The NHL is always keen to spout that their sport is for everybody – but it’s not.
Hockey is a far more expensive sport due to the costs of ice time, travelling, and equipment than soccer or basketball. This required wealth acts as a barrier to entry therefore hockey becomes accessible to upper/middle-class families and disadvantages those with lower incomes. Black people make up about 5% of the NHL’s population – when we compare this to the NFL (67%) and the NBA (77%), one has to question whether this is tied into socio-economic factors.
Hockey exists outside of North America, and although people will argue that European countries are predominantly white – black people still exist here too and do play hockey, for example Johnny Oduya who is black and Swedish. For argument’s sake, this piece will focus solely on North America. In 2013, the wealth of white households was 13 times the median of black families. That is a huge difference in expendable income and likely a reason why people black people are not accessing hockey.
Hockey seems to be stuck in a self-perpetuating loop whereby there are very few non-white players in the league therefore very few idols for non-white kids to look up to and want to emulate. It gets boring never seeing someone like yourself represented. How many black boys are looking at PK Subban and imagining they’re him out there on the ice? The lack of diversity in the players is reflected by the fan base too; a pre-cursor to attendance at sporting events is previous exposure or experience to that sport. If you’ve never played hockey or ever watched it, you’re unlikely to want to be involved with it. The take home message is hockey has always been seen as a white sport and although there are people of colour in the league, not seeing them on a regular basis or being exposed that to reinforces that hockey is a sport for white people.
Black people are not a new commodity; Willie O’Ree was the first black player in the NHL and made his debut in 1958. He was celebrated for breaking the colour barrier and is often cited as an inspiration of non-white players, but O’Ree’s arrival didn’t open the floodgates to make hockey more diverse. It took twelve years before another black man entered the league.
Racial remarks from fans were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto or Montreal. I particularly remember a few incidents in Chicago. The fans would yell, ‘Go back to the South,’ and, ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’ Things like that. It didn’t bother me. Hell, I’d been called names most of my life. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.
Racism existed then and it exists now. Val James, the first black American NHLer, had bananas thrown at him, and even a toy monkey in a noose was hung in the penalty box. In 2011, a banana was thrown at Wayne Simmonds. Heck, there’s a racist sat in the White House. Trump cannot condemn Nazi’s, but black athletes kneeling during the anthem to protest against police brutality? Sons of bitches.
As spoken about previously, the NBA champions declined to attend the White House. The Pittsburgh Penguins, however, continued with their visit to “respect the institution of the Office of the President, and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House”. The team showed they were either completely oblivious or simply do not care about the struggles of minorities in America. Captain, Sidney Crosby, tried to explain the team’s decision:
I’m pretty aware of what’s going on . . . as a group, we decided to go.
Police might have killed 309 black people last year, and Trump creates racist atmospheres at rallies, and displays openly racist behaviour towards Mexicans, but it’s an honor to go to the White House and the team only had one black player, so what’s the issue!
Joel Ward, from the San Jose Sharks, expressed an interest in kneeling during the anthem however decided not to because the message behind the protest had been lost. Instead of a protest against racism and injustice, kneeling has become a way of offending a flag or a song.
It’s just been part of life that you always have to deal with, so when people get into Kaepernick and some of these other guys, saying that they’re disrespecting the flag, it’s not about just that. It’s about creating awareness about what people, like myself, go through on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s going to the mall or whatever.
Ward could have knelt. And if he did, he’d likely be ostracized by the team. If Trevor Daley had said to the Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins “as a black man, I’m not comfortable meeting Trump” how many of his teammates would have been on his side? How many would support him and also refuse to attend? If Joel Ward took a knee, how many white teammates would have done the same out of solidarity? Devante Smith-Pelly, explained the situation in a sad but honest way:
Yeah, there’s a little bit of a lonely feeling. I mean, all of us are on our teams by ourselves: there’s not two of us together, or three of us together. So if one of us were to do this, and nobody else on the team jumped in, you’re really by yourself. I can go to Joel and say, hey — because he understands what I’m going through as a black man in America. I can’t go to anyone on my team and have them understand really how it is to be in my shoes. Just because I’m a professional hockey player: they just don’t understand. So it’s really lonely in that sense. You don’t really have anyone.
The only player to have protested so far is JT Brown. In homage to the black power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, JT raised his fist. Although Tampa Bay Lightning released a statement saying they supported their players choices on political/social issues, he was dropped from the team for a short time and has since said he will no longer protest. Brown will be working with local police and community organisations to foster better relationships.
No matter what they say, hockey is not for everybody.
We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat – John Carlos