William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past nine years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today, he profiles Seaside Hockey, a Black-run program that hopes to revive youth hockey in a section of Scarborough, Ontario, the home of several Black NHL players.
Kirk Brooks has been scouring the basketball courts of north Scarborough, Ontario, this summer, looking for hockey players.
Brooks is a co-founder of Seaside Hockey, a Black-run program created in 2020 with a mission of reviving hockey in a section of a Toronto suburb with a rich history of producing Black NHL players.
“I’ve started … looking at the young kids playing (basketball) that have no money,” Brooks said. “I talk to their parents and say, ‘We’ve got a program coming up, it’s ice, do you have an interest?’ They say, ‘Yes, but it’s too expensive.’ We say, ‘We can give you equipment, subsidized registration. We’d like to have little Ryan try it.'”
So would the Greater Toronto Hockey Association. The world’s largest minor hockey league added Seaside Hockey to its membership in July as part of its effort to make the sport more diverse and inclusive.
“This group came to us with a really solid plan and a strong leadership that is dedicated and passionate about bringing hockey back to that community,” said Scott Oakman, the GTHL’s executive director and chief operating officer. “It was a really good fit.”
Seaside is the brainchild of Brooks, the founder of the minority-oriented Skillz Hockey school, his son Nathaniel Brooks, a coach at Ryerson University in Toronto, and former NHL forward Anthony Stewart.
The program’s name pays homage to the Colored Hockey League of the Canadian Maritimes that was founded in 1895 and operated until the 1930s, and was comprised of the sons and grandsons of escaped United States slaves.
Nathaniel Brooks said Seaside hopes to register 50 to 70 players this fall for three hours of developmental training per week run by professional coaches.
The program will have house league teams that bear the names of Colored Hockey League teams like the Jubilees, Eurekas, Stanleys and Moss Backs. The program plans to have an Under-7 team compete in the GTHL within three seasons.
“What we want to try to do is run a professionally-run, Black-managed, not for profit minor (hockey) organization that can be used as a blueprint,” Kirk Brooks said. “One of the things we’re trying to do is create a safe space. When a young brother or sister comes in and they’ve got dreads, or twists or a big Afro or lines in their hair, baggy pants, we provide a safe space where these children can come, be themselves, let down their hair, have some fun and build confidence playing hockey.”
But for now, it’s all about getting players, which has Kirk Brooks pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, chatting up school principals and stopping young inline skaters on the street.
“We’ve got a list of players already that know that Seaside is coming,” he said. “And there are thousands and thousands of kids out here in this neighborhood running around every single day. You know what they say in presidential elections, ‘the ground game is what wins.’ Our ground game is really strong.”
Recruiting players in Scarborough was easier when the area boasted more than 10,000 GTHL players nearly two decades ago, Oakman said.
The area gained a reputation as an incubator of Black hockey talent. Mike Marson, who became the NHL’s second Black player (after Willie O’Ree in 1958) following his selection by the Washington Capitals in the second round (No. 19) of the 1974 NHL Draft, former goalie Kevin Weekes, former forwards Joel Ward, Anson Carter, Stewart and his younger brother Chris Stewart and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds each trace their hockey roots to Scarborough.
Several current and former white NHL players also hail from Scarborough, including Montreal Canadiens forward Tyler Toffoli, Rick Middleton, Rick Tocchet, Mike Ricci and Ron Tugnutt.
Scarborough’s Black hockey pipeline has slowed in recent years because of changes in the community’s demographics, which prompted hockey associations to consolidate, centralize and essentially retreat from north Scarborough, Oakman said.
The perception hockey is unwelcoming to players of color coupled with the cost of playing the sport are key factors in the decline, Anthony Stewart said.
“It’s a big thing about the (racist) name-calling and stuff like that, but there’s a whole demographic of kids that aren’t able to play the game of hockey just based on the cost,” he said. “The tragedy right now in today’s game is that, unless things change, there can’t be another Wayne Simmonds or Chris Stewart or Anthony Stewart just based on the prices.
“Immigrant families coming over, how are they going to afford $3,000 or $4,000 for hockey? Their parents are going to say, ‘pick up a soccer ball, pick up a baseball, pick up a football or a basketball.'”
Seaside hopes to make hockey more affordable with the help of sponsors like the Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities and through individual player sponsorship programs.
“Through this grassroots program, we’re going to get them on the ice and they’re going to have elite training and elite programming at a fraction of the cost,” Anthony Stewart said.