Jashvina Shah is a hockey reporter based in New York
'The subject matter we’ve been dealing with is difficult, is hard and it does not in anyway way reflect the values of the Calgary Flames. It’s been a difficult time, but we are going to move forward. … We are ready to move beyond this and focus on the game on the ice.”
When I heard that statement from Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving last week, I knew my assumptions were correct.
I also knew this when Mitch Marner confirmed a report that he was the rookie who was on the receiving end of improper behaviour from Mike Babcock. I also knew this when Akim Aliu came forward alleging racial abuse from Flames head coach Bill Peters. And I knew when I saw Dan Carcillo tweeting stories of abuse from his fellow former players.
I knew that, within a week, after the so-called hockey allies had grown tired of typing on their keyboards, they would forget about all of this.
“We are ready to move beyond this and focus on the game on the ice.”
This is why hockey culture will never change.
Personally, I’m tired of being othered, of being made to feel less-than in an arena. I’m tired of the racist comments that spill like water, dismissed with an “Oh, I didn’t mean it that way.” But mostly I’m tired of all the people who say they have my back but far too often run away when I need them to fight by my side.
You can’t pretend hockey will magically stop being racist. You can’t pretend it will magically stop being abusive. You can’t pretend it will magically become an environment where players and staff can speak out without fearing for their careers.
Changing a culture, especially one so ingrained, is not easy. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done; it just means it takes constant, consistent effort. And that effort is simply not there.
Hockey culture values teamwork, family, humility. But these ideals are warped. Teamwork; by valuing groupthink over individuality. Hockey has failed to understand that you can be part of a team and work toward a common goal and still have your own opinion and stand up against injustice. Family; in insularity and othering anyone who’s not in the group and who’s not like everyone else. Humility; by players opting for saying nothing as opposed to saying the right thing.
In hockey, unlike other major North American sports, players leave home as early as 12 years old to further their career. It puts them in a new location with a new family and a new team. The team becomes their de facto family. This culture becomes even more ingrained, and by the time players attend college, they are set in their ways. It becomes much harder to change.
It is more than just culture; it’s a system. Hockey is so insular, recycling the same group of people, so coaches such as Mr. Peters remain in the system. As do people such as former OHL coach John Vanbiesbrouck, who stepped down in 2003 after calling the team’s then-captain Trevor Daley a racial slur.
Four years later, Mr. Vanbiesbrouck was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, and last year he was hired by USA Hockey. Is it any surprise, then, that hockey continues to suffer from racism? Why bother saying anything if the only consequence will be given to you, the victim?
That players are coming forward now should be applauded. This, hopefully, will encourage others to go public. But the National Hockey League Players’ Association’s desire for players to reveal allegations privately instead of publicly shows a troubling lack of transparency. Without transparency, how do we see a commitment to change?
And how can we have faith things will change when the NHL’s own diversity and inclusion program has existed for more than two decades with not much to show?
When a reporter asked Mr. Treliving if Mr. Aliu coming forward means things have changed in the past decade, Mr. Treliving said: “From 10 years ago, I think we have changed.”
Changed how, exactly? Is he talking about how players are still subject to racial abuse? How those who’ve used racial slurs are still hired for leadership roles within hockey?
Notably, Mr. Treliving also did not once use the word “racist.” He did not comment on how or if they will change the coach-vetting process.
Mr. Treliving bemoaned the “difficult time” this was for him and the organization without acknowledging Mr. Aliu, the actual victim of racist abuse.
But Mr. Treliving wants to move on. And so will the rest of the hockey world, forgetting about these recent incidents. Hockey has come closer to the tipping point but, like a poorly made roller coaster, will slide down before reaching the peak.
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