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Black Hockey Roundtable: talking racism inside and outside the sport

It's time to listen. Here's what a number of black leaders in the hockey world have to say about racism.
Courtesy of Blake Bolden

Courtesy of Blake Bolden

It’s time to hear out black voices on the racism afflicting the world. That means getting the word out – with the black community doing the talking.

A number of prominent black personalities in hockey were kind enough to share their thoughts this week regarding racism inside and outside the sport:

- David Amber, Hockey Night in Canada studio host

- Blake Bolden, PWHPA defenseman & the NHL’s first black female pro scout

- Grant Fuhr, Hall of Fame goaltender

- Kwame Mason, director of the documentary Soul on Ice and co-curator of the NHL’s Black Hockey History Tour

Sarah Nurse, PWHPA forward

Here’s what they had to say.

How are you doing right now, emotionally? Are you hurting from seeing all the police violence, inspired by all the people coming together in protests, or a bit of both?

DAVID AMBER: It’s been a heavy two weeks. When the video came out of George Floyd, I watched the whole thing. I’m not sure if I should have, but I did. I felt compelled to watch what happened. And it was sickening. I just couldn’t believe the lack of humanity. Add another name to the long list of people who haven’t been treated properly and fairly and the racial inequality and injustice we continue to see.

There was a deep sadness that set in. Later, I did feel good that it seems, this time, maybe there will be a movement for proper change. We need law enforcement reform, we need a judicial reform, and it really seems like this situation might be the tipping point. I don’t want to get overly hopeful, as it’s been 29 years since Rodney King’s beating was captured on tape. There were protests, and there was shock, but it didn’t really effect too much change. I was hopeful back then, thinking, “Wow, it’s been exposed, we need to make some significant changes to how we’re doing things,” and it just sort of went away.

And I’m hoping this is different. It feels like this could be a seminal moment that could help shape the future. There are a lot of people expressing their sadness and what this means to them, and it’s opened some eyes. People, I think, are ready now. A lot of white people, too, it’s opened their eyes, and they want to listen, they want to help heal, they want to move together. I’ve said repeatedly, it’s not a black or white issue – it’s a right or wrong issue. There’s a lot of people on the side of right who are pushing right now and not going to allow this to just go away. So I’m hopeful for that.

SARAH NURSE: The past couple of weeks definitely have been very difficult and tiring. The protests and everything going on…it’s a lot, a lot to decipher and go through. The police brutality we’ve seen with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has been really devastating. It’s highlighted a lot of things. I’m not going to go into the whole good cop versus bad cop, because I’m not into generalizing a whole population or group of people, but there are things that need to be said. There are stands that definitely need to be made. With COVID going on, people are going out and protesting and risking their health and safety because they believe they need to take a stand and that justice needs to be served.

BLAKE BOLDEN: There is sadness and frustration and, I guess, relief that people are starting to wake up – unfortunately under the passing of an individual. But it’s important that, as I was speaking to one of my former teammates, for the first time I felt comfortable talking about these issues. I had always tried to carry myself with respect and be that role model, not necessarily talking about racism but being a pillar of race within the sport. This situation has come to everyone’s doorstep, and now it’s something we can’t ignore or say isn’t a thing. Because clearly, and as I’ve known and experienced, it is still prevalent, and we need to do our part in being anti-racist and informing ourselves and educating ourselves so that we shut this down.

GRANT FUHR: It’s disappointing to see everything that’s going on. But at the same time, it’s been a powder keg that’s been there for years, and that’s the unfortunate part. If you look at the big picture, it took a bad person to trigger it all. Society right now, there’s so much hate in it that it was only a matter of time before somebody set a match to it. I don’t call him a police officer. I call him a murderer in a police officer’s uniform. He set off the powder keg.

But I’ve always been a glass-half-full guy, and what I see is…the black community is a very strong community, and yes, it’s been slighted for a long time, but at the same time there are a lot of people who support it. There’s a lot of different races that support it and understand what’s going on. And that’s the good side. That’s the positive side of it. The really bad side of it is the rioters and anarchists that have hijacked a great opportunity for social change.

KWAME MASON: To be honest with you, in this moment right now, as we’re speaking, I’m nervous. It’s a scared nervous, like the feeling I’d get as a kid when I knew I was in trouble or something, and it just wasn’t going to be a happy night or happy day, and it was just going to be tense. I feel really nervous for the world and where we go from here and how this plays out. I’m just nervous for the families, and a lot stems from the fact I’ve got a two-and-a-half-year-old who is going to have to grow up in this world.

