This article kicks off a series that will focus on racism in sports at the university level, with future articles being focused on student-athletes who have experienced racism in some way during their time in the sport.
Racism and hockey have a long history, one that threads itself through the fabric of the game as well as the land of Canada, the country where the game began.
Only in the last couple of decades has the hockey community started to recognize the way they related and still treat minorities in the game. It is the same for Canada, whose government has only recently begun apologizing for their actions of the past.
Racism in hockey comes in many different forms, but all of them are equally destructive and detrimental to the people they affect.
The hockey hall of fame class of 2018 honoured Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL, the 2019 class inducted Vaclav Nedomansky, the first player to defect from a communist country and play in the league, and the government of Canada began to apologize for their treatment of aboriginals. All of this has affected the country and the game, beginning to pave the game’s path towards a brighter future.
With the induction of Vaclav Nedomansky and Willie O’Ree into the Hall of Fame, it shows that the higher-ups and honoured members in the hockey community are recognizing the struggles and braveness that these men showed throughout their career, while also honouring their excellent performance on the ice in the face of adversity.
Nedomansky and O’ree both broke down major barriers, the colour barrier and the communist bubble. Hockey’s colour and the communist barrier is not as public as it is in other sports, but it was still very substantial. Both men broke ground and paved the way for all of the similar players who have followed in their strides.
Although they both were legendary players, the respect that they receive now is far from the way they were dealt with during their careers.
“Guys tried to provoke me, they would call me a communist and push me around,” said Nedomansky to 49 reporter Ben Steiner prior to his induction. This was a common occurrence, for the Czechoslovakian defector, but it was not something that affected his performance through his 421 NHL games.
Being the first athlete to defect, Nedomansky was the first non-American or Canadian hockey player that many of his teammates had seen. Yes, Europeans had started to make their way into North America, but Nedomansky was different, he was not from western Europe.
The generalizations of races also played a very big role in the bullying that Nedomansky endured in his NHL career, “Some guys would try to hurt me, or make fun of my country; they didn’t care to talk to me.” he said, but he forced himself into friend groups, made his way in the locker room and has now found his way into the Hockey Hall of Fame, where he sits eternally among the best ever to lace up a pair of skates.
O’Ree faced similar challenges, but what he endured has found its way into the 21st century and unfortunately into today’s NHL arenas. All across the world, African Americans are pounced upon because of their skin colour, which did not stop O’Ree from playing int the NHL.
In an interview with the National Post, O’Ree said “You would have never seen a black kid on skates in my day I shouldn’t have played hockey but I did” his experience led to an explosion of African American hockey players, some of whom have made it to the top of the game. But that’s not the case for some “There are little kids coming off the ice because a parent threw a banana at them, the world has to change!” O’Ree said. It has changed since he broke the barrier, but not as drastically as it did for eastern European players.
Both when O’Ree and Nedomansky found their way in the league, the majority of players were Canadian. Today, the percentage of Canadian players 46%. The two changed hockey in their main ways, but also made the league for diverse.
Canada, who no longer have the majority have players have not been so fantastic themselves. Hockey has long been an identifying factor in the Canadian identity, but that patriotism has led to many unfortunate circumstances, the most extreme of which is the abduction and torture of aboriginal children in government-funded residential schools. These schools were meant to teach “Canadian values” to aboriginals, and hockey was a very big factor.
Richard Wagamese’s book, turned feature film “Indian Horse” gives a glimpse into a common occurrence within the residential schools. Boys were taught to play hockey, as it was something that the church and government deemed to be Canadian. Schools would face each other and occasionally face non-school teams. While the idea of participating in sports is a nice one, the coaches regularly sexually abused and tortured the children. This is well documented in the book and is just another example of how the game has not always been welcoming to populations who were not Christian and white. While “Indian Horse” is not a true story, it is a representation of the brutal events which took place in the schools.
The last residential school closed in 1996, long after the first aboriginal player, Fred Saskamoose hit the ice with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1933. His debut was notable but did not break down barriers as much as O’Ree and Nedomansky.
Jordin Tootoo put aboriginal players on the map with his rough style of play, likeable attitude and charitable actions towards the aboriginal community. It is true that it was easier for Tootoo than it was for the others, but still representing a minority and not having many players to look up to make it very difficult for the Churchill, Manitoba native. After returning, he has gone back to help his community and send more aboriginal players to the top of the international hockey pyramid.
There is no aboriginal player in the hockey hall of fame, however, the hockey pursuits of aboriginals and even residential school survivors have been honoured in the Toronto museum. The Sagkeeng Oldtimers hockey team, made up of school survivors was honoured in 2018, showing that the game has come a long way since the days of forced play.
Nedomasky changed the game for the eastern Europeans. Can you imagine a league without Jaromir Jagr or Alex Ovechkin? It is Nedomansky’s braveness which allowed them to thrive in North America.
It’s 2019, there are minorities in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the game has become far more welcoming. But there is still a long way to go. Hockey is still very caucasian and not multicultural, but it is better and is improving. To take the next step, the game will need the public, not just the athletes to come out and make a statement.