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Johannes Wheeldon The Hockey Writers

Published on Monday, February 19, 2018





Is Hockey for Everyone? Confronting Racism in the NHL

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman issued a statement this week after four fans were ejected from the United Center during the Blackhawks-Capitals game late Saturday night for directing racial taunts at a Devante Smith-Pelley. He didn’t have much of a choice.

The NHL has designated February as “Hockey Is for Everyone” month, a program that promotes inclusion in hockey regardless of “race, color, religion, national origin, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and those with disabilities.” Ironically, the Blackhawks held their own “Hockey Is for Everyone” night last week at the United Center. I guess not all fans were listening.

Know Your Racism

Bettman’s statement was provoked by Hawks fans who began chants of “basketball, basketball, basketball” as Smith-Pelley was sitting in the penalty box during the third period. In case it is not obvious, black people are supposed to play basketball, not hockey. Hence the chant. You see, only white people are allowed to play hockey.

Earlier this month, a more “clever” racist slur was leveled at P.K. Subban. Following a tough game and a postgame scrum in which Brendan Gallagher showed his frustration with the Montreal media’s attention on P.K., a fan offered his support.

As the Boston Globe reports “Monday” can be used a racial slur. On the Urban Dictionary website, it is described as “Another way of saying [the N-word] without getting caught.” It can be traced to a January 2008 standup routine by Canadian Russell Peters, who refers to a Bostonian referring to blacks as “Mondays” based on the idea that “nobody likes Mondays.” “White people are getting real…clever with their racism,” Peters joked ruefully.

From Overt Slurs to More Subtle Forms

P.K. Subban is used to more run-of-the-mill racism. On May 1st, 2014, after scoring a game-winning, double-overtime goal for the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, some Boston fans responded by posting all kinds of awful things about Subban on Twitter. Not unlike the comments directed at Smith-Pelley, some included: “That stupid n**** doesn’t belong in hockey #whitesonly,” one wrote. “The Bruins will come back but Subban will always be a n****,” another said. While many of those tweets were subsequently deleted, those who deny racism in the NHL are usually white.

P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators, NHL

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

These comments were not dissimilar to the way Bruins fans reacted after Joel Ward scoring a game-winning goal during the 2012 NHL Playoffs. Within seconds of the goal hitting the back of the net, some Bruins fans took to Twitter and let off tweets like, “The fact that a n**** got the goal makes it 10 times worse #gobacktoafrica.”

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis referred to the backlash as “unforgivable,” while Ward called the racism he faced a never-ending “battle” that would always be a challenge for him. “It’s been overwhelming,” he said. “A lot’s been going on. Just trying to embrace it, I guess, as best I can.”

In case you think racism is a uniquely American phenomenon, a banana was thrown at Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers during a 2011 NHL exhibition game in London, England. “I don’t know if it had anything to do with the fact I’m black,” the Toronto native said. “I certainly hope not. When you’re black, you kind of expect (racist) things. You learn to deal with it.”

The Subtle Structures of Racism

Racism is hardly unique to hockey. But even when black players don’t face overt racism, it tends to show up in more subtle ways. Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality was turning into a national issue during the leadup to the World Cup of Hockey in 2016. Team USA coach John Tortorella took the opportunity to announce that he’d bench any player who protested. That put the one black player on the team, Dustin Byfuglien, in an awkward position. When asked about Tortorella’s challenge, Byfuglien had no choice but to shrug.

A year later, J.T. Brown raised his fist during the national anthem before a game on Oct. 7 and received death threats. He was called a “troublemaker” and a “privileged athlete showing ungratefulness.” Brown is a player who has been active in the Tampa Bay community, running a mentorship program for vulnerable youth. Brown was scratched in Tampa Bay’s next seven games, returning to the lineup on Oct. 24, after he’d promised to stop protesting.

J.T. Brown (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

As the Fourth Line Wing observed:

Gary Bettman has argued that players should protest “on their own time” not while at work. It’s claimed that “hockey is for everyone” and to be a politically neutral league. It claims that the league itself doesn’t get involved in or use politics. Even the Penguins are insisting that their visit to the White House is politically neutral, despite Donald Trump repeatedly using the NHL as a crutch to attack the protests in the NFL.

Denying Racism is the New Racism

As Baumann notes, hockey culture tends to punish nonconformity across the board, regardless of race. However, non-white players are often singled out. Fans who are looking to a future in which “hockey is for everyone” is more than a slogan should ask themselves why Josh Ho-Sang, who is multiracial, has been a lightning rod for criticism since the Islanders picked him in the first round in 2014.

Why do commentators continue to criticize Subban in ways that sound like coded racism? NBC’s Mike Milbury called P.K. a clown on camera and suggested he should be rapped on the head to keep him in line. TSN analyst Darren Pang once suggested that Subban should act more like Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who did everything “on the ice, off the ice the white way.” He quickly clarified and said, “the right way,” but still…yikes.

Fans should ask how it is possible that it has taken until 2018 for the first African American, Jordan Greenway, to represent the U.S. in Olympic hockey? How is “breaking the color barrier” still a thing in 2018?

Step one is admitting we have a problem. As Bill Maher stated: “The new racism is denying racism.”


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