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There was a time when Kendrick Douglas would have had no idea who those unsmiling men were, staring out from the Canadian Post stamp unveiled Thursday at the Black Cultural Centre of Nova Scotia in Cherry Brook.
Until he was a teenager, you see, he had no inkling that there was once an ice hockey team known as the Halifax Eurekas — or that, in the year 1904, that squad was midway through its three-year dominance of something known as the Colored Hockey League.
Even now the faces are a mystery to him: Herbert Allison, who suited up in goal for the Eurekas, but also the dexterous George Adams, who was able to play virtually every position, Charlie Tolliver and Walter Saunders, a pair of forwards, and Aldophus Skinner and John Mansfield, whose positions, after all of this time, no one is quite able to recall.
By name, at least, he knew one person on the stamp: league organizer James Robinson Johnston -- the first black to graduate from Dalhousie University’s law school -- since Douglas is an alumnae of the same faculty and institution, where his father also happened to be the third African-Nova Scotian law school grad.
But that isn’t really what mattered Thursday.
What mattered to this former university hockey standout and now human rights lawyer was what the new stamp symbolized.
“I felt a sense of pride to see that all those years ago people who looked like me were playing the game,” Douglas told me.
On Thursday he and everyone else at the launch heard all about it. How the first slap shot may have occurred on the outdoor rinks and ponds where the all-black league played in the early 1900s, which is also where the first goalie anywhere is said to have dropped to the ice to stop a puck.
The names of the teams from places like Halifax, Truro, New Glasgow, Amherst, Dartmouth, Africville and Charlottetown, are on the face of the new stamp: the Jubilees, Stanleys, Victorias, Rangers and Royals.
Some of the handles were subversive: a team from Hammonds Plains, for example, was called the Mossbacks since escaped slaves riding the Underground Railroad were said to look for moss growing on the north side of a tree to indicate the way to Canada.
Whichever team they played for, according to Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925, the indignities were everywhere. Much of the newspaper coverage was downright racist. If they got rink time, it was when all the white leagues had wound down, ensuring the ice was slow.
Even then there were players who could fly. One of them was Edgar (King) Mansfield, who was good enough that some NHL scouts once came down to have a look at him.
According to his grandson, Mike, one day someone from the Detroit Red Wings showed up at a scrimmage and asked where this “King-of-the-ice guy” was.
Someone pointed towards Mansfield. The scout looked at him briefly.
Then, since Willie O’Ree had yet to break professional hockey’s colour barrier, he said, “Oh, you didn’t tell us that.”
King taught his grandson to play on the lakes of Dartmouth, where, even as an old-timer, he could outskate the younger man.
All these years later, his 62-year-old grandson is still playing a couple of times a week with his beer league buddies.
So is Digby-born Lee Francis, vice-president of the Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame Society, who has been lacing up in the Halifax-Dartmouth Old-Timers Hockey League for three decades.
Francis, who was at Thursday’s event, has no direct personal link back to the Colored Hockey League. But six guys on his Wednesday night team do.
No one can say that the retired social worker is not doing his part to keep the league’s historic lineage alive.
Thanks to Francis, on Feb. 29 at 8:30 p.m., the mists of time will part at Halifax’s Centennial Arena. There, as the crowd buzzes, the Halifax Brown Bombers and Charlottetown Rangers will once again face off.
“It will be our 15th year,” says Francis, who told me that players come from as far away as the United States to fill out the team rosters.
And why wouldn’t they?
A stamp is nice. But those men named Adams, Mansfield, Saunders and Tolliver endured much for a game they loved but did not seem to love them back.
Their legacy is a living thing. Come to the Centennial Arena on the last Saturday in February and see.