And I remember just a couple days ago, I started flashing back to when I was old enough to go on my own to parties, coming back and still living at home. I’ve got that freedom, I’m a young man, I’m going to go to the club or to this event or I’ve got to do this performance or whatever it may be. I would go out, and I would come home at 2:30, 3:00 in the morning, and my mom would just call out my name, and I’d be like, “Why are you still up? Go to sleep! We’re good!” She’d say, “I can’t sleep until I know you’re home. And she and I would argue about that, because I thought at that time, “This is dumb. Just go to sleep. I’m fine. I can take care of myself.”

And now, I’m thinking the other day, “I’m not going to be able to sleep when my kid gets older.” With this quarantine, I’ve been staring at him, thinking, “Man, you’ve got to go through this?” I know I went through it. I’ve been thrown up against walls by police. I’m not trying to exaggerate. I can tell you situations where I was arrested. They put a charge of resisting arrest and assaulting police on me, and I had to go to court, and they had to throw the case out because there was nothing! But I had to be thrown up against a police car, I had to be put in jail, I had to get a lawyer and do the whole nine yards. When they realized, “Nah, we’ve got nothing on this guy,” they said “Case dismissed.”

And that was just me. I remember when I was a kid, I used to go to New York every summer to visit my cousin, and I remember one summer I went there, and my cousin’s face was f--- up. He got the s--- beaten out of him, and it was the cops in that neighborhood. It was disgusting. The police rolled through and got busy. And this was in the ’90s. If you think things are crazy now, imagine what it was back then! Imagine what it was in the ’70s and ’80s. Imagine what it was like when there were no cell phones.

So how do I feel right now? I feel nervous. But with every negative there’s a positive. I used to tell myself that all the time growing up, because I used to have a lot of bad days. And what would get me through those bad days is knowing there’s a good day tomorrow. And it’s corny, but you know what that little curly-haired redheaded girl said? The sun will come up tomorrow. And it’s true. It’s what I say to myself. In our world, there’s negative energy and positive energy, so with every piece of negative energy, there’s going to be a piece of positive energy. I have to believe that, because if I don’t, I’m going to lose my mind as a black man in this world. It’s not about countries and spaces and this or that territory. It’s about the world.

Be it inside or outside the hockey world, what are some hardships you’ve had to endure as a black person?

BLAKE BOLDEN: I played boys hockey, and a lot of girls that play professionally, a lot of my colleagues and teammates started out playing boys’ hockey. So I think a lot of them feel the weight of being different and put in this box. So not only was I the only girl, but I was the only black person on my team, and that was very difficult as a young girl. That’s when I started to hear and feel the wrath of parents and their children. It trickled down from their parents to the kids on the ice.

My mother would hear things in the stands. My father is white, not biological but he is my father – and he would hear things, but the parents wouldn’t know he was my dad. So I would overhear my parents talking about the things that were said about me, but they would never tell me these things because they wanted to protect me. “Who does that black girl think she is?” or using the N-word, or “This girl shouldn’t be out here.” Just ridiculous things, not only because of my race but because of my gender. So that was really hard growing up.

I’ve been called the N-word many times on the ice. I’m a defenseman, so protecting my goaltender was my priority, and when I would assert myself, words would be thrown. And I would shell up and wouldn’t really have a response, because there’s (no response) to have with that hatred. I don’t have hate in me, really, so I would just stay quiet. My teammates around me would rile up, and then I would snap back into like, “Whoa. That was an experience.”

That’s how it was for me. With my gradual incline within the sport and playing with women, I think we’re a lot more supportive of one another and a little bit more family oriented. There wasn’t as much racism that I heard. It was more microaggressions, and that was due to pure ignorance and not understanding that maybe it wasn’t the right thing to say. So it’s, “Should I say something? Should I shake up the locker room? Should I just be quiet?” There were all those things I had to navigate.

DAVID AMBER: I’ve been asked about that a fair bit. I’ve had a lot of people reaching out to me, friends, questioning, “Is it really that bad? Do these things happen?” And I say, yeah, they do happen. In 2018, a human rights commission outlined in Toronto, which I consider a great city, the place I grew up, a report on racial injustice in policing. And what it found was a black person in Toronto was 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal police shooting. They were overrepresented in cases of excessive force and deadly encounters. This is a systemic problem, and I’ve had a few things, like being pulled over in my car for no reason. That’s happened a few times, where I’ve had to explain – “Where’s your registration and license?” – I hand it back to them – “So you own the car?” And I’m like, “I just handed you the registration and ownership, yes.” Those sorts of things have happened to me. It’s unfortunate.

