I wrote a post a couple months ago on the topic of racism in hockey. At the time, I felt like I had barely scratched the surface of the subject, but since I was spurred to write that post by the racist hijacking of K’Andre Miller’s Zoom call, I wanted to get it published before letting too much time pass. So that’s what I did, with the plan to write more extensively about racism in the hockey world in the future.
Following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, and the protests that have been taking place since then in the United States, Canada, and many other countries, the issue of racial injustice is finally getting the attention that it should.
While there are differences between countries or even within countries on how racism manifests itself, I think it’s fair to say that it’s pervasive in both the U.S. and Canada. There is a lot of self-examination needed on both a societal and individual level, and based on the last few weeks, it seems like we are finally open to that.
That’s true not just in the broader culture, but also in the hockey culture. And let’s be honest, that’s pretty extraordinary, because hockey culture tends to be relatively homogeneous, especially in the seats of power: team owners and executives, governing bodies, youth hockey boards, coaching, etc.
Over the last few decades, there has been a pattern to how the issue of racism has been addressed in the hockey world. An incident will happen at some level of hockey, whether in the NHL, major junior, or youth hockey. It will be condemned by those directly connected to it (e.g., the teams involved, the league, the player on the receiving end, and that player’s teammates). Punishment might be imposed by the teams, the league, or the legal system if appropriate.
And then that was usually where it stopped. When a “fan” threw a banana at Wayne Simmonds (below) during an exhibition game in Hamilton, Ontario, we didn’t hear white players from every team in the league speaking up. Not about the incident itself, and certainly not about how it and other incidents made them think about the cause and effect of their own silence on racism.
There has never been a broader stirring of consciousness and ongoing, widespread dialogue about racism sparked by an incident in the hockey world. But there have been enough incidents to make it clear that greater consciousness and dialogue were sorely needed.
So, why didn’t they happen, and what is different now? Because to me, it does feel different than in the past. Why are way more people in hockey talking about the issue of racism than we have ever seen before? Will the interest in addressing racism in the hockey world sustain itself in the long term? And, how do we do that effectively at all levels, from the NHL to house league?
Lots of questions, so let’s try to work our way through each of them as thoroughly as possible.
Puckheads in the Sand
For as long as I can remember, hockey has had a reputation as a “white people sport.”. And sadly, that was mostly accurate. Things have been changing, but the changes have been slow, and in my experience have mostly been happening on the ice, not in the board rooms or the stands.
When I was growing up, I only had one black teammate in my years of youth hockey, and one Latino teammate as well. Among the teams that I played against, non-white kids were just as uncommon. That experience probably is typical of a lot of kids across the U.S. and Canada.
As a result, for many white kids that have grown up playing hockey, their experience in the sport is virtually devoid of non-white people: teammates or opponents on the ice, and parents in the stands or on the bench.
That, I think, is one of the big reasons why the hockey world has seemed oblivious to the subject of racism. When people see, interact with, and play with people that are almost exclusively white, they don’t see or hear about the experiences of people that aren’t white. And if they’re not seeing or hearing about it, then it’s very easy to not think about it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that those people are racist, but it means they confronted racism passively – when something dramatic impacted someone close to them. Which, of course, is rare in a mostly white sport.
Being more proactive – i.e., not simply “not racist” but anti-racist – involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes even when the racism doesn’t personally affect you. That means taking off the blinders and pulling our heads out of the sand.
For a lot of hockey people, the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests have ripped those blinders off and yanked their heads out of the sand. Individually and collectively, the sport is finally confronting what historically has been unnoticed, or noticed but ignored.
Timing Matters, As Usual
An interesting question is, why has George Floyd sparked this different level of engagement for hockey people when there have been similar events that didn’t? I think there are a few factors that contribute. The fact that the video captured the entire time – nearly nine minutes – that the cop had his knee on Floyd’s neck made it especially horrifying to anyone that watched it. Obviously social media generated widespread attention. And the fact that this came just a day or two after another viral video of a racist woman in New York’s Central Park also made it hard to ignore how widespread racism is.
