Growing up in hockey-crazed Toronto in the late 1970s, Damon Kwame Mason adored Guy Lafleur, a Montreal Canadiens star and eventual Hockey Hall of Famer. So, being a kid, he pretended to be him in games of road hockey.
“No, you can’t be Lafleur,” one kid told him, Mason recounted to The Hockey News, because Lafleur was white. And Mason wasn't. He wasn't upset, but he felt limited, and as his friends became predominantly black, he dropped the sport altogether.
He would grow up to be a radio personality, until 2012, when another hockey dream presented itself. He quit his job, sold his condominium and began work on "Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future," a documentary that explores the history and impact of black athletes in hockey.
The film, which won an audience-choice award among documentary features at the 2015 Edmonton International Film Festival and will air on NHL Network on Feb. 24, will be shown at Morgan State on Friday. The free screening will begin at 11 a.m. at the University Student Center Theater, 1700 E. Cold Spring Lane, and Mason will hold a question-and-answer session afterward.
He spoke with The Baltimore Sun on Thursday about his experience making the film, what it means to be a mixed-race player in hockey, why you shouldn't put yourself in a "little box," and more.
You’re a first-time documentarian, so how did your experience of researching this subject and your self-education in filmmaking compare?
It’s really interesting because along the journey of doing this film, I kind of looked at the similarities between my process of creating this film and some of the guys who played in the ’60s or the ’70s or the ’80s.
What I have found in doing my interviews and research, a lot of these guys persevered through adversity. They went out there just for the love of playing this game of hockey. That’s all they wanted to do, just play hockey. But they found that there were so many different adversities that came along with doing that, and some fell off to the wayside and some were able to carry on their careers. …
This is my first film. I have no formal training, never went to school for it. I didn’t have the big budget. I didn’t have the big support from the studio or television station. … I put all my money toward doing this passion project that I had. The fact that I always wanted to do a film, this was something that I knew that I could relate to, that I had knowledge about, that I could actually put together.
So along that journey, there were so many obstacles that I had to go through just to get to the finish line, it made me just again think of these guys that played. Whenever I’d have these self-doubts within myself over the years that I didn’t know how I was going to complete and wanting to give up, I thought: “Well, these guys never gave up.”
When you were going through all of your research, did you find that there were any attempts at what you have finished, or was this in some ways uncharted territory?
As far as my subject matter goes, the history and contributions of black athletes in hockey, this is the first one.
Did that surprise you?
Kind of. I mean, there was a documentary for [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] in Canada called “Too Colourful for the League,” which is about a guy who was a subject in my film, Herb Carnegie. They were trying to get him into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and they picked up a few little stories here and there on top of it. But that was back in, like, 1999.
So I was very surprised that nobody really jumped on it, but at the same time, I wasn’t surprised. Because [first], hockey is mainly big in Canada, so for somebody to take on a journey of doing a film like that, you’re more than likely going to have to be Canadian.
Now, it’s black history. I don’t expect white people to be interested in our history. I don’t look to white people to tell our stories. So now you have to say to yourself, “How many black Canadian filmmakers that are doing documentaries that like hockey will do a story like that?” It is very, very small. So right there, it tells you that if I didn’t do it, who was going to do it?
Is there a hockey player now that you think best exemplifies the plight and the promise of black hockey players now in NHL?
I think they all do. I can’t just pick one. Most people you ask that question to, the first person they’re going to say is P.K. Subban, who plays for the Montreal Canadiens. But P.K. Subban is a microcosm to the whole movement of black athletes playing hockey. …
But the reason why I say all of them is because all these guys are playing in different markets. Wayne Simmonds playing in Philadelphia. You’ve got Trevor Daley playing in Pittsburgh now. You’ve got Joel Ward playing in San Jose. They are all in these different areas, and being in these different areas, there’s young black kids in these areas that have a love for the game that are seeing them, and by seeing them, they’re inspired by them, and when they’re inspired by them, they’re going to want to be like them or at least be able to say: “Well, if he could do it, then I can do it.”
As America and Canada become more and more heterogeneous, do you think there will be degrees to which mixed-race hockey players are treated any differently than dark-skinned black players? Or will even mixed-race players be seen as black hockey players?
I think they’ll still see you as that, because unless you’re that light-skinned that you look white, they’re still going to consider you a player of color. I don’t believe that they’ll be treated any differently.
I think the only people that are probably going to have the difficulties is maybe the mother or father, who are white, of a kid that’s mixed and that has to sit in the crowd.
You had this in the film: Trevor Daley, who plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins, his mother’s white. She had to sit in stands and hear people say just the most outrageous things about her son, not knowing that that’s her son. But when she couldn’t take it, oh, believe you me, she had to let them know. So I think that’s probably the people that will really feel it the most.
You’ve screened this documentary in a bunch of places now. Do any kind of reactions or testimonials from people who have seen the film resonate with you?
I think one of the great things that I get from audience members after is the parents that tell me that their kids have been inspired by what they’ve seen. I love it when people say, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know that about Willie O’Ree,” “Oh, my god, I didn’t know that about the Coloured Hockey League,” “I didn’t even know there was a Coloured Hockey League.” Because at the end of the day, my purpose for doing this film was to entertain, educate and inspire, and I think I was able to check all those three of those off.
You gave up hockey as a child because you wanted to fit in certain peer groups. Do you think that this is going to embolden someone who was in your place to continue going because of the legacy of black hockey players?
I believe so. I think the story of “Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future” in itself says that we are much more than what we think. Even to this day, we do as people know that, but sometimes you just have to see it. And I think by seeing a film like mine, somebody might go, “Oh, OK. All right. It’s not a big deal for me to come out of my box.”
And that’s what it is. Because I think when people say, “How come there’s not a lot of black players in hockey?” and they start to get that conversation going, a lot of the first things they want us to point at is “the man,” and somebody’s holding us back. And I’m like, “Nah, man. We hold ourselves back.” Because we tell ourselves we don’t ski, we don’t golf, we don’t play tennis, we don’t play hockey, all these things.
I was speaking to someone earlier today. I was like, “Man, there’s a lot of opportunity and money out there that we’re missing from putting ourselves in this little box.” Because you’ve got to think of hockey as an industry. That’s a business. At the end of the day, hockey’s a business. That’s a big business. And how many black executives are there? How many black referees are there? How many black coaches?
It’s a wide-open door for us. That’s why I’m so encouraged with the efforts being made now to open up that discussion to diversify the game of hockey, because that just gives our people another outlet as far as opportunity goes for employment and for activity.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.