As outrage poured down after a racial taunt directed at Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds in London, Ont., Nazem Kadri said he was shocked it happened in his hometown.
But others, including Simmonds and other black hockey players, said it was no surprise to them that racism is never far from the surface.
Kadri, 20, is a Muslim whose father Sam emigrated from Lebanon to Canada as a child and settled in London. The younger Kadri now plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs but played minor hockey and major junior in London. He said he does not remember any racial incidents involving London fans.
“I honestly can’t remember the last time it happened to me, that’s how rare it’s happened,” he said Friday. “Honestly, I’m speechless.”
On Thursday night during a shootout in an NHL preseason game between the Flyers and Detroit Red Wings at the John Labatt Centre, a banana peel was thrown on the ice by a fan. It landed in the path of Simmonds as he skated toward Red Wings goaltender Jordan Pearce in shootout attempt. Simmonds, who scored in the third period to send the game into overtime, kept skating and scored on Pearce to give the Flyers a 4-3 win.
By Friday afternoon, the fan still had not been identified, although a reward campaign sprang up on Twitter, and London mayor Joe Fontana apologized to Simmonds and the Flyers.
“It was a stupid and mindless act by a single individual, however it reflects badly on our entire community. London is a diverse and welcoming city and we like it that way,” Fontana said in a statement. The mayor also called on the public to help identify the offender.
This was not the first time a banana was thrown on the ice at a black player during an NHL game. In 2002, it happened in Montreal to goaltender Kevin Weekes, who was playing for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Weekes, now a broadcaster with CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada, was not surprised by the incident.
“We have some people that still have their heads in the sand and some people that don't necessarily want to evolve and aren't necessarily all that comfortable with the fact that the game is evolving,” he said. “I understand that firsthand — I'm the first black national broadcaster in NHL history, the first black broadcaster on Hockey Night in Canada.
“The reality is that there's still some people that aren't very comfortable with that. Sometimes I'll get examples of it on Twitter.”
Simmonds, a native of Toronto, issued a statement on Friday that he put the incident behind him and would have no further comment. But after the game on Thursday, he told The Philadelphia Inquirer he was not surprised it happened.
“When you're a black man playing in a predominantly white man's sport, you've got to come to expect things like that,” he said. “Over the past 23 years of my life, I've come to expect some things like that. But I'm older and more mature now, I kind of just left things roll off [my back] I try not to think about stuff like that.”
Kadri said he has not encountered racism since he became a professional player last season, although the odd remark was made during some trash talking when he played junior hockey.
“Obviously there’s been a few things said,” Kadri said. “At same time, I’ve never made any racist comments but I’ve said some pretty ruthless things out on the ice. I know things get a little carried away but the whole racial side of things is so immature and so low-class.
“I really didn’t think London or Canada was anything like that and I still don’t. I think it was one idiot who maybe had too much to drink and thought that was a great idea.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement “the obviously stupid and ignorant action by one individual is in no way representative of our fans or the people of London.”
The Flyers have a close relationship with the 9,090-seat John Labatt Centre because a subsidiary of its parent company, Comcast Spectacor, manages the arena. In a statement issued Friday, Comcast president Peter Luukko avoided any references to racism.
“Unfortunately, we weren't able to identify the individual,” Luukko said. “We certainly don't condone such a foolish act as a player could potentially be seriously injured.
“This is ninth time we have played here in London and the fans have always been wonderful to us. The Flyers consider this our ‘home away from home’.”
With reports from The Canadian Press