Black Mafia, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Fred Sasaskamoose, Josh Ho-Sang, Montreal Canadiens, Owen Sound Attack, Saginaw Spirit, Skillz Black Aces, Toronto, Willie O'Ree
With names like the Black Aces and Black Mafia and a logo featuring a smiling dude with sunglasses and an afro, you knew that these teams were going to be just a little different.
But different was what the Skillz Black Aces and Black Mafia were all about. The early squads were Toronto-based summer youth hockey teams comprised of elite, National Hockey League draft-eligible players born in 1995 and 1996 – and almost all of them black.
The teams barnstormed summer hockey tournaments in the United States and Canada and consistently dominated opponents with their speed and skill.
“It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life,” said Windsor Spitfires forward Josh Ho-Sang, who skated for four summers with the Skillz teams before joining the Ontario Hockey League franchise. His father, Wayne Ho-Sang also served as a team coach.
The Black Aces and Black Mafia alumni reads like a page from “Who’s Who Among Up-And-Coming Hockey Players”: Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenseman Darnell Nurse, the Edmonton Oilers’ 2013 first-round pick last summer; Kitchener Rangers forward Justin Bailey, a Buffalo Sabres second-round pick; forward Stephen Harper of the Erie Otters; and Bellville Bulls defenseman Jordan Subban, the Vancouver Canucks’ fourth-round pick and the younger brother of Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban and Boston Bruins goaltending prospect Malcolm Subban.
And players hoping to hear NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman call their name at next summer’s draft in Philadelphia includes forwards Ho-Sang, Jeremiah Addison of the Saginaw Spirit, Jaden Lindo of the Owen Sound Attack, Keegan Iverson of the Portland Winterhawks, and Cordell James and defenseman C.J. Garcia of the Barrie Colts.
Like his players, Skillz President and Coach Cyril Bollers has professional hockey dreams. He hopes the progress of his players – along with him obtaining the requisite certifications, credentials, and experience – will lead to a coaching job behind the bench of a major junior, American Hockey League or NHL team.
“I have ambitions and I’m hoping that I get an opportunity,” Bollers told me recently. “With the face of hockey changing, and more visible minorities becoming involved, eventually it has to change at the coaching level as well.”
The success of Bollers’ summer teams over the years has attracted the attention of the broader hockey community to the point that the squads are no longer just a black thing.
White players like Brendan Lemieux, a Barrie Colts left wing and son of retired NHL agitator supreme Claude Lemieux, and Chad Hefferman, a Bellville Bulls left winger and stepson of former Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers sniper Steve Larmer, have played for Bollers.
“Guys who all played (pro hockey) were sending their kids to come to play for us,” Bollers said. “We integrated (with) good hockey players. It doesn’t matter to us – black or white or purple. We’re just a good hockey team.”
Bollers teams are a legacy of a Skillz hockey program that was created to give minority and disadvantaged Canadian youth the exposure and the opportunity to play the expensive sport of hockey.
The program helped produce a talented crop of NHL players: Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals; Chris Stewart of the St. Louis Blues; Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers; and retired NHLers Anson Carter, Jamal Mayers, and Hockey Night in Canada/NBC Sports Network/NHL Network’s Kevin Weekes, who went on to help underwrite Skillz.
In the years that followed, Bollers added the competitive summer teams to the program. The initial squads wore their ethnicity with pride – and with a purpose.
“We wanted to make a statement. The statement originally was we had all black coaches, all the kids on the team were black, and that was great,” Bollers said. “We wanted to prove that, yes, African-Canadians can coach at this level and that our kids could play at this level.”
Racial attitudes have come a long way since Fred Sasakamoose became the NHL’s first Native/First Nation player during the 1953-54 season and Willie O’Ree became the league’s first black player in 1958.
But minority players are still occasionally subjected to stereotyping and racial taunts by
fans, teammates, opposing players, coaches, and on-ice officials - from youth hockey to the professional ranks.
Look no further than the torrent of racist emails from so-called Bruins fans after Ward scored a Game 7 overtime goal that vanquished Boston from the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. Or the Flyers-Detroit Red Wings 2011 preseason game in London, Ont., where an alleged fan threw a banana towards Simmonds during a shootout.
“People don’t understand what our guys go through, they don’t get it, even I don’t truly get what these guys go through,” said Amy Iverson, Keegan Iverson’s mother.
The Skillz elite teams offer is a change of pace for young players of color: a respite from being the only one on the team or the player who has to conform to a locker room culture where country and rock music are often rule, Bollers said.
“From the get-go, you walked into our dressing room the one thing you’d noticed we had reggae playing, we had Bob Marley, Caribbean music playing,” Bollers said. “So when we first started out, that was a of letting their hair down so to speak, culture, enjoying themselves.”
And how did the predominately black teams go over with opposing players and fans?
“There were some people who had problems with it and there were some people who thought it was great,” Ho-Sang recalled. “Sometimes when we played against teams from the (United) States there was a little more hostility, right, because I find the States are a little more race-conscious than Canada. But everything was good, we never had any problems.”
But Karen Buscaglia, Justin Bailey’s mother, recalled that the Black Mafia name was too much for one opposing parent. He angrily removed the name from the board at a tournament, she said.
“One of the dads from the other team was, like, “Stupid coons,” and erased it,” said Buscaglia, who’s white and Italian-American. “I was like ‘Did that just happen?’ I was so blown away by that. If anybody else called themselves whatever the name was, nobody would have had an issue with it. But because the team was predominately black team, and they were winning, and they were good…it is what it is.”
The “Black Aces” moniker has a rich hockey history. In the 1940s, former Bruins great Eddie Shore owned the minor league Springfield Indians and used the name to describe players who were trying to work their way back from injury or out of the doghouse.
The name was also given to the famous all-black 1940s hockey line of the Sherbrooke Saints that featured Herb Carnegie – regarded by many as the greatest player never to play in the NHL – brother Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre.
Skillz players and parents describe Bollers, 44, as one part Hockey Hall of Fame Coach Scotty Bowman, one part NFL Hall of Fame Coach Vince Lombardi, and one part Sunday preacher. He instills in his players a hockey tactician’s knowledge, the X’s and O’s of the game. He’s a demanding, no-nonsense task-master who is quick to reward fine play and quick to punish poor performance with a seat on the bench. He’s a fiery motivational speaker a la televangelists T.D. Jakes or Joel Osteen.
“After one tournament, the locker room was like a Baptist church on a Sunday morning because it was like (Bollers ) was giving a sermon,”Buscaglia recalled. “He had such a high energy, such excitement for the kids, such a love of the game. And he wasn’t easy on the kids, either. He really pushed you to be your best and you earned your time. It was just a different level of hockey and the kids were having fun while doing it.”
When Keegan Iverson saw how much the fun Black Aces were having during a tournament in Toronto about four summers ago, he desperately wanted to join the team. When he received an invite from Bollers, Iverson’s mother packed the family into the car the following summer and made a two-day trek from Minnesota to join the Bollers’ team at a tournament in Upstate New York.
“It was a real powerful experience for Keegan,” his mother said. “It was just a different vibe. “C.J. is a strong personality of a guy. He instills that it’s okay to be good, it’s okay to be the best.”
She thinks the Black Aces influence on Keegan is reflected in the NHL players he’s chosen as role models. When HFBoards asked him during this year’s Ivan Hlinka Tournament who those players are, Iverson smiled broadly and said Simmonds and Boston Bruins forward Jarome Iginla.”