The roots of organized Black hockey are found in baseball. By the mid-1880s, all-Black baseball clubs were established throughout Nova Scotia as well as other parts of eastern Canada. Clubs competed as so-called “barn-storming” teams touring the Canadian countryside. Clubs became year-round semiprofessional sports organizations with many of their members becoming two-sport athletes.
The genesis of the Coloured Hockey League (CHL) appears to have come from the actions of four men: Pastor James Borden of Dartmouth Church; James A.R. Kinney, a Cornwallis Street Church layman and later the first black graduate of the Maritime Business College; James Robinson Johnston, first black graduate of the Dartmouth University law program; and Henry Sylvester Williams, a Trinidadian law student at Dalhousie University and later the founder of the first Pan-African Conference (1900).
Influenced by the writings of contemporary African-American leader Booker T. Washington, these four Nova Scotians organized the league's first games and established its purpose.
By the early 20th century, the CHL had expanded from a humble three-team league in 1895 — which included its maiden club, the Dartmouth Jubilees — to involve newly formed regional challengers. Some of these had established baseball roots: the Africville Sea-Sides, Truro Victorias, Charlottetown West End Rangers, Amherst Royals and Hammond Plains Moss Backs.
The league was organized as a challenge cup system, with the previous year’s winner retaining the title of champion, while contending teams vied to earn the right to compete for the title. It was a structure akin to that of a boxing championship.
Teams were only permitted arena access after the white leagues were finished with their seasons. As a result, official league games were generally conducted between late January and early March, at which point the natural arena ice would become too poor to conduct matches. Due to a limited eight-week playing window, championships included only the select three or four top regional teams participating in a half dozen games each in order to determine top honours. Inevitably, disputes arose as to which teams were given the rights to officially compete for a championship.
Games were played with no official rules other than the Bible. The result was, ironically and unintentionally, a more physical and innovative style of hockey. By all accounts, championship matches were on par with best of the white teams. Fast-moving and robust, innovations such as a goaltender dropping to his knees to stop a puck and an early form of the slapshot were pioneered decades prior to professional hockey league play — in which both such actions were prohibited.
The meteoric rise of the CHL reached its zenith between 1900-05, when games often out-drew those of white counterparts. Attendance reached as high as 1,200 spectators for the Inter-Provincial Maritime Championship between the CHL champion Africville Sea-Sides and the Charlottetown West End Rangers in Halifax.
A dispute over expanded rail service to the port of Halifax in the first five years of the 20th century would cause many hockey players and their families in Africville, the Black community in north-end Halifax, to be at odds with provincial and city officials over a proposed railroad annexation of their land. A five-year legal battle ensued in which league organizer James Robinson Johnston represented the families of the Black community in a bid to halt the annexation.
During the legal battle, some rink owners refused to rent out their hockey rinks to the league or to any Black teams. Other rink owners agreed to only do so in late March when the natural ice surface was already beginning to melt. Local newspaper coverage of the league also disappeared virtually overnight, with only one article penned between 1905-06. With a poor playing surface slowing the game and no means of promotion, the league was forced to move back onto the local ponds, effectively killing the CHL as an economic and social Black movement. The last recorded newspaper account of the league during this era appeared in 1911.
In 1921, the CHL was reformed with three teams, the Truro Victorias, the Africville Sea-Sides and a team of select Halifax and Dartmouth players under the banner of the Halifax All-Stars. While Truro and Halifax had a new and younger generation of Black players, the Africville team competed with virtually the same roster that it boasted in 1901, with many players now in their forties. Unlike the earlier CHL, the new league played under standardized hockey rules.
Although the CHL reemerged to some prominence, its social and religious aims were largely forgotten. All the original church and intellectual organizers were by this time deceased. After 1925, teams came and went with new teams forming, sometimes for only brief periods, only to disappear as quickly as they had emerged.
News coverage also eventually faded away again as attention shifted from regional leagues to the National Hockey League (NHL). Black teams such as the Halifax Diamonds, Halifax Wizards, New Glasgow Speed Boys, Africville Brown Bombers and Truro Sheiks, along with others, would compete at various points into the 1930s but would find themselves long forgotten in the collective consciousness by the time of the Second World War.