Black Hockey Player

Sixty-one years. Sixty-one years ago Willie O’Ree became the first Black hockey player in NHL history. This became a distinguishing moment in the world of hockey, set to pave the way for many racialized hockey fans and players. O’Ree, a minority presence in a White dominated sport, faced many issues during his times, and unfortunately those issues have experienced very little reform. In fact, in the time the O’Ree entered the NHL, a 2007 NHL report showed that only 5 percent of players were minorities. Even now, only 7 percent of players are of different ethnicities, while 93 percent of players are White.

The sports realm of hockey, recently faced exposure with regards to its racial nature when sports newscaster, Don Cherry was let go from SportsNet, and is now facing heat after the resignation of Calgary Flames head coach, Bill Peters. Peters was accused of using racial slurs against Akim Aliu, a Nigerian born layer, who was coached by Peters during his years in the minors. During practice, the long standing coach would use the N-word several time, which is known to have a derogatory and oppressive history with Black individuals, and those with African descent. Additionally, when Aliu rebelled because Bill Peters did not like his choice of music, Peters went to Chicago executives John McDonough and Stan Bowman to inquire on having the player sent to a lower minor league level.

The NHL and hockey as a whole, has a long standing history of perpetuating a White machismo, in which racism tends to follow players of color by their coaches, team members, the media, and even fans. For example, in 2011, during an NHL exhibition game, a fan threw a banana on former Philadelphia Flyers forward, Wayne Simmonds, a Black Canadian, in reference to the historic reference of Black people as ‘monkey’s’. Similarly, in 2012, during a game between the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals, fans took to Twitter to racially attack right-winger Joel Ward after he scored a goal that won the playoffs for the Capitals, which is similar to what P.K Suban faced after he scored a winning goal for the Montreal Canadiens in a playoff game, in 2014. 

The examples can go on and on, and all it will prove is one fact: hockey is still inherently racist. Racialized communities are very rarely surrounded by prominent hockey culture, or are rarely given the opportunity to be a part of the culture. This is especially prevalent for lower income minority communities, as hockey equipment, training, and team travel can be expensive and inaccessible. In 2017, a study by Utah State University found that families who involve their children in hockey, spend an average of $7,013 on each season, which can require equipment, training, and even travel, especially with regards to those who wish to go pro. This is how we see both the intersection of racial and class disadvantage come into play in feeding the growing disparity of racialized players in hockey. This is especially detrimental for Indigenous community members, who initially created the sport, and see another part of their culture be colonized, commercialized, and White washed. 

Apart from not being able to play, the actual ability to experience the hockey atmosphere, and be part of the greater culture is often harder for fans of colour. In addition to the expense of tickets, hockey games and arenas are often filled with aggressive fans, some of whom have shown racist attitudes to players. This can, and often does, create a hostile environment for fans who share the same ethnicity or race as the player. 

This unsafe space has tried to be rectified through initiatives, such as the Black Girls Hockey Club, created by Renee Hess, which creates a safe space for women of color, and creates a safe space in which they can enjoy the sport, without facing the abuse that comes with being a Black woman. Hess states that she “wants to make sure we’re amplifying their voices and know that they matter and are supported” (Rao 2019.) Other programs also include Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi, established by Harnarayan Singh in 2008, which is a multi-lingual broadcasting program that now reaches beyond his community. 

It is programs and initiatives such as these that need to be supported, especially within the Canadian context, where we claim to foster diversity and acceptance. If these values do not even showcase within our national sport, then it means that there is a systemic issue of racism that stems from a history of colonial and imperialistic domination over racialized communities. It is time we make hockey more accessible to these minority communities, and provide a supportive space, changing the narrative of what the sport of hockey is meant to embody. 

Resources 

NHL.com. (2007, January 24). NHL slowly working toward minority gains. Retrieved from https://www.nhl.com/news/nhl-slowly-working-toward-minority-gains/c-105249.

Race and Ethnicity in the NHL. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://thenhl.fandom.com/wiki/Race_and_Ethnicity_in_the_NHL.

Rao, S. (2019, March 12). Hockey has long been about white machismo. Can the NHL change

that? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/mar/12/hockey-nhl- racism-diversity.

The Associated Press. (2019, November 26). NHL investigates allegations Flames coach used racial slurs against player. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/sports/nhl- investigates-allegations-flames-coach-used-racial-slurs-against-player-n1091666.

The Canadian Press. (2019, November 29). Hockey still dealing with racism 61 years after Willie O’Ree made history as first black NHL player | CBC Sports. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/nhl/hockey-racism-bill-peters-willie-o-ree- 1.5378467.

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