But I think the biggest reason that so many hockey people have stopped in their tracks is because of the circumstances when this all happened. We’re still in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. The NHL’s plan to resume play was announced on May 26th, one day after George Floyd’s murder. Training camps won’t start until sometime in July, and teams weren’t allowed to open their facilities for informal workouts until June 8th.
Normally in late May, the NHL playoffs would be in full swing. Sure, the majority of the league would be done playing – either not making the playoffs or having been eliminated already. Still, if the playoffs had been going on this May and June, I have to wonder if some in the hockey world would have been able to invest the same time and energy into the important work to fight racism as when there is no hockey.
That’s not a criticism of hockey people, and my hope is that the commitment would be the same for anyone whose team was no longer playing. Realistically, I imagine that if the playoffs had been going on, people whose teams were still active at the time of Floyd’s murder would have compartmentalized to an extent and postponed more active involvement (e.g., going to protests) until their season was finished.
If there is any silver lining to the pandemic, I think it’s that many more people – both in hockey and in society in general – have a little more time on their hands than normal. That has caused more people to think and engage more deeply with issues that are truly important, even if those issues don’t affect them directly. In other words, it has made hockey people recognize and start to confront their white privilege.
What Does That Mean?
In the days following George Floyd’s murder, many professional athletes, including hockey players, posted statements on social media with their reactions to Floyd’s death and the issue of systemic racism. Among the hockey players, one of the most common themes was the acknowledgement of their own privilege as white people in what is still a mostly white sport.
In the comments section, though, I saw a lot of fans questioning that, telling players that they didn’t need to apologize for their achievements. Which was kind of weird, because these players weren’t apologizing for being good hockey players, playing in the NHL, getting big contracts. So I think some people didn’t/don’t really understand what these players meant when they referred to their privilege.
White privilege, in this context, means that they are far less likely to be pulled over for no reason while driving than their black teammate.
It means they won’t have to have a banana thrown at them from the stands, or hear spectators make monkey sounds every time they step on the ice, or look up in the crowd and see their family being harassed.
It means that when they refuse to be subjected to a rookie hazing ritual, they are unlikely to have seven teeth knocked out by an older teammate at practice as retaliation, as Akim Aliu did as a 16-year-old in the OHL. And it means that if, as Aliu (below) did, they defend themselves against that teammate, they won’t be labelled as a troublemaker, while their white teammate gets named to Canada’s national team for the World Junior Championships.
It means that when a bunch of little kids are having fun, running around the hallways at a rink and someone – a Zamboni driver, a random coach or parent from another team – tells them they need to settle down, they will look at the one non-white kid in the group. There could be five kids or a dozen, but the scolding adult will almost always fix their eyes on the one that isn’t white.
So, now that a lot of people in hockey have started to see and acknowledge how differently non-white people are treated inside and outside the sport, will hockey use that increased awareness to build positive momentum? Again, this feels different on a societal level than what we have seen in the past. For that reason, I’m somewhat optimistic that we’ll see more people actively involved in trying to get rid of racism in hockey going forward.
At the highest level, we’re already seeing people doing things to keep a spotlight on the issue and generate more conversation. On June 8th, seven current and former NHL players announced the formation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, stating that its mission is “to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey.”
We are proud to announce the formation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance 🏒 ✊🏾 pic.twitter.com/ycKXhMDkgU
— Joel Ward (@JRandalWard42) June 8, 2020
Importantly, the Alliance is an independent organization, so while they can and probably will work side by side with the NHL, the league doesn’t have any authority over them. I think that’s a good thing, because while I do believe that the league’s heart is in the right place, the HDA will be able to accomplish their mission more effectively if they don’t have to worry about being constrained by league red tape.
Know what else will help prevent hockey people from letting their heads sink back into the sand? That word that we hear all the time in hockey: accountability. Only this time it’s not about hustling back to negate a 3-on-2, it’s about taking ownership for the sport’s culture.