I do think now is a good time to have the dialogue continued and opened and for people to really take note that this isn’t a one-off thing. George Floyd is not a standalone event. People need to realize that. Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Trayvon Martin, I can go on and on and on and on. It’s a continuing problem, a long line of social injustices. It’s a systemic issue.

SARAH NURSE: Growing up, playing hockey, I’ve always been questioned, and people haven’t understood why I play hockey. I’ve always been asked why I didn’t stick with basketball or track and field. I’ve had someone come up to me saying, “I will absolutely never understand why you play hockey.” I felt that, in the hockey community, I didn’t always belong, because I was a black hockey player and a black female hockey player, so a double minority. The sad thing is, unless you’re an elite player, unless you have exceptional talent, a lot of people don’t take black people playing hockey seriously, which is very sad. It’s not good enough that black kids love hockey and have a passion for it and want to play the sport. They have to be good at it or they’re not respected. And that’s sad.

In the last year in Canada, I’ve heard about racial slurs being thrown at different children, black children, indigenous children, and it breaks my heart that it’s happening to them, because people don’t always believe them. And I’m willing to put my life on the line when I say they’re not lying. Because people don’t pull out the race card unless it’s something serious. There need to be top-down things going on that are really going to change it and policies put into place to say, “We’re not going to stand for this. We’re not going to tolerate this in our hockey community.”

GRANT FUHR: I was fortunate in the beginning and sheltered from it playing in Canada, in Edmonton on a good hockey team. I didn’t really realize it until I got traded to Buffalo. All of a sudden you get banned from a golf club. I was out with a friend and ordered breakfast, and all of a sudden he can’t get served. It was an eye opener for me once I crossed into the United States. And after my suspension, I saw it even more. At the same time, you learn to deal with it and play on. We’re lucky enough to play a game for a living, and you can try to tune it out. Society, however, can’t tune it out. Society has to grow, and it hasn’t done that.

KWAME MASON: The hardest part was identifying myself on that ice and having nobody that made me feel like I could be a part of the game just as much as anyone else. Culturally, at that time, late ’70s, early ’80s, the stereotypes were so hard. My black friends would say, “It’s the white boys’ sport, I’m not playing that. I’m only doing it because we have to for gym class.” And then you flip it with my friends who were white, and it was, “Black people don’t like hockey because their ankles are too thin. You guys should just play basketball.” So I was in the middle of it, and I felt I had to pick a side, and I picked what my black friends were doing. When I played hockey at that time in my life, I hung out mostly with white kids. So BMX biking, my music of choice was heavy metal, my sport was hockey. But when I got into junior high school and discovered the black kids of my neighbourhood and started hanging with them, everything changed. I started listening to rap music. One thing I wish could’ve stayed in there was the game of hockey, but it became a guilty pleasure.

As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. As a black person who is a public figure, is it a source of pride when people rely on you to speak out on important issues? Is it stressful to bear that weight?

DAVID AMBER: I would never characterize it as a burden. I take it as a privilege. I also take it as a responsibility. To be afforded a platform is a great thing when you can use that platform in a positive way. I’m one voice in many, many, many voices, but I do think I understand that people want to hear from people in the black community who have witnessed some of these things first hand, and they want to hear our perspective. I think that’s great. It’s going to take everyone pulling together in the same direction to effect proper change, but I do consider it a real privilege that I have the chance to have my voice heard and maybe shed some light on a very serious issue.

KWAME MASON: I handle it with the utmost pride and respect. With putting out my movie, it put me in the space where you have considered yourself an authority on this subject matter. So when something happens, people go out and talk to those who have spent the time researching and working through these situations. So if they didn’t come to me, I’d be offended. Because I spent three years of my life…I sold my condominium. I was broke. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills. I used to be a smoker, and I stopped because I couldn’t even buy a pack of cigarettes! And I did that because I believed the black face and the black voice in hockey needed to be heard. And nobody was talking about it. Nobody. When I put that out there, it opened up a door and a floodgate where people were like, "We can discuss this." And I found so many allies in different mediums. Gary Bettman, CBC, Global. It opened a door.

So I take it with pride, but I understand I have a responsibility to not just go off the cuff. I have to be intelligent about that. Because words matter. And if I say the wrong thing, it could make a family say, “I’m not putting my kid in this game.” But if I say the right thing, it could make a family say, “You know what? I want to give this game a chance.” Because when I was growing up, there was no narrative for us, so I just did not give the game a chance. And I’m so glad people like Kevin Weekes and Anson Carter and Georges Laraque persevered through adversity and put themselves out there for us right now.

