The Color of Hockey

Earlier this month, someone I know (who is Puerto Rican) commented that when he moved to Boston, he got into baseball and football, but he never really got into hockey because “there aren’t any brown guys.”

I replied that the Bruins, in fact, currently have a black hockey player on their roster in Jarome Igina (who is of Nigerian descent on his father’s side) but his point wasn’t completely invalid. The NHL has been cited as having an overwhelmingly white audience and there are few enough players of color that it’s noticeable.  The past couple of weeks have proven that race remains a touchy subject among both hockey pundits and hockey fans, from Sandy Banks of the Los Angeles Times (who has a fabulous name, by the way) saying that Donald Sterling should buy a hockey team so he “won’t have to worry about black superstars” to the racially charged responses to PK Subban winning Game 1 of the Bruins-Canadiens series. And as a person of mixed heritage, I have been pondering what it means to be a hockey fan of color and why this sport is so white. 

The NHL first broke the color barrier in 1948 with Larry Kwong, a Chinese Canadian who played one shift with the New York Rangers. The first black player in the NHL made his appearance in 1958 when, ironically, the Boston Bruins called up Willie O’Ree as an injury replacement. There wasn’t another black player until 1974.

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At 5’6″ and 145 pounds, Kwong probably would never make in the NHL today.

Nowadays, there are a handful of players in the NHL who are of color. Some are easily recognized (PK Subban, Jamaican and Montserrat descent), some are “white-passing” (TJ Oshie, Ojibwe on his father’s side), and others are in a third category that I’m not entirely sure how to define (Nail Yakupov, who is an ethnic Tatar, aka an ethnic minority in his home country, and Muslim, so I consider him a player of color). Some might even be considered superstars. PK Subban is on his way to being that, if he isn’t already; Carey Price, whose mother is First Nations, is a gold medal goalie and is gaining even more respect and accolades this playoffs; Jarome Iginla, who will undoubtedly be in the Hall of Fame when he hangs up the skates; and, yes, TJ Oshie whose shootout prowess at the Olympics at least made him a household name, if nothing else.

When Sandy Banks’s article came out, I understood what she was getting at. The full context of the quote, for reference:

Let the real estate magnate and Clippers owner take his millions and buy a hockey team. Then he won’t have to worry about black superstars showing up for games on his girlfriend’s arm. 

She’s making a joke about hockey’s homogeneity and frankly, I feel that’s fair game. I get what she’s doing. But what bothered me straight off the bat was the phrasing. Something about it seemed to imply that hockey’s homogeneity is a fixed thing; that there aren’t and never will be black superstars in this league. I personally don’t believe this is true, and we see this in the promotion and growth of young players like Seth Jones and Darnell Nurse. It’s changing — slowly, true, but it is changing.

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Seth Jones and Darnell Nurse horsing around before last year’s draft.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is this perception of hockey as a white man’s game. There is nothing inherently white to sport itself, but there are structural reasons the demographics tend to be so homogeneous.  These days, hockey is an incredibly expensive sport to play, from equipment costs to ice time to, if you want your child to be elite, the extra trainers and summer hockey. Matt Duchene’s father estimates that their family spent about $320k to get their son to the NHL (Campbell). In their case it worked out, since he went on to sign several lucrative contracts, but not every family has the ability to invest in their child that way. This is likely why generally we tend to see, at least in North America, children from upper middle class and upper class families among the draftees.

There are exceptions, of course. Joel Ward’s mother worked two jobs after her husband died to support her son’s athletics. Ward often slept at the hospital where she worked (Campbell). Ward is from the working-class and ethnically diverse Scarborough, which has also produced players of color like Kevin Weekes and Devante Smith-Pelly. Perhaps their motivation to join hockey can be sourced back Scarborough’s inclusion in Toronto, where hockey is The Sport. For a kid in, say, Los Angeles, hockey would be much less likely to persuade them into giving the sport a try, especially once they and their parents see how much money they would have to spend.

This, to some degree, creates a self-perpetuating cycle. People are drawn to familiar faces, to perceived similarities between themselves and celebrities. I was drawn to Michelle Kwan as a child because she was Asian; probably a third of the reason I own a Paul Kariya jersey is that, like me, he is half-Japanese and has family that was interned. People like to see themselves reflected in what they watch, and kids like to copy people they admire. First Nations kids love Carey Price and he recognizes the importance of his visibility as a role model of possibility. PK Subban wants to be a role model for kids of all ethnic backgrounds.

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PK with his brothers Malcolm and Jordan, both of whom have been drafted by NHL teams.

So what then does it say to those inspired kids when Bruins fans (or NHL players, for that matter) use racial slurs against PK Subban? What does it tell them when someone tweets a photo of a noose and says it’s for Subban? As I said on Twitter the day after this happened, racial slurs are not chirping. That language and that imagery is tied up in centuries of hatred, violence, and murder and by using it you associate yourself with a history of bigotry. The Bruins described these fans, including the fan who posted the noose photo, as “ignorant”. I don’t think they were. I’m sure they knew exactly what they were doing. There’s no way they couldn’t.

It can be hard, then, for children and fans to want to join the hockey community. How could you want to join a community that isolates and threatens and demeans their few players of color? How does Malcolm Subban, who is a goalie in the Bruins system, feel when he hears his older brother called slurs by fans of the team he was drafted to? Hockey fans who partake in this behavior are hurting the sport by doing this. It’s no accident that hockey is referred to as a potential home for a racist owner (though I disagree that it would be tolerated). After all, the MVP trophy we hand out at the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is named after Conn Smythe, a man who is widely cited as once saying, “I’d give any man $10,000 who could turn Herb Carnegie white.” And though that story may be apocryphal, no one seems to disagree that it’s something he could have said.

That being said, things are changing. The visibility of PK Subban and Seth Jones, the stardom of Paul Kariya through the 90s and Julie Chu as the captain of the US Women’s team, and the slow appearance of homegrown players of color like Emerson Etem (Ducks forward) and Matt Nieto (Sharks forward), both from Long Beach, California, gives some optimism for the future. Wayne Simmonds is making waves in Philadelphia and Brandon Saad, who is of Syrian descent, was a Calder finalist and has already won one Stanley Cup. On the benches, we have Ted Nolan and Craig Berube as coaches, both of them of First Nations descent. On television, we have Kevin Weekes on Hockey Night in Canada as a color commentator.

I still think the league could do more to promote their players of color. When they put giant photos of Sidney Crosby and Matt Duchene on the walls of the NHL store in New York, I’d like to see one of PK Subban or Wayne Simmonds too. Subban is currently up for the cover of NHL 15 and I’m really hoping he gets it, despite the EA Cover curse. There hasn’t been a player of color as the face of the NHL game franchise since Jarome Iginla was on the 2003 cover (I’m discounting the special regional covers, which Subban and Mika Zibanejad have been on in recent years). We can change the name of the Conn Smythe award and, when fans call a player racial slurs or throw banana peels, teams need to do more than just say, “This is bad.” We know it’s bad. They need to say, “Don’t come. We don’t want your support.” If hockey is going to get up in arms over Sandy Banks implying we harbor deep racism, we need to prove that we don’t do it willingly. We need to welcome fans and players of all colors and creeds and say, “This is your sport too.”

 

Further Reading/Viewing:

Selling the Dream by Ken Campbell

The Color of Hockey

Interview with Anthony Stewart, Evander Kane, Johnny Oduya, and Dustin Byfuglien during their time in Atlanta

PK Subban’s responses to critics

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