Decades before the first black hockey player stepped on the ice in the National Hockey League, a little-known league of entirely black players was the top ticket in Halifax.

The Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes was an all-black league founded in 1895 as a way of attracting young black men to church. Organizers would promise a hockey game after the service to convince people to attend.

"That was the first organized sports league for blacks in all of North America and it was a revenue-based organization," said Kwame Mason, a filmmaker and director of the 2015 documentary “Soul on Ice,” which chronicles the contributions of black athletes in hockey.

The CHL, as it was called, was a featured part of the NHL’s celebrations for Black History Month this year. The NHL installed a CHL exhibit inside a touring mobile truck showcasing the history of black hockey players. The truck made eight stops throughout the United States during the month of February.

By the start of the 20th century, the CHL had expanded from three teams to a system of play where the previous year’s champion would take on challengers who earned a shot at the title, similar to boxing or mixed martial arts.

Teams formed in Charlottetown, P.E.I., Amherst, N.S., Truro, N.S. and various neighbourhoods in the Halifax-area. Team names included the Jubilees, the Moss Backs and the Sea-Sides.

The league faced bouts of racism during its time, however. They were only allowed to play after the season for the white players had ended, leaving them with just a two-month window in the winter for games.

"The Maritime Coloured Hockey League formed because we were not allowed to play in the white leagues," Irvine Carvery, a Nova Scotian politician and descendent of the players, told CTV News’ Atlantic Bureau Chief Todd Battis.

The style of play in the CHL was highly innovative, in part due to the lack of any official rules. The league was among the first to adopt goalies dropping to their knees for a save and included unique ways of shooting the puck.

“Seeing this guy just swing his stick with such velocity and his puck goes so fast and in newspapers they have to call it the ‘baseball shot,’ and years later we call it a ‘slap shot,’” Mason said.

Due to the exciting style of the play, the CHL would eventually draw more spectators than the white leagues, with the audience reaching as high as 1,200 fans in 1905.

The league folded around 1911, but re-emerged a decade later using the traditional rules. It would not have the same success, however.

By the 1920s, the attention among hockey fans had shifted from local leagues to the NHL. The CHL would permanently disband by the Second World War.

It wouldn’t be until 1958 that Willie O’Ree became the first black player in the NHL. Today there are about two dozen black players in hockey’s top league.