HOCKEY MUST CONFRONT ITS RACISM
Hockey and Canada are synonymous with each other — street hockey, ball hockey, ice hockey, shinny, sledge hockey or any other kind of hockey. It’s our game, a game that unites. For many communities in Canada, the relationships that come with hockey are some of the most significant lifetime relationships for an individual, intertwined within everyday life and foundational to a person’s sense of belonging, being welcomed, their identity and strength. They ground themselves in the collective force of being on a team.
Hockey is a game that is open to everyone regardless of race, age, gender or religion. It is everyone’s game. Right? Not really. We cannot ignore the uncomfortable and significant barriers that exist because of race and affordability.
For many Black and racialized people, being a part of hockey is a mark of accomplishment, a recognizable badge, a display of endurance in pursuit of a dream. Not necessarily because they believe their next step is the NHL but mostly because those individuals have been brave enough to endure the racial abuse that is so often associated with hockey culture and its toughnosed, no-nonsense bigotry.
Hockey should never be a comfortable or a safe place for a racist. Hockey must be a zero-tolerance game for racism and those who cannot fit within that mould, the racists, need to move on and just fade away. If that premise upsets you — too bad for you. We need to recognize the brand new world that we are in: a new game with new players and new rules and change that is accelerating and plowing forward. Either keep up or get out of the way. Transformation is arriving, and hockey needs to progress, to be better and do better.
Though built on fair play, hockey has not been immune to racism. Anti-Black racism was commonplace, its ideas and beliefs allowed to flourish, scattered like a truckload of seeds. To deny racism’s existence in hockey, in the past and today, would be eminently wrong. Just look up the story of the great Herb Carnegie and the Quebec Aces. My father knew Carnegie — one of Canada’s greatest players, a Black Jamaican man. He was barred from playing in the NHL due to the colour of his skin. To be blind to hockey’s connection to racist bullying rants is to be an enabler, the naysayers and deniers of the blatant truth, the one’s who will tell you, “I was just kidding and having some fun.” Or make that excuse for another.
Imagine for a moment, being a Black child, impressionable, curious and naive, like many children growing up in Canada today. You are sitting in a hockey rink. It’s your first time on skates. You are old enough to get your skates on but lack the strength required to tighten them. Thankfully, you get the assistance from another child’s father who offers some much-needed help. With your laces now tied, you are now ready to go. The excitement is building but before you set off, the father offers this tip: “Skating is hard. It’s not your fault. You see, you are Black, and people like you are faulty right here.” He pointed to my ankles. “Your ankles are weak, so it might not be much fun, and you’ll probably fall and fail. Black people aren’t really made for hockey.”
I wouldn’t blame a child and don’t blame myself for believing a myth like this. Imagine racism masquerading to a child as kindness. It’s astonishing and awful. But it happens.
The truth is I was never a great skater or hockey player. I’m not sure how much that tip had to do with my view on the sport, but I continue to love the great game.
Hockey and racism have long shared a troubled history for many Black and racialized people. I came to understand the power of so many distasteful remarks, delivered from the viewing stands and sidelines, in rinks right across this country, documented and discussed in the media, personal testimonials and throughout locker rooms across Canada for decades.
In the fight against racism, occasionally some of us are offered the opportunity to make a difference. Black and racialized people may be strangers to you, their predicaments (including their hockey experiences) unfamiliar to you, which is why it is even more important and urgent that you hear about them directly from those of us who breathe through, exist in and survive them.
Early 2020, a good friend invited me to a Calgary Flames game. I had accepted the invitation without hesitation and was thrilled about the prospect of enjoying our “beautiful Canadian game.” Prepped and primed with enthusiasm, I was then brought down with disgust and distress upon reading the allegations concerning the now disgraced former Calgary Flames coach and his racist attacks on former NHLer Akim Aliu. Yet again, another example of the intentional destruction of a Black man’s dreams and the systemic racism faced by him.
I explained to my friend that, while I looked forward to one day cheering on the Calgary Flames, as a Black man while the investigation was unfolding, despite how respected and revered the coach was, I could not, and would not, attend any game while he remained on the bench.
Fast forward, with hockey now back, I am pleased to see that necessary and important changes are taking place.
The Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) is being launched, made up of current and former NHL hockey players, with the aim of eradicating systemic racism and racial intolerance in hockey, and addressing growing concerns around access, ice time and affordability. The HDA is committed to inspiring a new generation of hockey players and fans with the support of the NHL and NHL franchises.
Hockey’s constituents, its consumers, like me, and its most valuable assets — the players — demand that its leaders step forward to help make the sport become better for everyone. I am pleased to see the HDA is co-headed by Akim Aliu and Evander Kane and supported by other NHL players and the wider movement to end anti-Black racism, including Trevor Daley, Matt Dumba, Wayne Simmonds, Chris Stewart and Joel Ward.
Presented with a choice, these pivotal moments afford each of us the momentary opportunity to let our voices be heard to effect change. We should all support the HDA, and more importantly hockey across Canada, in achieving goals of equality and respect for all.
Through these movements of change, I believe that each of us are presented with a choice and an opportunity to become Samaritans to the future of society and our most cherished institutions, which are so badly and urgently in need of reflection. Rooting out anti-Black racism in a meaningful, revolutionary and sustained way is the change we should be seeking out and demanding. I often remind myself that when I have done nothing to strike the blow against the screed of ignorance that denies systemic racism exists, I am left drowning in regret and shame. One of the first investments that I made for my children were swimming lessons, against the popular and outdated stereotype that Black people can’t swim. I refuse to drown. I refuse to let my kids drown. I refuse to witness another George Floyd drown. Our shoulders are broad, our ankles are strong and our hearts and minds are committed to progress and change and equality, and we will not accept anything less. To the brave NHLers who choose to kneel in solidarity, we see you, we thank you and hope you will do more to lend your voice to this important battle. The fight continues.
Herb Carnegie, a Black Jamaican man, was barred from playing in the NHL because of his skin colour.