Is P.K Subban a victim of racism in the NHL?

Over the last several weeks, Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban has come under the scrutiny of several NHL players as being cocky, and disrespectful.

Even old Donald S. Cherry got into the mix earlier this season, and made the following remark after the Buffalo Sabres' Tyler Myers run in with the Habs rookie at the end of Saturday's game.

"Everybody dislikes him in the league," Cherry said during Hockey Night in Canada's post game segment. "Nobody likes that in hockey, and I don't understand why it happens."

Cherry has gone on record to say that Subban's flamboyant and vocal style is going to get him hurt one of these days. The Philadelphia Flyers Mike Richards has also publicly commented on Subban's " lack of respect."

So let's get this straight. It's OK for Myers, with just one full season under his belt to take a run at Subban without being scolded, or Richards, who nearly put David Booth out of commission permanently, to speak on lack of respect?

Many feel that Subban should just keep playing the style that got him to the NHL. Even teammate Hal Gill noticed back in October that the young defenceman needed to be talking on the ice.

Subban himself has gone on record that he is not going to change the way he plays.

So why is it that most of the hockey population are in favor of Subban's style, and others are opposed?

The last tirade from Cherry has really stuck under my skin, and brings me to this controversial question.

Would the negative sounding crowd have any objections if the rookie's name was Dion Phaneuf or Sidney Crosby, or well I'll just say it, any other talented player with white skin?

Now before you jump the gun, I am not accusing Cherry or Richards of being racist. But you can't deny seeing players Subban's age acting or playing in a similar manner, in the past 30 years, and getting high praise from Grapes..

For many, it's hard to believe that even 63 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in MLB, that racism is still a problem in professional sports, especially the NHL. Unfortunately it still appears that it is.

Whether it be verbal, or by use of imagery, the problem still exists over 50 years after the first black man laced them up in the NHL.

Evidence of it has occurred twice in Montreal alone in the last decade. Last March, in a game against the Edmonton Oilers, two moronic fans showed up at the Bell Centre dressed in blackface and afros and sporting "Subbanator" tee-shirts.

Whether they were aware of that their actions were offensive, is not known. But what made it worse was that the directors at RDS kept the cameras on the pair for a prolonged period. It was bad enough for a pair of fans to show up, but more embarrassing for the network to continue to air it.

Eight years earlier, during the 2002 playoffs, someone threw a banana in the direction of Carolina Hurricanes goalie Kevin Weekes, who is black, as the team made it's way off the ice.

"To me, it's not a big deal. I know it's 2002, but you're always going to have ignorant people," said Weekes, now a HNIC analyst. "The arena in Montreal holds, what, 20,000 people?  I know You can't expect them all to have class."

Immediately following that incident the Canadiens organization asked security to be on the lookout for further racist behavior. Fast forward to 2010 and I guess security took a nap.

The blackface incident came up at a most appropriate time, as a couple weeks later I had a meeting with a woman named Bernice Carnegie. Ms. Carnegie was unaware of the incident in Montreal, and rolled her eyes in a way to say, "I'm not surprised." when I told her.

Remarks and actions like that are not surprising Bernice is the daughter of Herb Carnegie, who may have very well been the best player not to play in the NHL in the late thirties to the early fifties.

Carnegie was admired in his playing days by a young Frank Mahovlich and later played alongside Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau with the Quebec Aces.

His only problem was, that he was black. He never got his chance to play in the NHL.

He thought he had his chance to make the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1937, but then learned that Conn Smythe had been quoted as willing to sign him if he were white, or if somene could make him white.

It was a dramatic statement that troubles Carnegie to this day, as seen in this HNIC feature.

It wouldn't be until 1958 that the colour barrier was broken in the NHL, when Willie O'Ree debuted for the Boston Bruins. O'Ree played just 45 games in the league (3 in 1957-58 and 42 in 1960-61), and saw his share of racism throught his pro career.

"Racist remarks were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal," said O'Ree. "Fans would yell, 'Go back to the south' and 'How come you're not picking cotton.' Things like that. It didn't bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn't accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine."

As time went on, black players slowly emerged in the NHL. Tony McKegney became the first notable black star in the league, and Grant Fuhr was the first to make it to the Hockey Hall of Fame. According to league records only 18 black players were in the NHL from O'Ree's debut in 1958 to 1991.

But as the game progressed through the latter half of the 20th entury, the acceptance of black and other minority players was still a problem in the league. Ted Nolan, a member of the First Nations and former head coach of the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres, also feels racism was an issue through his playing and coaching career.

Former tough guy Georges Laraque battled racial taunts as he learned the game. There were also reports of racially offensive signs in the Tampa Bay crowd, directed at the Calgary Flame's Jarome Iginla during the 2004 Stanley Cup Final.

When goaltender Ray Emery wound up playing in the KHL, Mike Toth of Rogers Sportsnet felt racism may have had a part in Emery's inability to find a job in the NHL.

And before you ask, don't even get me started on the language issues in Quebec!

One thing is for certain, racism is still present in hockey and has been scurried under the rug in the NHL, much like a lot of other league issues.

McKegney, in a 1990 New York Times article, summed it up this way. "[Racism in the NHL] is suppressed more than it's policed," he said, "and sure, it results in a small bit of loneliness. But you can't dwell on it. It's tough enough to survive in the game as a player.

For P.K. Subban, he is still part of the ethnic minority in a sport that is still deemed by some as "a white man's sport." I honestly hope that the recent comments by Mr. Cherry and Mr. Richards are not influenced by that mentality.

In any event, the Habs rearguard can learn from the perseverance of Carengie and O'Ree, continue playing the way he alwats has and hopefully help dissolve the wall of ignorance to make this a better sport for all of us.

Is Don Cherry right to criticize P.K. Subban


Top of comments section | Top of article | Homepage