Column: For the NHL, the battle to eradicate racism in the sport continues
On Jan. 20, the day designated to honor the nonviolent teachings and civil rights activism of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bakersfield Condors defenseman Brandon Manning spat a racial slur at Bokondji Imama, a Montreal native who is black and plays for the Ontario Reign, the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Manning was ejected and suspended for five games. Imama, whose parents immigrated to Canada from the Democratic Republic of Congo, called the incident unfortunate and added, “I am very proud to be an African Canadian hockey player and to stand for all other players that are in the same situation as me.”
It didn’t get much attention, maybe because it occurred in a minor league game or because it seemed counter to hockey’s collective woke conscience. The NHL supports initiatives to fight racism and increase inclusion, especially with its Hockey Is for Everyone program and annual Black History Month.
In November, after Calgary coach Bill Peters admitted he’d uttered racial slurs to black player Akim Aliu a decade earlier and resigned, the league adopted a code of conduct to discourage racism and bullying. Enlightenment appeared to have taken hold in the NHL, which had about 45 black players this season.
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Another incident in April exposed the racism that still smolders.
In years gone by, throwing bananas at black players was the default insult for low-life bigots. Their hatred went high tech when 20-year-old New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller, a biracial Minnesota native, repeatedly was targeted by racial epithets during a Zoom chat conducted to introduce him to fans. Miller reserved comment because “it seemed like there were so many other priorities in the world that it wasn’t my place to speak out,” he said on Twitter.
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“I struggle because I’ve never been fully accepted by either the black community or the white community,” Miller said. “I struggle because for years I have been one of the only people of color on my hockey teams. I have been targeted because of my race when I was in youth hockey by some coaches, parents and players, but I refused to give up because of my love for the game.”
Being drafted by the Rangers meant, “For that one moment in time I didn’t have to be defined by the color of my skin but rather on my hockey skills, athletic ability and character,” he said. “This is how it should be all the time. It’s time for action, time for change and once and for all, it’s time to let black people be judged based on who we are, not what we look like.”
Former NHL goaltender and current NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, whose parents moved to Canada from Barbados, is among the league’s most visible personalities. In 2002, when he played for the Carolina Hurricanes, a banana was thrown toward him after a playoff game at Montreal’s Bell Centre.
Carolina’s general manager, Jim Rutherford, wanted to pursue justice but Weekes opted to “let it go,” Rutherford said then. Black players were reluctant to complain, fearful of being labeled selfish or weak in a sport that prizes teamwork and toughness.
Similarly, former Kings forward Wayne Simmonds downplayed the harm when a fan threw a banana at him during a 2011 exhibition in London, Canada. “You learn to deal with it,” he said. But Weekes, who had promised himself he’d denounce injustice as a commentator “whether people liked it or not,” condemned it.
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And Weekes applauds the public stances taken by black players such as Miller, Minnesota defenseman Matt Dumba and San Jose forward Evander Kane, valuing their openness and calls for action as progress from his own constrained era. Aliu, Kane, Dumba, Simmonds, Trevor Daley,, Chris Stewart and Joel Ward announced on Monday they have formed the Hockey Diversity Alliance, which will be independent of the NHL as it works for diversity and education within the sport.
“I didn’t feel safe enough or secure enough, not in me as a person, but I felt like the atmosphere with certain people and the perception of certain people weren’t conducive to really being honest,” Weekes said by phone from his home in Florida. “What’s challenging is if and when you share something and it’s proven it’s factual, it’s almost like people are mad that you’re saying that. I’ve seen that personally and professionally. Don’t be mad that I’m hurt by it — just don’t do it.
“What’s also hard, in the event that people have positions of influence or positions of control, you know you’re beholden to not being able to say anything. And they know that too, so they know they can continue doing that. That’s the thing for me. I understand where those guys came from because I know as a player I felt disempowered. I didn’t really want to say it and go through it.”
As a kid, Weekes played on inclusive teams. That changed at the junior level. “I had some instances where my parents are in rinks and people are yelling epithets at them. Or players that I’m playing against are yelling epithets at them,” he said. “And then the [awful] thing was the refs would be like, ‘We didn’t hear it. We didn’t hear anything.’ What are you talking about — did your ears selectively not work? That type of thing.
“And then in the American League and International League I had no problems, but once I got to the NHL it started to become a bit of a thing at different times playing against different players, in different markets. Or with media in markets where I played, they’d call me by the wrong name.”
Weekes praised the NHL’s efforts to combat racism and singled out some club executives as allies, including Rutherford — now Pittsburgh’s general manager — and Glen Sather, who brought many black players to Edmonton and the Rangers.
Hockey is known for helping its own in times of trouble and tragedy, and that’s happening now as white players voice their support. Kings captain Anze Kopitar tweeted that while he can’t understand what it’s like to be black in America, “It is our responsibility to advocate for justice and equality, and to condemn racism and prejudice of all forms. We cannot stay silent.”
Weekes was heartened by that. “It does mean a lot to know that those people are putting wind beneath your wings and they respect you enough as a person and as a professional,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to have those people, but at the same time we have some knuckleheads within our sport that need to be gone.”
Discussing what’s wrong is the only hope to make things right. Hockey players and fans must commit to that. Silence in the face of racism is as bad as racism itself.
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