The mostly lost history of the St. Catharines Orioles

Team photo of the St. Catharines Orioles (Photo provided by Donna Ford)

Every Saturday night, Richard Nicholson fell asleep to the sounds of hockey coming over the scratchy floor-model radio. Next to him, his four young children acted out the action as Foster Hewitt called out names like Ted Kennedy, Bill Barilko and Turk Broda. When the kids noticed that their father, a passionate Leafs fan, had drifted off, they would shout as loud as they could: “He scores!” Nicholson would jump up, startled—“Who scored? Who scored?”—as his kids rolled on the floor, giggling. They got him every time.

It was a routine at the Nicholson home in St. Catharines, Ont., that Donna Ford, Richard’s daughter, still recalls fondly more than half a century later. As a child, Ford didn’t ask why her father loved the game so much—never thought about what memories and dreams might be triggered by Hewitt’s play-by-play. Then, one day in the late 1970s, a photo appeared in the local paper.

A columnist had unearthed an article about a hockey team made up entirely of black players that represented St. Catharines in the 1930s. The caption above the picture, originally printed in 1937, read: “Canada’s Only All-Colored Hockey Team — St. Kitts Orioles” In the top row, third from the left, was Richard Nicholson.

Nicholson had never told his children about the team, or even that he’d ever played hockey. When Ford asked her father why he’d never told them, Nicholson, then in his 60s, dismissed the question humbly. “It wasn’t a big deal,” he said. Ford didn’t press her father on the issue, but the exchange sparked a desire to know more about the Orioles’ place in hockey history.

Canada’s black community had a rich hockey tradition well before the Orioles first took the ice. The Colored Hockey League was founded in Nova Scotia in 1895, and more than 400 people played in the all-black league over its three-decade existence—including the first known to use a slap shot. But despite that history, and the lack of an official policy of segregation in the sport, as there was in professional baseball, hockey was far from immune to racism.

Through the 1940s and ‘50s, standout forward Herb Carnegie was denied his rightful place in the NHL because of the colour of his skin. Willie O’Ree became the league’s first black player in 1958, when he was called up to the Boston Bruins, and returned to play 43 games with the club in 1960, but it was 14 years before another black player, Mike Marson, took the ice in the NHL. Regardless of Nicholson’s words, then, an all-black hockey team playing against all-white competition in the 1930s was certainly a big deal.

Despite that, the only evidence of the Orioles’ existence in the Hockey Hall of Fame archives is a faded copy of the photo Ford first laid eyes on in the ‘70s. Little is known about the team’s story, though relatives and hockey historians have tried to piece it together. What remains is found mostly in newspaper photographs and clippings, which do more to showcase the bigotry of the time than shed light on the proud history of the Orioles.

That one Orioles team photo was taken next to the British Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Catharines—a small chapel that played an important role in the Underground Railroad, helping offer refuge to thousands escaping slavery in the antebellum American south. The church’s pastor, Ivan J. Moore, was a member of the team, and each of the other players was a congregant at BME. Several—like Richard Nicholson—were descendants of Adam Nicholson, an escaped slave who’d settled in St. Catharines in the 1850s. Adam Nicholson was a prominent member of the region’s large black community, which also included the famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

In late 1936, “Touch” Woods, owner of a local trucking company, and Wally Walker, a florist and member of the St. Catharines Lions Club, decided they wanted to sponsor a hockey team made up of players from BME. There was a group at BME already playing together, but not in organized competition. The churchgoers accepted the sponsorship offer. They wore orange sweaters with four black stripes on the arms and the letters TST stitched across the chest, for Toronto-St. Catharines Transport, the name of Woods’s trucking company.

The Orioles played in the eight-team Niagara District Hockey League, travelling to face off against squads from towns like Fonthill, Homer, Jordan, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Port Weller, Thorold and Welland. Many of the games were played outdoors, including on the locks of the Welland Canal.

To get to away games, the team travelled in the back of one of Woods’s flatbed trucks, covered with a tarp to shield them from the winter winds. “It wasn’t uncommon for the Orioles to have only one extra player on the bench, while the other teams were rolling two or three lines off their bench every three minutes,” the late Laverne Dorsey, one of the Orioles, told historian Bill Humber before he passed away.

The church team may have been undermanned, but they definitely weren’t soft. All of the players were multi-sport athletes, and several boxed—including Amos Dorsey, who went on to become an Ontario champion

The details that remain of the Orioles’ story are clearly vivid, but the team was mostly ignored by the press. On the rare occasion they garnered attention, they were presented as an entertaining novelty. An article on them that appeared in the Toronto Daily Star in 1937 ran under the headline: “Negro Puck Club, 16 Colored Lads on Team —All They Need is Ice.” The article, which discusses the team’s struggle to find a rink to play in, refers to the players as “boys” and includes blatantly racist lines like this: “They may not get anywhere as pucksters, but the club suah has colah…yeah mam!”

The article also hints at a less-than-altruistic motivation for Woods’s sponsorship. Woods is quoted as claiming to have the “most colorful team” in Canada, and expresses his hope of arranging a game against an all-Chinese team from Montreal to be played at Maple Leaf Gardens.

The players faced prejudice on the ice, too. Some opponents flat-out refused to play against them. “Those attitudes were there without question… We [Canadians] were neither as open-minded and as great as we thought we were, nor were we as miserable and horrible as some of the things that happened in the United States,” says Bill Humber, who wrote about the Orioles in his book A Sporting Chance: Achievements of African-Canadian Athletes. “We were on a tightrope as Canadians on some of these issues: You can make as strong a case that we were open-minded and liberal as you can make that we were close-minded and racist. Both [arguments] can be made if you look at the entire history of the black athlete in Canada.”

There is no known record of how the Orioles fared in the Niagara league. The team split up after a couple of seasons, but according to Humber, some of its players went on to join other local teams. After the Orioles disbanded, they remained a close-knit group in St. Catharines. Many of them worked together at General Motors. They went to church together. They raised families side-by-side. They played baseball in the summers, and some carved new memories on the ice together each winter.

Richard Nicholson passed away 20 years ago, at 80. Donna Ford will never know how well her father could have done in the sport he loved if there had been further opportunities for black players. “I don’t know that he had dreams of playing in the NHL,” she says. “But maybe he did… he probably did”

As far as Ford knows, none of the men who suited up in the Orioles’ orange and black are still alive. But their story continues to be told, and she hopes it comes to life in richer ways than the headlines of their day ever approached. Every once in a while, Ford says, she’ll hear from a stranger who has learned something new about the near-forgotten Orioles: “It’s nice when someone says, “Oh yes, I remember them.”