If the people who expressed all that outrage in the social and mainstream media over the banana-tossing in London, Ont., really believe it was an isolated act by a lone racist moron and not indicative of a greater problem in hockey then they are greatly mistaken.
Granted, unlike the ugliness of someone throwing a banana at a black player such as Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers, there is almost no direct racism in the National Hockey League these days. But racism in the NHL is far more subtle, just as it is in a wider society like Canada.
In more than 25 years of covering the NHL, I have seen plenty of evidence it exists with precious little of it in the open. The worst examples were a popular, likeable head coach who routinely used the n-word in bar conversations, and an elderly Hall of Famer who occasionally wrote me letters complaining about the state of today’s game. His diatribes contained more than a few anti-Semitic references to the current NHL leadership.
But more common was the implied slight. Some years ago, I was talking to a man who was a prominent NHL executive at the time about an NHL figure who fell into disgrace. “His daughter married a black guy, you know,” the executive said smugly.
The media are not without sin here, by the way. Bigoted remarks are not unheard of once the drinks are flowing in postgame sessions.
Eustace King, who is Mr. Simmonds’s agent, says he and the Flyers player want the incident during Thursday’s NHL preseason game in London to serve as a learning experience rather than simply a temporary source of outrage.
“Players go through diversity training and conduct training every year where they are taught how to interact with each other and the fans,” Mr. King said from Los Angeles. “The league has to take the time to reinforce the point that there is a code of conduct for fans.”
Mr. King does not mean fans have to learn to stop throwing things on the ice. He means they have to learn to treat all people the same. It sounds simple, but it is not, and all of us need to examine ourselves closely.
When it comes to diversity, the NHL is not much different than Canada – a white-bread majority with some who are still a little awkward with visible minorities. The occasional racial incidents over the years, at least the ones involving players, spring from ignorance as often as they do from malice. Such as a white player calling a black player “a gorilla” during a heated exchange. Sometimes the offender wasn’t thinking and sometimes he was.
It is all well and good to fulminate when some cretin throws a banana on the ice and primly think you are above this sort of nonsense. But racism goes beyond calling someone an ugly name or denying them an opportunity based on their colour.
Racism is also the subtle reminder that someone is different. It is when, for example, someone’s race is always included in media references to that person, but the same is not true in reports about a white person. Or when people discuss the antics of a black celebrity and assume another black person must feel embarrassed on behalf of the entire race.
The NHL cannot be accused of being a hotbed of racism. It is earnestly trying to embrace diversity through programs like NHL Diversity, which provides funds to a variety of youth hockey organizations.
But neither the league nor society can claim success until the quiet forms of racism are erased. And that day is still a long way off.