ST. LOUIS – The trailer, decked out and converted to a mobile museum, was packed to capacity, adorned with images of black NHL players, information about their legacies and artifacts, including recreated St. Louis Blues jersey stalls for Grant Fuhr, Ryan Reaves and Jamal Mayers. A crowd gathered around a roulette-style trivia wheel, taking turns answering questions about the history of black hockey players. Among the people answering were black people and white people, kids and adults, men and women. This was the latest stop on the NHL’s Black Hockey History Tour, and it means a lot to many different people for many different reasons.
Firstly, for any person of color who has played the game or dreams of playing the game, seeing the images of and facts on black hockey players, whose history in the game dates back as far as the 1800s, is inspiring and moving. Retired NHL right winger Joel Ward, attending the exhibit Saturday in St. Louis, was visibly energized by the sight of it.
“As you can see, we’ve been playing hockey for a long time – we’ve been at it,” Ward said with a proud laugh. “What a cool thing to do. For me, growing up, there weren’t too many black players. Kevin Weekes in our family was the end-all of superheroes. So for the kids to come out here and get a glimpse and learn a little more about history and all the brothers that played, it’s really cool.”
The exhibit also carries far more weight today than anyone could’ve expected even two months ago. After right winger Akim Aliu came forward in November with revelations of racist comments by his former AHL coach, Bill Peters, it sent a shockwave through hockey that culminated in Peters’ resignation as coach of the NHL’s Calgary Flames. It was a watershed moment for the game that led to the NHL, with help from Aliu, tabling the idea of a code of conduct and zero-tolerance approach to hate speech in the sport. The initiative won’t change the landscape overnight, however. Retired NHL goalie turned NHL Network lead analyst Weekes, who was also on hand Saturday, said the exhibit shouldn’t carry extra weight right now, but that it does given the sad stories still coming out. We learned how far the game still has to go less than a week ago when AHL defenseman Brandon Manning was suspended five games for using racial slurs against the Ontario Reign left winger Boko Imama.
For Kwame Mason, director of the documentary Soul On Ice and the museum’s co-curator, the exhibit does an important service of offsetting all the upsetting stories in the hockey world today with some tales of wins for inclusivity.
“Because the atmosphere of hockey is fighting to be more inclusive, to be more welcoming, museums like this will show people that there is that idea of hockey being for everyone,” Mason said. “This is why it’s important. It counteracts the negative stories that are out there. For every negative, we have to have a positive.”
Lastly, seeing all the different types of people taking in the exhibit this weekend – which included all types of races – really underscored the point of the museum: it’s a way to bring attention and respect to the trailblazing black players, from Willie O’Ree to Angela James, but also a decidedly inclusive project designed to invite all types of people to learn about black hockey history. That philosophy is exactly what the NHL hopes to bring to the game as a whole – to eschew the antiquated idea that hockey is a sport for the old guard and no one else, that it can’t be shared with minorities, women or people of different sexual orientations. To drive the point home, Weekes came up with an illuminating analogy.
“I’ve been to Italy numerous times, I have a lot of Italian friends in Toronto and New Jersey, and they never say, ‘Pasta’s our food, it’s just ours. Nobody’s allowed to eat it. You can’t have it. You can’t have marinara sauce. You can’t have buffalo mozzarella. It’s just for us,’ ” Weekes said. “Nobody says that! So we can’t be saying that in hockey. We can’t. It’s the most ludicrous thing in the world.”
So while the NHL and the sport have many years worth of work left to establish that Hockey is For Everyone, the black hockey history museum didn’t exist a couple years ago, so it’s a clear sign of progress. Just as young women watching the 3-on-3 game on TV Friday might have been inspired to pick up a stick and play, any minorities visiting the museum could experience the same kind of inspiration.
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