Hockey and Black History Month have a sort of awkward relationship. Inevitably, February serves as the convenient time to tell stories of diversity in the NHL’s past and present, but also consequently reminds the reader how these plotlines are largely ignored during the other 11 months of the year.
This presents much hand-wringing amongst members of hockey’s media, who, by and large, have the diversity of a John Mayer fan club. The result? Wishy-washy columns about how skin color shouldn’t matter anymore backed up by testimonials from black NHLers forced to confirm a loaded question: Hockey’s not racist, right? Your teammates, the 20-plus guys you see every day for nine months and will no doubt hear your answer to this question, aren’t racist, right?
Talk about a Catch-22.
Ironically, given the singular obsession that hockey is for nearly all NHLers, I’d assume the majority of dressing rooms are pretty cool to race issues; if you love hockey and play the game well, that’s all that matters.
For black players, nearly all of them come from towns where hockey is Sport No. 1, anyway, playing would have been second nature. Dustin Byfuglien of the Blackhawks, for example, grew up in Roseau, Minn., a town with three hockey rinks and less than 3,000 people. Ray Emery grew up on a farm outside Hamilton, Ont. Georges Laraque is from Montreal. Enough said. Mike Grier is the noticeable exception; he grew up in a football family.
As for how these players fit in to the fabric of their teams, one of my favorite stories is how Byfuglien mockingly accuses his Chicago teammates of being racist when they shut off the hip-hop he likes to play in the dressing room.
Of course, it hasn’t always been this way and it wasn’t that long ago John Vanbiesbrouck resigned as coach of the Ontario League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for using a racial slur against defenseman Trevor Daley. But progress is being made through numbers.
This is why it is still important to “make race an issue,” for lack of a better term. Jarome Iginla has pointed out in interviews how important it was for him growing up to have Grant Fuhr as an example when other kids told Iggy he didn’t “look” like an NHLer. And it’s the same reason Willie O’Ree still works in a visible position with the NHL; mentorship strengthens the future.
O’Ree paved the way for Mike Marson and the connection between the two is very direct. Marson’s father never forgot the public statements then-Bruins coach Milt Schmidt made in support of O’Ree at the time and was delighted when, years later, his son signed with Schmidt, then the GM of the Washington Capitals.
As the years went on, players such as Tony McKegney and Claude Vilgrain held the torch and now the base of black NHLers is wider than ever. But say Calgary wins the Stanley Cup this year. For some hockey writers, it would be terrible to lead off that story with the fact Iginla would be the first black captain of a championship NHL team. They think we’re beyond that.
Well, I hate to break it to you, but it’s not about us white folks for once.
Instead, think of what that bit of trivia would mean to a player such as Evander Kane, who has a chance to become the highest drafted black player ever this summer. As a star with the Western League’s Vancouver Giants, Kane is projected to go in the top 10, which would usurp one of his role models, Iginla, who was taken 11th overall by Dallas in 1995. Depending on the way things shake out, the youngster could even best one of Iginla’s role models, Fuhr, who was taken eighth overall by Edmonton way back in ’81.
To be sure, all these guys ever wanted to do was play in the NHL, but if these special connections helped them at all along the way, who are we to get upset because of our own racial hang-ups? The hand-wringing must end here.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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