Accountability can come from internal or external sources. Internal being someone’s own moral compass, and external being pressure from other people. Hopefully people that had their eyes opened about racism in hockey will be internally motivated to combat it, and not let the subject fade from their minds. If they slack off, though, I think there will be plenty of people reminding them. That’s especially true for professional players, executives, and teams that talked publicly about their commitment to changing the culture. If they don’t walk like they talked, they’ll hear about it – as they should.
Whether we like it or not, fans and younger players take notice of what players do at the higher levels. That doesn’t mean just for training tips, or what brand of gloves to buy, but for other things as well.
That’s why it’s so important for white NHL players to use their voice proactively against racism. When there are only a few people speaking out against racism in the game, it emboldens the people that would throw a banana or yell racial slurs at a black player. They think that their views are, if not shared, then at least accepted or tolerated by those that are quiet. When white players are proactively vocal against racism, it tells those people that their actions aren’t ok, and it also inspires other fans to speak up. As a result, it generally limits the racists to merely thinking their racist thoughts, rather than expressing them out loud.
Will a racist fan stop thinking racist thoughts just because their favorite white hockey player is anti-racist? Probably not. More likely, they’ll decide that they like the player on the ice, but not off the ice, using a “just stick to sports” rationale. Or they might stop liking the player completely, and choose a new player to like.
But what if that player also speaks out against racism? You see where this is going, right? If that racist fan can’t find any players or teams that he feels “safe” liking because they’re all anti-racist, then at some point, he’ll probably realize that his racist views don’t really fit in with the hockey culture. And then he’ll either gradually start opening up to changing, or he’ll lose interest in hockey and move along to something else.
Hopefully, it’s the first, but if it’s the second, that’s fine too. Yeah, that racist person is still out there in the world being racist, even if they’re not doing it at hockey games, but eventually, they’re going to run out of places where it’s ok to be racist. At that point, maybe they’ll change. And if they don’t, they’ll have to live in a very small, unhappy world.
We’ve all heard the expression “It takes a village” to raise a child. And that notion – that a person’s development is influenced not just by their family but also by teachers, classmates, coaches, teammates, etc. – can be applied to the issue of getting rid of racism in hockey.
In short, everyone – players, coaches, executives, fans, parents – can use their voice to make hockey culture better. Just sitting back and thinking “this isn’t right” without speaking up or taking action won’t change the culture, though. We have to be proactive.
How? Well, there are lots of ways, and the specifics might be different depending on the person and their role, but for just about everyone, it starts with a desire to learn. Ask a non-white hockey peer (teammate, fellow parent, or fan, etc.) about their experience with racism – both in the sport, and in general.
If you don’t know a non-white person in hockey well enough to feel comfortable starting that conversation, then try to get to know them better. If you’re a parent, sit with them at your kids’ games. If you’re a player, talk to them in the locker room.
Governing bodies can use suspensions to enforce standards at all levels, but there should be transparency. In the recent controversy where the GTHL reluctantly released historical data about penalties for racist language, want to know what stood out to me? The number of “reported incidents not heard by referee” was very low. For context, there was a story recently about a black player in the GTHL who said he was the target of racial slurs in about half his games. That means at least 25 times in a season for just that one player. But the total number of “reported incidents not heard by referee” in 2019-2020, for the entire GTHL (which has over 40,000 players), was 11. That tells me that incidents aren’t being reported, and I’m guessing a big part of the reason why is because players and coaches feel that nothing will be done about it. That needs to change, and leagues and governing bodies need to make it easy to report incidents and track what is being done about them.
Ultimately, the hockey culture will only change if people start asking questions and trying to learn about other people’s experiences. If hockey people put their blinders back on and don’t try to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, not much will change. Silence feeds the status quo. And when it comes to racism in hockey, we can do better than the status quo.
I hope you got something out of this post. I had some trouble writing this one… For some reason there were a lot of thoughts in my head that I couldn’t figure out how to express. Another day, I suppose.
Anyway – this is an important topic, and I really want to get your feedback. How do you think about the issue of racism within the context of hockey? Has that changed at all given everything that has happened in the last month? Please share your thoughts, comments, or questions below. And, if you liked this post or think someone else might get something out of it, please use the social media buttons to share, like, and follow. Thanks, and be well.