They did it!
When last we checked in with Damon Kwame Mason and Everett Fitzhugh they were busy chasing separate hockey dreams. Mason was attempting to make a documentary chronicling the history and growth of blacks in hockey and Fitzhugh was trying to land a gig as a professional hockey play-by-play announcer.
These days, Fitzhugh is proudly calling goals and hockey’s rough-and-tumble action at home and road games for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL, his latest stop on a journey that he hopes will lead to a National Hockey League broadcasting career.
And after nearly four years, spending about $200,000 of mostly his own money, and shooting more than 50 hours of footage, Mason can finally call himself a filmmaker – and a pretty good one. His “Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future” won a People’s Choice Award at the Edmonton International Film Festival earlier this month.
“I knew I was going to finish. Did I know when? No.” Mason told me recently. “There were times I was frustrated – the lack of money, sometimes the lack of support – but I knew, eventually, I’d get it done only because I started out on that mission and I don’t like giving up.”
Making the doc was business and personal for Mason, who hopes the movie will help him make the transition from working in radio to a career in film. As a Canadian, he felt a duty to tell the stories of black players from back in the day and today who sometimes faced racial cruelty and even death threats just for trying to pursue their passion.
“Especially the guys in the 70s and the 80s who were the only ones in the dressing room or the ones that would go to an arena and everyone is yelling ‘nigger’ or ‘spook’ at them,” said Mason, a Toronto native. “They had a choice: Do you want to give up or do you want to continue to do something that you love. And that’s what they did, they continued doing something that they loved. And that’s what I did in making this film.”
The film features chilling footage of a CBS News profile of Val James, the NHL’s first U.S.-born black player, enduring chants of “Spook! Spook! Spook!” as he’s playing a minor league game south of the Mason-Dixon line in Salem, Va., in 1981. One proud “fan” carried a watermelon to the game in James’ honor.
Mason covers the waterfront of black hockey history in his documentary, from the all-black league that played in the Canadian Maritimes from the 1890s to the 1920s, to the great Herb Carnegie’s heartbreak from being unable reach the NHL because of his race, to Willie O’Ree finally cracking that color barrier, to the Subban family having three boys drafted by NHL teams.
He crisscrossed North America to interview a bevy of current and former NHL players of color and their families including James, who played for the Buffalo Sabres, O’Ree, who broke into the NHL with the Boston Bruins in 1958, Mike Marson, who became the league’s second black player when he joined the Washington Capitals in 1974-75, and Grant Fuhr, the all-world goaltender who won five Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers.
Joel Ward of the San Jose Sharks, Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers, P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks’ Trevor Daley are among the current black NHLers who appear in the film.
James says he’s no film critic but he gave Mason’s effort five stars are seeing it at a private screening in Toronto earlier this month.
“Kwame has put together a piece of history,” he said. “It was very enlightening and filled in that gap that most people ask: why, when, and where did (these players) come from. Anyone who’s interested in this type of thing, it’s like candy.”
Mason’s finished work on the film but the work of getting “Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future” to a theater or television network near you has only just begun. He’s searching Canada and the U.S. for a buyer that will show his product. If one doesn’t materialize, Mason says he’ll still be at peace.
“There were a lot of sacrifices,” he told me. “I’m in the hole – all my money is going out. I hope that some money will come back in. If it doesn’t, I can rest my head and say I accomplished something for my nation and for black Canadians as a celebration.”
It seems fitting that Fitzhugh is living his hockey broadcast dream in the city associated with the television classic “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
“It’s awesome, I still can’t believe it,” Fitzhugh told me. “Everything has happened so fast. I’ve been fortunate to move up the ladder so quickly.”
When we visited with Fitzhugh in March 2014 he was working public relations in the Chicago headquarters of the United States Hockey League, a Tier I junior league that sends many of its players on to NCAA Division I college hockey careers.
A Detroit native, Fitzhugh called 120 hockey games while he was a student at Bowling Green State University and thirsted to do more. He got his chance last season broadcasting for the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms.
“If I had to name one person who I may take some tips from or take a little bit from is Jim Hughson who does the “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcast and did the NHL video game series for quite a while,” Fitzhugh said. “Very, very deep voice, very technical, which I love. He’s fun to listen to.”
When the Cyclones came calling with an offer to work the team’s home and away games online, he jumped at the chance to move one rung closer to an NHL broadcasting career.
“I thought I was going to be in Youngstown for three, four, five years, have to struggle, scrap and all that other stuff,” he said. “To be able to make it to the ECHL at 26 and get back on the path I thought I would be on when I left college – the two previous radio guys at Bowling Green before me, they all went straight to the ECHL from Bowling Green. I couldn’t even get a radio job out of college. So to be on this path is a really good feeling.”
But there are still dues to be paid. Fitzhugh’s official title with the Cyclones is Director of Public Relations and Broadcasting, a lofty handle that means he does everything. He writes the press release, tweets the tweets, works with Cincinnati sportscasters in arranging interviews with players, handles web content, and maybe even helps load and unload the team bus – all before and after putting on the headset and calling the game.
And, like Cyclone players whose action he describes on air, Fitzhugh travels to road games minor league-style on the team bus.
“I think this year our longest bus ride in terms of mileage is going to be down to Allen, Texas, that’s got to be about 17-18 hours from here,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be taking planes until I get to the NHL.”