So when I hear people talking about, ‘Hockey Isn’t for Everyone.’ When I hear people blasting the National Hockey League, I get offended. You’re telling me hockey’s not for me? It gave me a second chance in life. I had nothing. If my film failed, I was screwed. Gary Bettman called me up and said, “Kwame, come help us out. We’re going to put on a screening. I’ve heard your story. I’m going to try and figure out a way you can make some money because you sacrificed all that.” Sometimes the game of hockey has not been kind to thousands of people of color, and I feel for them. But I’m here to tell them that I’m here to fight for you. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen again. So if I can do something positive to help make sure our younger generation of black and brown boys and girls, or indigenous or Asian or East Indian kids, want to play the game of hockey, I want to make sure my voice spreads so it can open up a safe space for these children. I just want them to just play, and just play together.

BLAKE BOLDEN: I don't see myself as powerful. I am who I am, and just being myself, I can represent the masses, so that’s really my M.O. I don’t get a sense of pride at all from people asking me. I’m a shy person by nature, so I think it’s uncomfortable – but at the same time it’s necessary. There are responsibilities if there’s an issue and people are asking for education and a friend comes to me and says, “Hey, what are the things I can do?” On one hand it’s, “Have you tried to educate yourself, or are you just coming to me because I’m your black friend?” On the other hand it’s, “I know you’re a good person, and I care about you, and I want you to get all the knowledge and understanding of where our frustration as the black community comes from.”

SARAH NURSE: I’ve been really active through social media just trying to provide people with resources to educate themselves, because it’s not my job to educate you. But I shared a post on social media the other day about my experience and learning about white privilege and where we are and where we need to go. I shared that because I know my audience. I know I have a huge hockey-community audience that is not black, and what’s going on in the U.S. right now with George Floyd may not completely resonate with them. They may have separated themselves from that. I needed to highlight that these things, these microaggressions, these racial biases we have, they exist and they happen every single day. That was how I connected to my audience. I wanted them to see it from a different perspective.

From your perspective, what is the best way to fight for change right now? Is it protesting? Writing? Speaking? Social media? All of the above? Something else?

KWAME MASON: The solution is not burning down the house, because it takes away from everything we’re trying to do. It gives those who are opposed to change an excuse. What I want to do, what I’m hoping we all do, is listen to those who are hurting and have some empathy, and as far as actions go, it’s more than the lip service. It’s more than putting out a tweet or a post. It’s about doing something.

And your voice can be a piece of action. I saw Jonathan Toews’ Instagram post and Logan Couture’s tweets, and they were heavy. Those were words, but they said, “These boys have picked a side.” And that side is, “I’m going to listen, empathize and be part of the discussion.” And I can’t wait until the day I meet those guys, because I’m going to give them a hug and say, “Thank you for saying that.” Right now, a lot of players are getting blasted for not saying anything, and that, to me, is not the point. The point is not about who specifically needs to say anything. I always say, “I want you to speak out, but I want you to speak out because it’s in your heart. I want you to speak out because you’re sleeping, and at 3:30 a.m. you wake up and say, “This is bothering me. I’ve got to express myself and show people I understand.” That’s what I want, because that’s genuine.

And I think the peaceful protesting needs to continue to the point where we have these open discussions. We need to continue things like podcasts, but we need to not pretend things aren’t happening. We need to talk. We need to bring people on and say, “How are you doing?” We need to reach out to our brothers and sisters. If you know someone who’s black, you need to reach out to them and say, “How are you doing? What are you thinking about? You good? If you need to talk, talk to me.” That goes a long way, because it lets people know you feel for what they may be going through.

And if you don’t agree with the cause for George Floyd – just stay out of our way. Because we’re not talking to you, we’re not touching you, we’re not in your space, we’re not stopping you from having a livelihood. Just let us do our thing.

DAVID AMBER: Protesting is good to let people know we’re not going to sit there and be complicit in this. We’re not going to sit there idly and allow people to be marginalized. Protesting, though, has its limitations until people vote in people who are ready to enact change. That is your strongest voice. In a democracy, being able to vote is the most important thing – and to put the pressure on the people voted in to listen to their constituents. The protesting helps, because I think it really shows the level of care and anger and frustration. But until these social injustices are met, what have we accomplished? There are still three police officers who were complicit and involved in the murder of George Floyd, one on his back, one on his legs, one standing guard, essentially, looking very indifferent the whole time as a man pleaded for his life and did nothing. Until we hold everyone accountable, we’re not moving in the right direction. (update: the other officers have been charged as of Wednesday afternoon)

How do you get that direction? We’re going to need a reform. We need to change the system. The system is broken and needs to be fixed so that there’s in place an ability to police the police when they need to be, an ability for people to be met with equality, to lessen the distrust and frustration we see in the current system that clearly isn’t working. Protests are the first step, but what comes after protests is that we need to get in place a system where there can be proper reform, where there’s healing taking place because the system works for all of us, not just some of us.

