybe somebody might say, ‘Oh, let me read a little more about his guy,’” Mason said. “He died carrying that anger of not ever getting the opportunity to play a game he loved just because of his color and I don’t think he could have believed that. I think for him — he was just like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m better than half these guys here and you won’t let me play because I look different from these guys.’
“I don’t think he could actually believe it.”
Mason described it as being a 7-foot-tall basketball player in a fast break with no one around and missing the dunk.
Mason thinks professional hockey would look different today if Carnegie had played in the NHL.
“So many missed opportunities and it only takes like little significant moments,” Mason said. “If Herb Carnegie would have played, he would have been at his prime. He would have been a fierce offensive force and with that comes the glory, with that comes the attention and with that comes the ‘I’m looking up to that guy. I want to do what that guy does.’
“If he was playing at a high level, and doing what they say he was already doing way better than half the guys in that league, how many young black kids would have said ‘I want to do that’? It would be a different world right now.”
Mason was looking to tell a story and maybe drum up some inspiration for future generations of Black hockey players. He said it’s important for young Black athletes to see players who look like them and maybe have shared life experiences. That doesn’t happen without films like “Soul on Ice.”
“It’s very important that films like mine are out there to start the conversation, because that’s exactly what it does, it starts the conversation,” Mason said. “It’s content creating and it’s so important that we tell our story. When we tell our story people get more interested.”
He likened it to the Academy Award-nominated drama “Hidden Figures,” based on a book by the same name that detailed the work of three Black women who helped NASA send Americans into space and to the moon. He asked how many more Black women would have gone into science, technology, engineering and math programs if that story had been known in the 60s and 70s.
“If you see something, you believe it, you can do it,” Mason said.
Mason said Black players in the league have a duty to try to inspire younger Black athletes and encourage them to keep at it.
“No one has to inspire the younger White hockey players to play. It’s being done all the time,” Mason said. “If you’re a Black hockey player and you’ve been blessed to play however many years in a league that’s predominantly White, I would guarantee that you probably had some issue growing up or noticed that you looked different and what that felt like — I think you have a duty to be out there and just encourage younger kids of color to either pick up the game or stay in the game and get better and take it to as far of a level as they possibly can, be it NHL, be it playing in Europe or playing in college or university and getting that education.”
Mason said it’s always said that hockey players are really tough, but that Black hockey players, especially those who played back in the day, were both physically and doubly mentally tough. He said a white hockey player may only be concerned about the game and their performance, but a Black player is thinking about that as well as what else they might meet on the ice at the hands of bigoted opponents.
“That’s an added piece of pressure that people don’t really think about and that’s where you have to give these guys who played in the league a lot more credit,” Mason said. “At the age of 10 they started hearing it, and at some point it stopped, but from the age of 10 to about 19, you’re catching that type of language toward you? Oh, man.”
The film shows the history of Black players in the game and talks to some of the greats, including O’Ree, and current players, but it also looks ahead to the future.
Mason wanted to focus on a young Black player and found Jaden Lindo, a Black winger playing in the Ontario Hockey League. He was introduced to Lindo’s father at a Toronto Marlies game, where Lindo was playing on the same team as future NHLers Connor McDavid and Josh Ho-Sang. Mason followed Lindo during his draft year and showed, through Lindo, the ups and downs of hockey, chronicling how the teen dealt with the celebrations and the tough breaks.
“He came from a really great family,” Mason said of Lindo.
Mason wanted to show his audience something he thought they’d never seen before in a dark-skinned athlete with a solid family unit. He also showed a Black hockey mom, a rarity on the NHL scene.
“That’s why I felt so proud of this film because I’m showing people something they’ve never seen in the world of hockey,” Mason said. “When the film came out there were so many parents hitting me up on Twitter saying, ‘Thank you for showing this. Now we know there are so many others out there who are just like us.’
“Definitely wanted to leave my mark and let people know what’s up,” he said.
His favorite part of working on the film was the experience of it all. The editing process was rewarding, he said, after spending three years shooting footage for the film and then trying to compress it to 90 minutes. He said remembering what he’d shot and putting his camera at certain angles was something all filmmakers can relate to.
The hardest part of putting together the film was getting the money to do it. He didn’t have any grants or investors, just a bit of crowdfunding. He sold his condo to help fund the film.
The reward came when he began showing his film and garnering praise for his first attempt. A film studies professor at the University of Southern California was shocked when he learned Soul on Ice was Mason’s first film and that he had no formal training.
His film got the attention of the NHL, which began showing it on the NHL Network after a screening in Washington, D.C., which was attended by O’Ree and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
The League marked Black History Month for the first time ever in 2019 with a mobile museum dedicated to Black athletes and others in the game. It also hosted other special events around the U.S. including the Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend hosted by the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation and the Philadelphia Flyers. The month also featured video stories from retired and current Black NHL players and a feature on Black Girl Hockey Club.
Mason wanted to start a conversation and he accomplished what he set out to do.
He said connecting the dots between people of color and the game of hockey is something that needs to be done because there are people out there who believe they’re an island on their own and they have no one to communicate with. He said that’s part of what attracted him to the Black Girl Hockey Club.
“Just imagine these guys when they were kids playing and they looked up into the stands, they’ve never seen so many Black people. Never,” Mason said. “When the Black Girl Hockey Club went to Washington, that’s the first time Devante (Smith-Pelly) seen so many Black people come to watch him play a game. He’s never seen that.”
Mason’s already looking ahead to his next project, again about hockey but this time focusing on the Black women of the game — women like Angela James, one of the first Black women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“She comes from the hood. People don’t know that. She comes from the hood in Toronto,” Mason said. “I really want people to hear about her story. I just think that Black women have a presence in the game, be it working in the league or with the team, be it the Black Girl Hockey Club, being Black hockey moms, young girls playing, girls playing in college or university, girls playing professionally, like — they’re doing something, and they’re a minority. So, if I can, I’ve got to make sure everybody knows that they’re out there and make sure that they know that they’re out there as well.
“So Black women in hockey can say ‘Oh, OK! OK! We’re out here, too!”