Bruce Arthur: Meaningful dialogue on racism in hockey is long overdue — listening to Akim Aliu is a start
|Toronto Star 02 Dec 2019 at 22:34|
So David Steward, one of only about a dozen Black American billionaires and a part owner of the St. Louis Blues, is on the ice with his family after his team wins Game 7 of the Stanley Cup last June, and he notices something. He says, as NHL.com recounted, “everybody was looking at us. They thought we were lost.”
So a couple weeks ago, 17-year-old Zachary Sukumaran is playing for the Millbrook Stars midget rep team near Peterborough and an opponent yells, “go back to where you came from, you f---ing immigrant,” and Sukumaran throws the kid to the ice. He receives a match penalty; the opponent gets nothing, because officials did not hear the slur. Sukumaran’s father, who came to Canada from Sri Lanka, tells the Peterborough Examiner his son plays rugby and football, but “only in hockey does he get this.” And that his son hears at least one slur a year.
It’s not that the entire sport is a KKK rally, any more than the entire sport is about enforcing hazing, or psychological abuse, or any of the other long-buried issues which are suddenly cracking open. There are many good people in hockey.
But ask someone of colour in hockey and they will have a story, and of all the long-simmering fissures which have finally cracked open and reached the hockey marquee in the past two weeks, race and racism — which aren’t always the same thing — is the one the sport may have the most trouble addressing. After Toronto’s Mike Babcock firing two weeks ago, Akim Aliu tweeted that then-Rockford Ice Hogs coach Bill Peters had repeatedly used the N-word while referring to music Aliu was playing in the dressing room. .
Aliu will meet with the NHL Tuesday, with some of the same lawyers who represented Colin Kaepernick; a source close to Aliu said that he was disappointed with the press conference Friday by Flames general manager Brad Treliving, and that it reflected hockey culture’s habit of being reactive instead of proactive. Both sides are very sensitive about the meeting, and it had been planned for a neutral location.
It’s a natural issue in North America’s whitest major team sport. The NHL already specifies match penalties for racial taunts on the ice, and to its credit the league’s website has hired William Douglas, who founded the blog The Color of Hockey , to write. There are outreach programs for new Canadians at the minor levels, with varying success. Penalties for racist language aren’t new, either; John Vanbiesbrouck resigned as coach and general manager by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds after calling team captain Trevor Daley the N-word, repeatedly.
But then, Vanbiesbrouck was also hired by USA Hockey as its assistant executive GM last year. And at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, as NFL players and other athletes were kneeling to protest structural racism in the United States, coach John Tortorella stated he would bench any player who didn’t stand for the anthem. Every Stanley Cup champion has visited the Donald Trump White House, during the most racist presidency in modern times, even as every NBA team — and one NFL team, along with every U.S. men’s college basketball champion — has not. There are only a handful of people of colour on NHL coaching staffs. There has been one Black head coach, ever: Dirk Graham in 1998-99, for 59 games with Chicago.
There are different forms of racism. There are openly malicious words, and then there is someone like Harrison Mooney, who now works for the Vancouver Sun, being told five years ago as a Black radio broadcaster for the now-defunct Abbotsford Heat in the AHL that he needed to cut his afro or he wouldn’t be taken seriously, and getting comments like that every day for a year. Unconscious bias amid a lack of diversity is a problem.
“Stuff like that happened daily,” says Mooney. “I might have spent three hours a day in the arena, and someone said something about that brazen every single time. Sometimes they thought they were being helpful — just warning me about how better to fit in. Other people were just cruel on purpose. The overall effect was to leave me genuinely fearful to be Black in those spaces, and since I couldn’t help that, genuinely fearful overall.”
“If Bill Peters is your minor hockey coach, and you have a bunch of fathers like that and no Black kids on the team, moving forward, those kids will have that same mindset,” says Paul Bissonnette, the ex-NHL player whose mother is half-Black, and who is not exactly a bomb-throwing culture changer in the sport. “It’s taught.
“I mean, I can say they’re just words, but there’s kids out there that are Black that feel like they can’t play hockey because they walk into a room full of all white guys and there might be some jokes being made, and they don’t even want to make it a thing … So it all comes down to both sides listening to each other, mostly white people listening to people of colour.”
The former NHLer and current podcaster only heard racial slurs once, from an opponent he declined to name. But then, as he says, “I don’t look like Wayne Simmonds, and I don’t look like P.K. Subban. I didn’t grow up with the same hardships as those guys did.”
As former NHLer and current broadcaster Anson Carter said as part of an excellent “Hockey Night in Canada” roundtable Saturday night, “The main thing we’re trying to do is get rid of that unconscious bias, right? Like, they won’t say they’re biased in judging players for who they are and what they do. But it happens, it’s only natural.” He told a story about a Leafs scout meeting with him in high junior and asking him, over and over, why he didn’t want to play basketball. The Leafs drafted Chris DeRuiter in the 1992 draft instead; he never played an NHL game, while Carter finished with 421 points in 674 career games.
Devante Smith-Pelly was part of the 2017-18 champion Washington Capitals, and he, along with teammates like goaltender Braden Holtby, didn’t visit the White House. in a penalty box in 2018. He says, from Beijing where he is playing in the KHL, “I’d say hockey needs to hire more minorities. And don’t hire racists. In the grand scheme of things I don’t really know what else would help, to be honest.”
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One thing hockey tells itself is that it is a good thing, a Canadian thing, a reflection of our best. And it can be.
But it can be something else, too. Another thing hockey tells itself is that it takes care of its people, and sometimes that’s true. Well, it has a chance to listen to some of them. It could be a start.