Even in the midst of a global pandemic, racism is still alive.
Well before cities in America and Canada decided to protest against the unjust killings of Black men and women, the National Hockey League — on pause like so many other sports leagues — struggled to handle issues involving race.
Let’s not be naive: hockey hasn’t always been the greatest with race. Its league, sport, culture, features mostly white players and fanbases. While it hasn’t stopped Black or minority players from playing the sport, or covering it, it hasn’t always been the most welcoming to people who look like them.
You can go back to the days of Willie O’Ree and Herb Carnegie, all the way to modern day with more recent experiences happening with P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Kevin Weekes, Joel Ward, Devante Smith-Pelly, K’Andre Miller, Bokondji Imama, Akim Aliu, and many more players.
In the fallout of a racial incident in any sport, it is easy for any media member to ask questions to a Black player, or person of colour, about how they feel. Having the perspective of a fellow member of a minority group helps when you want to have someone else illustrate how harmful racism can be.
But it isn’t enough to simply show their responses.
Former National Hockey League forward Jamal Mayers has noticed the coverage has skewed this way, and he would like to see that change.
“I’ve lived in the locker room; I know what it’s like, they would have asked everybody,” Mayers told NBC Sports Chicago this past February. “Think about it. If I’m P.K. [Subban], and I’m in that room; that just happened. They’re asking everybody about it. I guarantee they don’t just ask P.K. They are asking the captain, they’re asking other players, and then they only show P.K.’s response. But they have the other ones, too.”
Some other media members are also taking notice.
Hockey Media.— FORM A WALL (@_shireenahmed_) May 19, 2020
Instead of asking BIPoC players about racism and their trauma, please ask white players, coaches, refs and execs what they are doing to combat it. #HockeyTwitter
So why don’t we, the media and fans, ask white players more about racism in hockey? Even if they might not have all the answers, shouldn’t their perspectives and allyship matter?
There are naysayers like columnist John Steigerwald from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who feel it is not on players like Sidney Crosby to comment on race. Steigerwald also feels Canadians like Evander Kane should mind their own business because Americans managed to elect a Black president.
But he couldn’t be more wrong, and more tone deaf.
In late January during an American Hockey League game, Montreal native and Ontario Reign forward Bokondji Imama was called a racial slur by Bakersfield Condors defenceman Brandon Manning. The defenceman was suspended for five games by the AHL and later apologized for his actions.
A couple of weeks after the suspension, I asked a few players from the Montreal Canadiens organization their thoughts on how racism could be dealt with in the sport of hockey.
I hadn’t published these words previously because I couldn’t think of a better way, at the time, to make it into a story. I was more curious than anything on how some players would have responded to being asked questions about racism despite being individuals who hadn’t walked a mile in the shoes of Aliu, Subban, Ward, and others.
“It’s such a hard question, because I don’t know,” Canadiens/Laval Rocket defenceman Karl Alzner said.
“How do you prevent it? I don’t know. Until it’s more of a societal thing where everybody’s more understanding, I don’t know that it’s really going to stop that easily. And it’s hard if you’ve never been through a situation like that to actually get it.”
Former Laval Rocket forward Phil Varone and Aliu were once Junior hockey teammates and the two have skated together during the off-season in Toronto. Varone says he didn’t see Aliu experience any racism while they played together in London or in Rochester when they were both in the AHL. The forward felt it wasn’t his place to discuss Aliu’s brushes with hazing in Junior hockey with the Windsor Spitfires, as he wasn’t there for what happened.
Nonetheless, he expressed support for his former teammate.
“If he ever needed anything, I would be there for him,” Varone said. “I feel like he was a bit misunderstood as a player. He’s actually a really nice guy. I think whatever he went through, it’s hard for me to speak on it, but I feel bad for him. If he felt he needed to bring it to attention, that’s his call. He has a right to do that.”
As for how Varone sees race?
“My parents always taught me it doesn’t matter, anything, people are people. You treat everybody the same. You judge people by their character, not by anything else,” Varone said.
Laval Rocket forward Kevin Lynch feels the onus is on every player, not just white ones, to make locker rooms safe spaces for players of colour.
“Hockey is, I guess like any other sport, you have so many different cultures coming together. Guys from you know, Europe, and different languages. It’s something that I got used to very early that just because someone isn’t like you doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.”
Varone, Alzner, and Lynch may never be the highest profile hockey players. Their answers aren’t perfect, and they didn’t have the benefit of their Notes apps to craft perfect responses. But none of these players declined to talk about race and tried to discuss it to the best of their ability.
This isn’t to glorify the fact that they answered, but to normalize the idea that white hockey players can be asked for their thoughts on race even if they feel they have nothing to contribute to the conversation.
So, what’s stopping players like Crosby, Connor McDavid, and more? We’re starting to see players like Jonathan Toews and Tyler Seguin put up statements with the Black Lives Matter hashtag. How else will they follow up on their actions? It’s a question worth asking if we’re ever allowed to be in scrums and media availabilities with them in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The National Hockey League will have you believe hockey is supposed to be for everyone. But in order for it to truly be for everyone, it means white players, management, and staff — the main beneficiaries of hockey’s culture — must stand up and make it so by stopping hazing and racism when they see it at every level of the game.
It also means fans and media must continue to hold them accountable.