SARAH NURSE: It’s a combination of everything. Some people are going to be comfortable protesting and going out and making that really public showing, but then there are other people who are not comfortable with that. So writing, doing podcasts, sharing on social media, those are huge pieces, because that’s ultimately how we consume information at this point. You don’t necessarily look to black public figures or black people to educate you, but to be provided resources and to do your own research and examine your belief systems, that’s how we really change. It’s also about, as a collective population, people putting pressure on people of power and the government, because that’s how we’re going to make change.

BLAKE BOLDEN: I think in our hockey space, the best solution is having these conversations, because I think we don’t have the conversations. And reading the experiences of other NHL players of color coming out saying, “Hey, this is the real thing, I’ve dealt with it, this is what was said to me, and this is how I feel about it,” it’s triggering. It’s understanding and uplifting one another. We are claiming that “Hockey is for Everyone,” and I do believe and want hockey to be for everyone, but we have to come together in understanding and create that allyship within one another. As far as cities around the country, I am for peaceful protests. I, as a young girl, was brought up on idolizing our great leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I believe in peace. I don’t think hate can fix this. But I think education and using our right of freedom of speech is important.

GRANT FUHR: I think the solution is all of the above. Through podcasts, through interviews, through media, through social media, through protesting, but it’s got to be peaceful protests. That’s the biggest thing. If you’re going to protest, it has to be peaceful. You can’t have the rioting and looting, because the message gets lost. It’s unfortunate that the message has been hijacked. My perspective is, I have no issue with protests. Peaceful protesting is one way to get your point across. It was a big part of Martin Luther King’s cause. But you can’t have rioting and looting, because it takes away from that message.

A common question among non-minorities right now is, “What’s the best thing we can do to help?" Is it about getting the message out, just stopping to listen or something else?

BLAKE BOLDEN: The one thing non-black people can do, or white people if you will, is be introspective and try to realize their privilege. Even if they grew up in a household where their parents told them not to see color, that’s great, that’s amazing, but understanding you have a one-step or multiple-step advantage over other people in the country is important – why that is and how that is. So I would say to think about the ways in which you carry yourself, and if you care and are upset about these injustices, then we can make an action, whether it’s signing petitions or peacefully protesting or sharing and posting. But if you’re not the type of person who is outwardly audible about your feelings, I would just suggest you understand you have the advantage and to educate yourself. Because knowledge is power, and if we can all understand, then we all have the capability to lift the black community up.

KWAME MASON: I would say first and foremost, it’s to listen. Secondly, just let people of color know you hear what they’re saying and you support them. Almost like, “I can’t tell exactly what you’re going through, but I just want you to know that I’m here for you, and if you need me, I’ve got you. Just call me and I’ve got your back.” Those are the most important things white people can do. It shouldn’t be hard to understand that racism is bad. And if you feel racism is bad and you know a person of color, just reach out to them. Let them know you empathize with them. A lot of white people have a lot of black friends, but a lot of white people do not know some of the trauma those black people been through. It can be a matter of saying, “Did that happen to you? What was that like?” Because if you know somebody who’s been through something like that, your whole perspective is going to change: “That happened to my brother, that happened to my friend, and I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”

SARAH NURSE: We’ve been seeing this in the past few days, especially about silence not being an option and how, if you are silent, you’re being part of the problem. Everyone is going to feel comfortable taking action in their own specific way. It’s listening and it’s educating yourself, but it’s also making your voices heard. We’re not rolling with the being color blind thing. We’re recognizing that, yes, you are black, you are white, there are differences in your skin color, but we are all part of the human race, and we should all be treated equally. So it’s definitely using your voice in a productive way. It’s educating your family and friends, and if you see something, if you hear somebody say something racist, it’s standing up and saying, “Listen, that’s not going to be tolerated here or anywhere.” There’s definitely a voice for non-black people, but it’s also about really listening and hearing the stories and voices of black people, because they’re so important, and it’s about them right now.

DAVID AMBER: The most important thing for everyone and maybe especially white people in North America: you can’t be a passive bystander. Action is needed. It’s not enough at this point to just say, “I don’t discriminate, I treat everyone equally, I show humanity and respect for people.” That’s fantastic, but you also need to call out when you see injustice, when you see discrimination, when you see wrongs. We’re at a point now where we need everyone to stand together, locked arms, and say, “Enough’s enough. We need to do this together for the good of society.”


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