Despite Canada’s claim that it’s a multicultural country, that’s not the reality of one of the country’s national sports, ice hockey.
For over a century, hockey has been dominated by white people at professional and amateur levels in Canada. One of the major reasons this continues to be the case is racialized people have been faced with discrimination and racism when attempting to play or watch hockey.
Don Cherry’s recent divisive and discriminatory comments about “you people” remind us of the connections between hockey and race. A groundswell of negative public reaction to his comments also provides hope for change. Now is the time to make the sport more inclusive, as implied by the NHL slogan “Hockey is for Everyone.”
History of race and hockey
Historically, racialized people were not allowed to participate in the dominant amateur hockey leagues. As a result, Black communities in the Maritimes created the Coloured Hockey League (CHL) which existed from 1895 until the league couldn’t sustain itself by the 1930s.
This league was groundbreaking — it pioneered the slap shot and the butterfly technique of goaltending. But it’s likely most hockey fans aren’t aware these techniques were invented by Black players because these athletes were undervalued and dismissed due to their race.
Not only were players of colour segregated, they also faced racialized violence. The first racialized player in the National Hockey League was Larry Kwong, a Chinese-Canadian. Kwong described his groundbreaking experience as very hostile:
“Ever since I was a (teenager) there has always been a player or two trying to cut off my head just because I am Chinese. And the bigger the league, the bigger the axe they use.”
The first Black player in the NHL was a Canadian named Willie O'Ree, who made his debut in 1958. He had to deal with racism from fans and other players. This included racist comments towards him, unfair calls, unwarranted aggression from other players and having cotton and black cats thrown at him while playing.
The experiences of these pioneering players were universal for any racialized player in the league at the time.
Have times changed?
Seventy years since Larry Kwong made his debut, one would like to think the game is much more welcoming for racialized people. Although progress has certainly been made, hostility and racism persist.
When Givani Smith played for the Kitchener Rangers in 2018, he faced intense racism from the opposing team and fans. He even received death threats and was subjected to a racist slur by a spectator who sneaked into the change room.
A First Nations hockey team of 13- and 14-year-olds endured racist name-calling, mocking and unfair calls at a tournament in 2018.
Even more recently, a 23-year-old coach of youth hockey who is Muslim received an angry text from a white parent of one of the players he coaches. The language in the text message implied that hockey belongs to the white community and that people of colour are not welcomed and will tarnish the sport and its traditions.
Hockey is strongly tied to the national identity of Canada. In 2011, 77 per cent of Canadians believed that hockey is an important national symbol. It’s clear that Canada has a clear adoration of the sport. In 2014, former prime minister Stephen Harper stated that:
“Modern hockey is something that Canadians not only invented but developed as a sport as a reflection of our values and of our country.”
If hockey truly is a reflection of our society, then it highlights the enduring Canadian problem of ignoring racism.
When specific racial groups are purposefully excluded from Canada’s primary hockey narrative, it implies that only white people can fully embrace that Canadian identity. It implies that racialized people are not good enough to adopt it.
But with a growing racialized population, what it means to be Canadian is changing.
As indicated by Statistics Canada, Canada’s “visible minority” population has been steadily increasing. It’s predicted that by 2036, a third of Canadians will be a part of this demographic.
Racism has had a hold on western society for centuries and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon. In terms of ice hockey, there first needs to be an acknowledgement of racial disparity in order for progress to begin. Data based on race also need to be recorded and reported at all levels of amateur hockey to track the progress of change initiatives.
Leagues also need to advocate change. The Australia Football League (AFL), to name just one example, deals with racism and religious discrimination by implementing strong policies that fight against a racist culture and sets fines for offenders.
The league also requires offenders to attend racism education programs. Education programs are one of the most effective ways to eliminate racism in sport.
Not only will addressing racial inequality help hockey grow, as Hockey Canada has stated, it will also foster a healthy and just environment for everyone to thrive. It’s time to make hockey truly for everyone.