The 2019-20 NHL season has been one of frustration, mental exhaustion and constant confusion. Seeing as I’m a Leafs fan, you may feel that like I’m making reference to the Mike Babcock era of the season, Frederik Andersen’s inability to make a five-hole save or the consistent inconsistencies of the team’s play.
This season was a relentless wave of ‘agains’.
Don Cherry is removed from his position on Hockey Night in Canada for a xenophobic rant that was far from being the worst thing he’s said on air. Akim Aliu bravely voiced the dark past of his experience growing in the game of hockey identifying former Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters as one of its perpetrators. Weeks later, Brandon Manning would be suspended five AHL games for using a racist slur against Bokondji Imama.
But let’s not pretend this has been the only year of exposed racism in the NHL.
When I was a four-year-old, I remember my cousin explaining to me that Washington Capitals forward Chris Simon would be suspended three games for using a racist slur against Mike Grier of the Edmonton Oilers.
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.
When I had waves of excitement going through my head getting ready for my first year of university, I learned that Wayne Simmonds had a banana thrown at him during a preseason game in London Ontario.
When you’re black, you kind of expect (racist) things. You learn to deal with it.”
On one of my daily commutes to school, I found myself reading an article by the Globe and Mail titled ‘Is the NHL tough enough on racism?’, where David Shoalts discussed the incident between Krys Barch and P.K. Subban. Barch was given a 10-minute game misconduct and eventually suspended one game for asking Subban if he, “slipped on a banana peel” during the scrum.
Barch said at the time that it wasn’t racially charged, but the fact it occurred 6 months after the Simmonds incident was an odd coincidence.
Unfortunately in that same article, I was reminded of John Vanbiesbrouck, who would use the N-word to refer to Trevor Daley in conversations with players when head coach of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, causing Daley to leave the team.
And just two years ago in 2018, Devante Smith-Pelly was victim of “basketball” chants from Chicago Blackhawks fans while sitting in the penalty box.
Devante Smith-Pelly on the incident last night in Chicago. pic.twitter.com/Oz9qfFWMQH— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) February 18, 2018
My whole life I would ask myself, “Why do I like this sport?”
Why do I continue to support a game where I’m only represented in a few teams? Why do I watch a sport that doesn’t appear to fight for and believe in the same things I do? Why do I watch a sport that doesn’t seem to care about who I am?
Who am I exactly?
You may know me as the Leafs Twitter GIF-anime guy, but first and foremost, I’m a Black man.
I’m a Black man who was seen and experienced the things Akim Aliu describes in his Players Tribune article. I’m a Black man who emotionally followed the careers of Jarome Iginla and Joel Ward as they gave me something in hockey to hold on to.
Like many Leafs fans close to my age, Mats Sundin was one of the few to trigger the love of the game for me growing up in Toronto. However, Black players such as Iginla, Ward, Daley, Subban, Simmonds, Dustin Byfuglien, Anson Carter and Georges Laraque to name a few reinforced and strengthened that love.
Iginla, especially, was everything to me growing up. He proved that someone like me didn’t have to only be a fighter. He proved that someone like me could be a star and a leader. I still remember the salt from the tears streaming down my face hearing Sidney Crosby scream his name ahead of the game winner for Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Black representation has grown in the NHL, but the treatment of Black people and respect for their rights hasn’t. Whether you go back and recount Aliu’s story or remember the confused expression of K’Andre Miller as he watched the waves of hate on that computer screen, we continue to be at a standstill. And that’s what makes what is happening in the United States so significant.
The murder of George Floyd by police officers has reignited lanes and avenues for discussion. It’s touched my heart to see all people, including white people, speak out and share their thoughts and ways to help. And as a Black man who loves hockey, seeing its white stars speak out has been a foreign experience that I never realized how badly I needed until I saw it.
Blake Wheeler. Jonathan Toews. Logan Couture. Steven Stamkos. Tyler Seguin. Jason Zucker. Braden Holtby. You have no idea what it means to read what you have written. You’ve used your platforms to speak out against anti-Black racism and the countless issues in society that perpetrate hatred and inequity.
Auston Matthews. Morgan Rielly. Frederik Andersen. The Toronto Maple Leafs organization as a whole. You have shown me that you are trying to understand the issues embedded in the times we live in, and that you are willing to make the effort to try to change them.
I’m not going to rant on the NHL stars who haven’t said anything yet. The most important thing is that these words don’t remain words. That they blossom into actions and love that can spread around the rest of the country.
Use your voice to spread the importance of this cause. Educate yourself such that you can better understand and teach others who are ignorant to the underlying systemic issues. Don’t stand for ridiculous lines such as, “Stick to sports.” Listen to the messages of those who are hurting such that when we see this:
...the first responses aren’t death threats.
I don’t know what will become of this. What I do know is that I’ve seen a lot more people with platforms speak out about it. And I hope that makes the difference.
Black Lives Matter.