An Ugly Reminder: Racism in Hockey

The day after the Washington Capitals downed the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in overtime, we should have been talking about what a great series it was. Instead, we’ve been forced to focus on the actions of a few severely misguided individuals who felt the need to react with hate-filled comments on the scorer of the game’s winning goal.

Joel Ward scored what could be one of the more important goals in Washington Capitals history, sending his team to the Eastern Conference semifinals, yet faced questions regarding racism directed toward him by some sour fans on Twitter.

When the tweets were amplified by The Huffington Post and other outlets to expose the public show of racism, the outrage was instant from all across the hockey community and beyond. (You can read many of the tweets on Chirpstory, if you have the stomach for it.)

While the widespread outrage shows that the racists are in the minority, there is nothing any amount of outrage can do to take back the things that these few people said.

Hockey fans are protectionists by nature. We have to defend our game against any ill perception toward it. We continually say this is just a few people that are making these comments and they’re not “real fans” or representatives of our sport, however we can’t take back what they said. Like it or not, as Harrison Mooney spoke of in this terrific piece on the issue for Puck Daddy, these are hockey fans, unfortunately. We hope that the outside world doesn’t perceive the rest of us based on the actions of a few, but there will be inevitably a few who will see this as another instance of hockey’s lack of acceptance.

We shouldn’t shy away from a deeper conversation that we clearly need to have. No matter how small the number of people spewing hatred is, we need to all take a minute and look at our game and why we see tweets like this after a black player scores a goal, but not after a black player scores a touchdown.

In a “If you can play, you can play” era, we have to wonder how accepting our sport really is. Have we, as hockey fans, made enough strides to make our game inclusive to people of all races, gender or sexual orientation?

Hate speech as we saw on Twitter Wednesday night puts up another roadblock to moving the game forward. Hockey is apparently progressive, yet the perception still exists from those outside the sport that hockey is a sport for white males. There is little we can do in the short term to change that somewhat understandable perception.

While shouting down the racists was the right reaction in the short term, what are we doing in the long term?

There is clearly more work to be done.

As Ward told Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times:

“It’s a few people that just made a couple of terrible comments, but what can you do?” he said Friday. “I know what I signed up for. I’m a black guy playing a predominantly white sport. It’s just going to come with the territory. I’d feel naive or foolish to think that it doesn’t exist. It is what it is and it’s going to be part of here and part of life.”

On the surface, it’s a player taking it all in stride. Ward is showing tremendous reserve in the face of blatant personal attacks based on the color of his skin. However, reading the actual words is profoundly sad.

“But what can you do?” That’s the question the rest of us should be asking ourselves instead of Ward asking that of himself.

“It’s just going to come with the territory.”

“It is what it is and it’s going to be a part of life.”

How many NFL, NBA or MLB players have to go about their business resigned to the fact that racism is going to come with the territory? Sure, racism exists in everyday life and will always be in the back of the minds of minority athletes, but not in the way Ward describes, I don’t think. The culture has made it acceptable for a black man to be a professional athlete in those sports. Hockey’s not there yet and has a long way to go.

We know that racism is alive and well in the United States even in 2012, and there’s probably always going to be some amount of it. You can’t change everyone’s minds. You can’t make everyone be nice to everyone.

That said, hockey has to work harder than any sport because it is predominantly white. Because it is predominantly white it can intimidate potential minority fans and players and that is where hockey’s growth gets stunted.

Hockey is not exclusive on purpose. It shouldn’t be exclusive at all, but because of its history, its culture and its lack of minorities in the pros, it is.

Though we should not allow the comments about Joel Ward to signify wide-spread racism in hockey, as that is surely not the case, we have to understand that our sport, as wonderful as it is, still has a long way to go. It is on us to make sure it gets to whatever that point is.

Our protectionism of hockey cannot allow us to simply say, “These people don’t represent us,” and move on. It is a significant issue that we must address for the future of the sport. It is not a widespread issue, but it is something that halts the growth of hockey in the United States. If the game is isolated from a good portion of the country’s population because of a perception that it is a “White’s Only” sport, we haven’t done enough to change it.

It may take decades, it may take forever. The words directed at Joel Ward are unsurprising in that we know racism still exists, but when it happens under the umbrella of the sport we love, we have to make a decision to be more proactive in making sure it happens less, even if we can’t prevent it outright.

The NHL has taken a prominent role in supporting diversity in hockey with its Hockey Is For Everyone program, in which hockey’s Jackie Robinson, Willie O’Ree (a former Bruin no less) plays a significant role.

Programs like that will help, but it’s also on the fans and supporters of the game to make sure hockey is indeed for everyone. We all have to find ways to eliminate roadblocks and make hockey less intimidating for a person who doesn’t think they’ll be accepted.

Most people will find the hockey community very welcoming, but they’re not walking through those doors without a nudge.

Changing perceptions isn’t easy, but nothing worth doing usually is.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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3 Responses to An Ugly Reminder: Racism in Hockey

  1. Martin Breen says:

    Those who chose to see a black guy score the OT winner versus a Cap player scoring the OT winner have a problem you cannot cure on this site or in a thousand and one sensitivity sessions. For some people, race means everything but for the large majority, it means nothing. Especially to the young kids (those under 20), they don’t see color at all.

    I think the way to combat it is to show your support for Ward as a hockey player and to strongly denounce the comments on those individual sites that posted the offending messages. But let’s not suggest it’s some huge problem for hockey. It’s a problem, like it is for all sports but it’s not hockey’s biggest problem by far.

    If you want more diversity in hockey, there’s only one way to fix that and that is to make it more affordable for working class families. USA Hockey is a huge corporation that wants to control the marketplace and keep the gravy training going for its sponsors, coaches and rink owners. This is the biggest threat to hockey. Who is looking out for the parents that sacrifce so much so their kids can play this sport?

    We parents are customers and we can take our business elsewhere. USA Hockey should be mindful of that instead of treating parents like some necessary evil.

    My suggestion: Create a new position at USA Hockey, VP in charge of Player & Family Experience whose sole job is to make hockey affordable and protect parents and players from unscrupulous coaches and scouts who prey on families trying to give their kids an opportunity to reach their dream. At best, USA Hockey has been grossly negligent for decades in this department. At worst, they are complicit in it.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Links: Reactions to Twitter racism against Joel Ward; Examining cultures of hitting and violence in hockey; Where in the world were NHL players born? « Hockey in Society

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