During most of the first half of the 20th century, African American athletes were barred from playing at the highest level in any of the four major team sports in America. Ice hockey was the last holdout when, in 1958, Willie O’Ree finally broke the color barrier by playing for the Boston Bruins in the NHL.
Unlike baseball, basketball and football, there were no professional barnstorming hockey teams composed of all-Black players until 1934. The person who first organized a hockey team of all black professional hockey players was Russell Voelz, who had also been the first president of baseball’s Northern League and the former owner of the Grand Forks Colts, one of the original Northern League teams.
In 1934, he founded the Colored Monarchs hockey team in Robbinsdale, Minn. Voelz later served as mayor of Minden, Iowa, and while in Iowa, was a candidate for U.S. Congress. In 1957, he relocated to Fargo where he worked primarily as a salesman and public relations director for several different companies.
Russell “Russ” Leroy Gladstone Voelz was born Feb. 16, 1904, to Frank and Hilda (Anderson) Voelz, in Minneapolis, where Frank was the warehouse superintendent for a grain company. Russ attended East High School in Minneapolis and lettered for three years in football and hockey and for two years in baseball. After graduating in 1922, he attended the University of Minnesota for two years, “but quit to go into the grain business with his father.”
Immediately after college, Russ was hired as a bookkeeper for the Northwest Fire and Marine Insurance Co. in Minneapolis, before getting into the grain business. It is reported that Russ Voelz “gained prominence in the 1920s when he organized the Independent Feed Dealers of the Northwest Association in an attempt to establish uniformed feed prices and to eliminate market manipulations. It was a move that made him popular among local farmers, but (he was) not well received in business corporate circles.”
In late 1932, Voelz conceived of the idea of forming a new professional baseball league in the Upper Midwest, and after gathering together like-minded people from some of the larger towns in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin and the Canadian province of Manitoba, they formed the Northern League. The owners of the other teams elected Voelz to a three-year term to serve as president and secretary.
Voelz said he would field a team from Grand Forks, but when businessmen from East Grand Forks, Minn., offered to construct a new grandstand and turn the city ballpark over to Voelz, the Grand Forks Colts ended up playing their home games in East Grand Forks.
Important decisions needed to be made during the initial season of 1933, like what to do with the Eau Claire, Wis., team after the owner threatened to move the team to Canada. There was criticism on how Voelz handled this by taking over the Eau Claire team. At the end of the season, “the league owners deposed of Russ Voelz and charged him with inability to handle league affairs in a proper way” and replaced him with former major league player Lute Boone. Voelz sued the league for $21,000, but eventually settled for $140 and returned to Minneapolis.
He was well aware of all-Black barnstorming teams in baseball, basketball and football that were drawing large crowds, and he also knew that amateur African American hockey athletes had played an exciting style of hockey in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. From 1895 to 1930, the Colored Hockey League existed in this part of Canada where all-Black amateur hockey teams competed against each other.
In the book "Tribes: An International Hockey History," George and Darril Fosty tell about how the fast pace and the improvisatory innovations of the players was fun to watch. The players in this league invented and utilized things that were later adopted by white professional players, such as the slap shot and goalies dropping to their knees to block shots heading for the net.
The Fosty brothers wrote that, “Between 1901 and 1930 racism and harsh economic conditions forced many African-Canadian men and their families to leave Canada for a better life in the United States... These families resettled in the Boston, New York City, Detroit, Hartford, and Philadelphia regions.” It was in these cities where Voelz found his players, sent them to live in Minneapolis, and assembled his team.
Before the players could begin to practice, a strike by the Teamsters began on May 16, 1934, and soon expanded into a general strike that consumed the whole summer. Knowing that practices and games could be a problem, Voelz moved the team to Robbinsdale, a city 10 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Voelz named his team the “Colored Monarchs” and, on Aug. 6, he “issued a press release challenging any and all American and professional teams willing to play them in exhibition (games).”
The challenge was printed on an 8-by-11-inch poster and presumably sent to hockey leagues all over the U.S. and Canada. On the poster he printed “Whether your club be the Chicago Black Hawks or America’s weakest club, we still guarantee to give you the greatest hockey show on earth.”
Records have not been located to know how the Monarchs performed, but it certainly appears that Voelz must have lost money because he disbanded the team a short time later.
Voelz then moved to Nebraska, where he became a promoter of African American boxers and, in 1939, he relocated to DuBois, Pa., where he continued to promote boxers, as well as the DuBois Reds baseball team.
In 1942, Voelz returned to the grain and flour industry working as a salesman and promoter for the Russell Miller Milling Co. in Clearfield, Pa. Later that year, he moved to Atlantic, Iowa, as a flour salesman.
In 1944, Voelz relocated to the small town of Minden, in west-central Iowa, where he established a grocery store and drove the school bus. He was soon elected mayor and, in 1946, ran unsuccessfully for district county clerk of Pottawattamie County. He also worked with the YMCAs in Iowa and established the Southwestern Iowa Independent Basketball Tournament and served as the organization’s manager.
In 1948, he ran for secretary of state of Iowa and, in 1950, ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, but ended up withdrawing in both races.
In 1957, Voelz moved to Fargo to work as a salesman and later in public relations for the Wilson Truck Systems Co. In 1963, he became general manager for United Forwarders Inc. and then was employed as a salesman for Bartels Equipment for one year before retiring in 1966. In 1971, he moved to Detroit Lakes, Minn., and Voelz died in January 1975.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.