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They tried to injure him. They called him names. But black hockey pioneer Bob Dawson didn't get even – he got organized

He endured racism everywhere from university hockey to rec league, from the 1960s to present day. So Dawson mobilized his fight and launched The Roundtable on Racism in Hockey, debuting this month with participation from the NHL.
Bob Dawson

It’s 1967. Saint Mary’s student Bob Dawson is the first black man to play in the Atlantic Intercollegiate Hockey League. Given he’s doing so just as the Civil Rights Movement is coming to the forefront of North American culture, it’s obviously tough sledding playing a rough sport dominated by white men at the time. Dawson’s teammates and coaches have welcomed him with open arms after he made the team as a walk-on, but it’s a different story when it comes to opponents. During the warmup of one game against a rival school, a storm of taunts, the ugliest imaginable, rains down on Dawson from the crowd. When the game begins, opponents pile on with more slurs. They take physical liberties, too, slew-footing and slashing him every chance they get.

In a game a couple years later against the Jr. A Halifax Atlantics, opposing left winger Mike McNevin gets physical with Dawson’s teammates. A fight breaks out, and Dawson cracks McNevin in the face, knocking his teeth out. That’s how it happened, but that’s now how it’s reported. A story after the game claims Dawson butt-ended McNevin in the mouth. Dawson considers suing the writer for defamation of character and taking the problem to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. Dawson’s coach with the Huskies, Bob Boucher, defends him adamantly in a subsequent article, and Dawson lets the reporter off the hook despite not getting an apology. In 1970, coach Boucher plays Dawson, a defenseman, with Percy Paris and Darrell Maxwell to form the first all-black line in the history of Canadian university and college hockey. Saint Mary’s defeats Mount Allison.

It’s 1980. Dawson has left the Maritimes and moved to Ottawa after earning a Master’s degree in social work from Dalhousie. He plays for a competitive tournament team, the Ottawa Travellers. Game in and game out, the racial slurs continue.

It’s 2014. Dawson, now in his late 60s, still adores hockey and hasn’t stopped playing in multiple leagues. In a local summer game, Dawson scores a goal. A teammate decides to make a joke.

“Black man scores goal,” the teammate says, describing a mock news headline.

“You know, years ago, I might have kicked your ass for saying that,” Dawson replies.

The teammates sit down at opposite ends of the bench. Eventually, Dawson’s teammate realizes what he’s done, comes over and apologizes.

They squashed the incident, but it stuck with Dawson. How were people still making comments like this in 2014? He began reflecting on all the bigotry he’d experienced dating back to his time with Saint Mary’s, and it mobilized him. He decided to start doing something constructive to combat racism in hockey. He monitored and documented any incident he could find, including at the NHL level, from social media attacks on Joel Ward and P.K. Subban during the 2012 and 2014 playoffs to last season’s incident in which fans yelled “basketball” at Devante Smith-Pelly. Those incidents notwithstanding, Dawson also became aware of a shift in hockey racism from overt to covert in modern times.

“There has now been a change in terms of how racism rears its head,” Dawson said. “It’s become sort of a coded language that is used, looking at players of color in terms of the way they dress, the way they play. ‘They’re too flamboyant,’ ‘They lack humility.’ They don’t seem to fit the mold. It goes against what the hockey establishment considers the hockey culture.”

Dawson became a writer and black hockey historian, publishing various articles and lending his expertise to various books, documentaries and news programs on the subject. In May 2015, he published an open letter, directed to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, then-Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney and CHL president David Branch. Dawson also included an annex documenting various examples of hockey-related racism.

“The goal was to say, ‘Here, there are real issues and incidences that are happening, and it’s perhaps time for this issue to be looked at,” Dawson said.

He didn’t get a response, but he didn’t give up. He had gotten to know a Queen’s associate professor named Courtney Szto through her work, which included a study on hockey racism against South Asians in B.C.. In November 2018, he pitched to her the idea of a roundtable on racism in hockey. Szto floated the idea to the kinesiology department, and the roundtable was born.

On Saturday, March 30, Queen’s will host The Roundtable on Racism in Hockey. Guest speakers will include Dawson, former Harvard Crimson captain and current Western University women’s assistant coach Kalley Armstrong, former OHLer and current Queen’s University forward Jaden Lindo and NWHL broadcaster Erica Ayala. In a big win, Dawson and Szto scored NHL participation for the event. Rob Knesaurek, the NHL’s group vice-president, youth hockey and industry growth, will participate in a Q & A session.

“I hope it will shine a light on the issue, bring together cultures, players, as well as academics and hockey officials, to look at and come up with strategies and solutions for dealing with, in a concrete and practical way, the issue of racism in hockey,” Dawson said. “From my perspective, it’s an important issue, because it’s another aspect of what is happening in the larger society. I think hockey can play a part in bringing about that social change. I would at least hope that it would or could. And hopefully the event will lead the conversation, and the initiative will not end there, but continue.”

Topics covered at the roundtable will include (a) what it’s like to be a racialized person in hockey culture, (b) how sports media, analysts and commentators contribute to racism and how they can change that, (c) how to make boardrooms and locker rooms safer spaces to talk about race and racism – and more.

For more information about the Roundtable on Racism in Hockey, including how to purchase tickets, click here.

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