Two United States senators want to honor the NHL’s first Black player, Willie O’Ree, with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian awards in the United States.
Sens. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) introduced the Willie O’Ree Congressional Gold Medal Act to their colleagues on the Senate floor last month and hope to bestow this well-deserved honor upon hockey’s Black pioneer. By the way, look at two U.S. Senators reaching across party lines to unite in a common goal. So, it can be done…
But back to O’Ree: He broke the league’s color barrier in 1958 with the Boston Bruins, played two games that season and came back up from the minors in 1961 to play in 43 games. He spent the remainder (and majority) of his career in the hockey minor leagues. During his time as a hockey player he endured racial animus from players, coaches and fans alike. After his stint in the NHL during the 1960-61 season there wasn’t another Black player in the league until 1974. That’s 13 years.
Since 1998, O’Ree has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador traveling across North America to promote the importance of inclusion and diversity within schools and hockey programs. To be fair, youth hockey’s costs and rink access have long been trumpeted as reasons for the lack of inclusion for people of color. But with programs that have sprouted all over the world backed by private money and sanctioned by the NHL, that has become less of an issue.
There are 31 teams in the NHL, and depending on how one calculates ethnic demographics, only 23 players are Black. That’s less than one per franchise. In an era where the league continues to “push” for diversity and where New Jersey Devils defenseman, P.K. Subban is a legitimate star, what seems to be the problem?
In December of 2018, then 13-year-old Divyne Apollon II, of the Under -14 Metro Maple Leafs hockey team in Maryland, was the victim of racist taunts and chants at a hockey tournament. Apollon is the only Black player on his team. Opposing players called him a “n****r” and chanted “go play basketball” at him, ultimately igniting a brawl between both teams. Note, while the opposing players were engaging in this behavior, the officials and their coach did nothing.
In May of 2018, Detroit Red Wings prospect Givani Smith needed a police escort to his Ontario Hockey League playoff game after he was targeted with racial slurs and death threats by opposing fans. The general manager of the Kitchener Rangers (the team Smith played for) was extremely concerned for Smith’s safety, saying:
“There were definitely physical threats. I saw some of the stuff that was being sent in, and it was threatening in nature, and you could perceive it as death threats if you wanted to, and obviously the racial stuff as well… We didn’t want him walking to the rink on his own. Once inside the rink, he was in our care in the dressing room area. There was security with him at all times. It may seem overboard, but there were physical threats. We wanted to make sure he was in a safe environment.”
The walk from the hotel to the arena is five minutes. But the atmosphere was deemed to dangerous to allow Smith to walk.
In February of 2018, Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly was in the penalty box in Chicago during a game when fans started racially taunting him. The chants were “basketball basketball basketball” in unison. The implications being obvious, Pelly said:
“It’s pretty obvious what that means. It’s not a secret. The nonsecret racial stereotype at play here is that basketball is a ‘Black’ sport and hockey is for white people.”
These aren’t the only three examples of the racism Black players experience in hockey. What makes these incidents stand out specifically is they take place at all levels of the game. Youth leagues, minor leagues and the pros. If you do a quick Google search of “racism in hockey” you’ll find countless examples at all levels of the sport.
The NHL has a campaign called “Hockey Is for Everyone,” where they focus on inclusivity and diversity across all spectrums. A noble idea likely initiated with the best of intentions. But the same problems Willie O’Ree faced in 1958 are happening to Black players in 2019. No matter how many honors are conferred to trailblazers like O’Ree, or campaigns to increase inclusion and diversity, nothing seems to change.
Sports are a microcosm of the larger society in which they inhabit. Racism is an insidious infestation, a disease that plagues the world over. It knows no geographic or sport barriers or limitations. No matter the time or the place, there seemingly always exists a group of people willing to let others (in this case Black people) know where they are not welcomed or don’t belong. Whether through repeated microaggressions or full-on threats of life, that is the burden of Black people. But through it all, we find a way to succeed.
Maybe the next great generational player in the NHL will be Black. If he is, he’ll undoubtedly still experience the racism that Willie O’Ree courageously bore the burden of all those years ago. But that will be both his gift and cross to bear.