When former Capitals forward Anson Carter broke into the NHL in 1996, he made a promise to his parents.
“They said, ‘Listen, there aren’t many players in the league that look like you and you don’t want to mess things up for the people behind you,’” Carter said Wednesday night before watching the U.S. premiere of “Soul On Ice: Past Present & Future” at Landmark E Street Cinema, a few blocks from Verizon Center.
“I just wanted to make sure I kept my nose clean. Could I fight? Yes. But I purposely chose not to go out of my way to fight because I didn’t want kids coming up behind me thinking to be a black player in this league you had to fight your way in. I wanted them to think I could be a goal scorer.”
Carter, now 41, went on to score 202 goals in 674 NHL games with the Bruins, Capitals, Oilers, Rangers, Kings, Canucks, Blue Jackets and Hurricanes. As an executive producer of Kwame Mason’s documentary on the history of black players in professional hockey, Carter is hoping “Soul On Ice” will inspire young black athletes to play the game he grew up loving.
“We wanted to create an educational tool we could take around to kids and show them, ‘Listen, there’s all these black players who have played in the league,” Carter said. “They look like you, talk like you, sound like you.
“There are tough guys, checkers, goaltenders, goal scorers, stay-at-home defensemen, offensive defensemen. We come in all shapes and forms and we play all different roles on teams. We’re not pigeon-holed as one kind of player.”
Nearly 200 guests, including NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, Capitals coach Barry Trotz, NHL pioneer Willie O’Ree and dozens of players from the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club started by Neal Henderson in 1976, watched the private screening of “Soul On Ice,” which chronicles more than 100 years of blacks playing professional hockey, dating back to the Colored Hockey League in Nova Scotia in the late 1900s.
“The slaves were the first to start playing hockey and the National Hockey League has adopted some of the moves the slaves were doing, such as (goaltenders) flopping to their knees for the butterfly and the slapshot,” Henderson said. “All of these things come from the slaves.”
The movie also tells the story of O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958, at the age of 23, when the Boston Bruins called him up to play against the Montreal Canadiens. O’Ree went on to play 21 seasons of professional hockey, including 45 games in the NHL, despite losing sight in his right eye at the age of 19 when he was hit by a teammate’s slapshot.
“I kept it a secret, I only told my younger sister, and I swore her to secrecy,” said O’Ree, now the NHL's Director of Youth Development and ambassador for Hockey Is For Everyone. “I tell these young boys and girls you can do anything you set your minds to. If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.”
The film also documents the black players who followed O’Ree – from Val James, Mike Marson and Tony McKegney to Joel Ward, Wayne Simmonds and Trevor Daly – and the economic hardships and racism they experienced in a sport dominated by whites.
“It’s a history that is bittersweet for us,” Leonsis said. “It’s one we need to never forget.”
"It’s outstanding," Bettman said. "Frankly, it’s a story that needed to be told, but not many people even imagined it could exist. From a league standpoint, the beauty of this story being told speaks volumes about what we think our game represents. The lessons this game can teach you in terms of hard work and team work and diligence and the importance of an education and the importance of being physically fit. That to us is as important as what our great players do every night."
Mason, who sold his condo in Edmonton to help fund the three-year project, said he hopes the film brings a heightened awareness to the role black players had in paving the way for today’s stars.
“I didn’t want these kids to grow up and think it’s P.K Subban and that’s where it started,” Mason said. “I wanted them to know that there is a long-standing history in this game. In 20 years, the game is going to look a lot different and it’s going to be the biggest game in North America because it’s going to be so inclusive.”
Carter and Henderson said they hope Mason is right, saying they believe it’s only a matter of time before NHL rosters are filled with black players, instead of just one or two per team.
“It’s coming,” Carter said. “I would say another 10 years or so. I think it helps having high-profile guys like P.K. Subban and Wayne Simmonds and Seth Jones doing good things. I think it’s going to take players like that staying visible for the right reasons.”
Henderson, 78, said he hopes to see the day when a player from Fort Dupont, pulls on an NHL sweater.
“That’s what’s coming next,” he said with a broad smile. “We’ll have one of these kids playing in the NHL.”