TORONTO – Seeing a banana thrown on the ice during a hockey game is as rare as a public discussion on racism in the sport.
But the connotations couldn’t be ignored when that piece of fruit came out of the stands at John Labatt Centre just as Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds, one of a handful of black players in the NHL, attempted a shootout on Thursday night.
“I’ve always said that just because we are playing a game and we’re in sports doesn’t mean the issues that plague society become invisible,” Eustace King of 02 Sports Agency, who represents Simmonds, said Friday in an interview.
It was there for everyone to see as the NHL made its annual pre-season visit to London, Ont.
For Kevin Weekes, the goaltender turned broadcaster who is currently attending the Black Congressional Caucus in Washington, D.C., it hit a little too close to home. He had a banana thrown at him during the 2002 playoffs in Montreal while he was a member of the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I’m not surprised,” said Weekes. “We have some people that still have their heads in the sand and some people that don’t necessarily want to evolve and aren’t necessarily all that comfortable with the fact that the game is evolving.
“I understand that firsthand—I’m the first black national broadcaster in NHL history, the first black broadcaster on ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’ The reality is that there’s still some people that aren’t very comfortable with that.”
The NHL called it “stupid and ignorant.” Simmonds said he was “above this sort of stuff.”
It was only a couple weeks ago that he and Weekes were part of a discussion on minorities in hockey on the TSN program “Off The Record.” Never did he expect the conversation to be picked up by the public at large with him assuming a central role.
Truth be told, the 23-year-old forward would much rather focus on hockey during his first training camp with the Flyers. He was acquired from Los Angeles over the summer as part of the Mike Richards deal.
Simmonds handled the situation with grace immediately after Thursday’s pre-season game against Detroit—”When you’re black, you kind of expect (racist) things, you learn to deal with it,” said the Toronto native—before issuing a statement Friday indicating he wouldn’t be making any further comments.
“He’s in the middle of training camp, he was traded to a new team and all he’s trying to do is showcase his ability for his new management,” said King, himself a black man who once played NCAA hockey. “This is just another thing that I will say other players don’t necessarily have to think about. When Wayne goes on the ice, he’s got this in the back of his head, that he’s got to go out and perform but he’s going to be questioned about something that has nothing to do with him.”
The incident happened during Philadelphia’s annual pre-season trip to the John Labatt Centre, an arena managed by Flyers owner Comcast-Spectacor. In a statement following the game, company president Peter Luukko said arena staff hadn’t been able to identify who threw the banana on the ice.
Norton Sports, a California-based sports management group, offered a $500 reward for the identity of the banana thrower. The Twitter offer quickly drew others promising to add to the reward and, as of Friday afternoon, Simmonds was a trending topic on the social network with everyone from fellow NHLers to former NBA star Jalen Rose commenting on the incident.
The NHL was quick to scold the unidentified culprit.
“We have millions of great fans who show tremendous respect for our players and for the game,” said commissioner Gary Bettman. “The obviously stupid and ignorant action by one individual is in no way representative of our fans or the people of London, Ontario.”
Despite the disruption, Simmonds scored in the shootout. He also had a goal in the final minute of regulation to force overtime in front of a crowd of 7,427 in the 9,090-seat arena—many of whom were cheering for the Red Wings.
Scott Timmins, a Florida Panthers prospect who played in the OHL for Windsor and Kitchener, suggested on Twitter that it was a case of London fans being their “usual self.” However, Toronto Maple Leafs forward and former London Knights star Nazem Kadri disputed that characterization of his hometown fans.
“Nothing even close, nothing even remotely close,” said Kadri, who is of Lebanese descent. “I felt like the fans in London were pretty respectful to not only their players, but the visiting players that came in as well. That’s so disrespectful.
“I’m honestly pretty shocked right now.”
It was less of a surprise for King, who also represents black players Chris Stewart and Anthony Stewart. He believes the NHL should draft a code of conduct for fans that could be printed on the back of tickets and essentially states that respect is a two-way street.
Via Twitter, Stewart called the incident “simply disgusting, its 2011 ppl need to grow up.”
King sees it as a continued problem that stretches well beyond the sport.
“The game doesn’t necessarily have very many racial problems—I don’t want to say there are none, but it’s very limited,” he said. “But I think the challenges become with people in society, there’s a great problem that’s out there that is still being addressed. Just because we’re playing sports doesn’t mean it’s going to change.”
Weekes spent 11 seasons in the NHL and believes he was subjected to subtle forms of racism from some general managers and coaches.
However, he was quick to note that the sport had treated him well overall, which is why he was eager to stay close to it with his second career as a broadcaster.
“I certainly did have a lot of those challenges along the way, but I don’t want to paint the picture that it was all about that,” said Weekes. “I was fortunate to live my dream and play in the National Hockey League. I played with lots of amazing guys and played for some great people.”
The world of soccer has seen such incidents before, from Russia to Italy.
In March, Brazilian Roberto Carlos walked off the field when a banana was thrown at him during a Russian league game.
The head of Russia’s 2018 World Cup Organizing Committee has since announced plans for an anti-racism campaign.
In April, the Russian Football Union fined Zenit St. Petersburg $10,000 after one of its fans offered a banana to the Brazilian at a pre-match ceremony before Zenit played Roberto Carlos’ Anzhi Makhachkala.
In 2008, Zenit was fined $58,000 after its fans threw bananas and made monkey chants at three black Marseille players.
Black players in Italy have also endured racial abuse.