Nearly a century before he became the third black man to play in the National Hockey League, Bill Riley’s grandfather skated with the Amherst Royals.
The Royals and other teams in the Coloured Hockey League of the late 19th and early 20th century are being recognized by Canada Post with the unveiling of a stamp as part of African Heritage Month celebrations.
Riley's grandfather played with the Royals in the early 1900s while his grandson would go on to play with the Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets of the NHL in the 1970s before enjoying a successful career in the AHL
Elizabeth Cooke-Sumbu’s grandfather, Frank Cook, played for the Royals, as did many of the ancestors of those African Nova Scotians who would play for other Amherst teams through history or professionally in the National Hockey League, American Hockey League and other levels – men like Riley, Craig Martin and Mark MacFarlane.
“Little did they know the influence of their own relatives in their hockey careers and that of many others,” said Cooke-Sumbu, the executive director of the Cumberland African Nova Scotian Association. “I’m pretty certain it was Bill Riley’s grandfather, Fred Riley, who played on the Amherst Royals. When you look at the rosters (former WHA player and Amherst native) Alton White’s family, Mark’s family and Craig’s family all had relatives who played with this team.”
She said her grandfather didn’t tell her anything about the Royals.
“He never talked to me about it. Where segregation was still part of their life with this particular sport it wasn’t something they were promoting, even if people within our own community were very proud of,” she said. “It was carried within the community, but there really wasn’t much done to promote the fact our league was better than the white leagues or anything like that.”
The last game of the 1903 season took place in Amherst at the Aberdeen Rink, making it the first coloured hockey game ever to played in Amherst with the Royals and the Truro Victorians playing to 1-1 tie.
After Joe Parsons of the Royals scored to tie the game, the Truro captain pulled his team off the ice saying it was not a goal.
Video of the stamp launch from the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia:
Meanwhile, Sumbu is impressed with the stamp.
“I was quite impressed with the stamp. I hadn’t seen the final version when they visited Amherst three weeks ago,” said Cooke-Sumbu, who attended the unveiling in Halifax on Jan. 23. “It was certainly well done.”
She said the honour is long-deserved and she didn’t realize the magnitude of the history of the league and the contributions of Amherst’s own African Nova Scotian community to the league and its part of Nova Scotia hockey history.
“I heard about how the slapshot and the butterfly were invented by players in the league. I have a nephew who played goalie and he loved to do the butterfly when he was making saves,” Cooke-Sumbu said. “It’s interesting to think that’s where it came from.”
While Amherst’s hockey history is well known through the exploits of teams like present day Junior A Ramblers, the Senior Ramblers of the 1950s and 1960s as well as the Intermediate St. Pats of the 1930s and 1940, lesser known were the Royals, even if many in the African Nova Scotian community had relatives who played with the club.
“The Amherst Royals, in checking out the 1891 census and 1901 census, everyone listed on the team’s roster has a connection to families still living here,” Cooke-Sumbu said. “That’s pretty exciting. There are many people in this community who had a grandfather or great-grandfather, or great-great-grandfather who played. Now we’re seeing the younger kids play.”
“In the background there have been a number of people working on raising the profile of the contributions of black Canadians to hockey and one of those things was recognizing Maritime black hockey was in existence before the rest of Canada."
Cooke-Sumbu said plans are underway to host an unveiling in Amherst on Feb. 20.
She said a group of people have been working over the years to research black athletes in Canada as well as in Nova Scotia, and one of the areas that’s being looked into is black hockey players
“In the background there have been a number of people working on raising the profile of the contributions of black Canadians to hockey and one of those things was recognizing Maritime black hockey was in existence before the rest of Canada,” she said.
Cooke-Sumbu said the book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925 by George and Darrill Fosty did a lot of research on the league while two years ago, when Amherst hosted the induction of Riley, Martin and MacFarlane to the Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame, it was suggested the Amherst Royals be recognized with a lifetime achievement award.
The Royals were recognized with a Pioneer Award.
“We did that without realizing really how important that was or what it meant,” she said. “When Canada Post came forward with the stamp commemoration and asked us what we’d like to contribute, myself, Brian Martin (CANSA president) and Tim Cooke, all participated in the interview and gave what information we had. It was very exciting to see what was done here as the Amherst Royals was equally important to what was done in Truro and Halifax.”
In the late 19th century, Baptist Church leaders believed all Black hockey would be a great way to attract young black men to the church to strengthen their religious path. Games became community events that brought mixed audiences together in the stands; and post-game meals united black players from different communities. There was no predetermined game schedule. Rather, teams challenged each other to matches by telegraph or by placing ads in local newspapers.