Courtney Szto’s awareness of the racial imbalance in hockey began in her late teens, not as a player but as a clerk at a sporting goods store in the Vancouver suburbs.
Then a student at the University of British Columbia, she helped pick out gear for a Sikh youth who was eager to play for the first time. When it came to fitting him with a helmet, she had difficulty negotiating the head covering that he wore.
After a brief discussion between mother and son, he took off all the equipment and they left.
“Over the years, I wondered what happened to him,” Szto says. “I wondered if he ever got to play hockey. That drew me in. It is part of the journey I had.”
Szto went on to conduct research in racism in hockey as part of her PhD and last year helped organize a roundtable on racism in the sport at Queen’s University in Kingston, where she is an assistant professor. This spring, she and three other authors released a policy paper that called on hockey organizations and government to re-educate coaches, parents, players and officials on the importance of anti-racism, and to make hockey culture safer, more inclusive and more accountable.
“When we dance around the issue [of racism], we can’t solve the problem,” she says. “That’s why we continue to have long, drawn-out conversations.”
On June 29, Szto will host a virtual event that is her newest effort focused on fixing the problem. More than 150 people have preregistered for the question-and-answer session on Zoom that begins at 7 p.m. (ET).
“This time we are in is unprecedented,” she says. “We have never had an opening for these kinds of discussions. Four years ago, it would have never been on the table.”
In the midst of protests over racial injustice, she has found more willingness. Police in New Brunswick are under fire for the recent killings of two Indigenous people; in the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum after an African-American man, George Floyd, was killed by a white Minnesota policeman.
Earlier this month, seven NHL players of colour established the Hockey Diversity Alliance with a mission to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey. It comes after a hacker hijacked a video call and directed racial slurs at New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller, and Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters resigned after one of his former players, Akim Aliu, said he used racist language toward him earlier in their careers.
On June 1, Hockey Canada issued a statement on racism, and four days later promised that it would begin to track and monitor racial incidents.
Szto grew up in North Delta, B.C., and played roller hockey and street hockey as a kid. She says there were few opportunities at the time to play in a girls league, so she never played on ice until she was 21.
“That was a big moment in my life,” she says.
She earned a bachelor of human kinetics degree at UBC before getting her master’s in socio-cultural sports studies at the University of Toronto and a doctorate in communications at Simon Fraser University.
“When you put hockey and multiculturalism together, they start to unravel and that’s why we don’t do it,” she says. “But until we do, nothing is going to happen.”
Szto arranged the roundtable at Queen’s in March of 2019 at the suggestion of Bob Dawson, a Black hockey historian originally from Nova Scotia. In 1967, he became the first Black player at St. Mary’s University in Halifax and three years later played there on Canada’s first all-Black line.
Dawson grew up in Dartmouth and had racial epithets directed at him as he walked to school. In sixth grade, a white teacher told him, while handing out report cards, that he didn’t have what it takes to go to university.
“It was a defining moment of my life,” he says.
He recalls being followed around in Woolworth’s by employees who suspected he was going to steal something, and having a bank place a ‘B’ label on his account slip to note that he was Black.
When he played at St. Mary’s, he heard a barrage of slurs from spectators during pregame warm-ups and was verbally and physically abused by opponents during games as referees turned a blind eye.
“Playing minor hockey, I had never had any incidents but when I got to St. Mary’s for the first year and a half it was quite constant,” Dawson says.
In 2015, he wrote an open letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Hockey Canada president and chief executive officer Tom Renney and Canadian Hockey League president David Branch.
He told them that racism in all of its forms in hockey is overlooked, played down or underrated as a critical issue.
“Given its complexities, racism in hockey is not going away any time soon,” the letter said. “In fact, it will likely increase as more members of minority groups participate in all levels of the game. If not addressed by you and your respective organizations in a collaborative, more strategic and sustained manner, it could have serious and in some cases long-term ramifications that would not bode well for [the sport.]”
Dawson urged them to convene a joint conference on racism in hockey, provided suggestions and even offered to speak with them about it. He never heard back.
That provided him with the impetus to push forward and pitch Szto on the 2019 roundtable, contribute to the policy paper and to participate in Monday’s Zoom meeting.
“If you change the hockey culture, you will change the face of hockey,” Dawson says. He is 74 and lives in Kanata, Ont. On Wednesday, he has a call scheduled with the NHL to discuss racism. “It is a matter of finding the right approach and the holistic approach.
“It takes each of us to make a difference for all of us.”
Dawson campaigned for Canada Post to release a commemorative stamp to celebrate the Coloured Hockey League, which was founded in Nova Scotia in 1895 by the sons and grandsons of slaves. That dream was realized in January.
Szto believed hockey was a white man’s game as she grew up. Now, she pushes for opportunities for people of colour, for the Indigenous and for women.
“This is a good step toward recognizing who belongs,” she says.
She is 35 and plays right wing on women’s teams in Vancouver and Kingston.
The policy paper on racism calls for hockey organizations and government to have a zero-tolerance policy, and asks Hockey Canada to institute hiring policies that prioritize marginalized candidates once job requirements have been met. It calls upon Hockey Canada and others, including the NHL, to allocate a percentage of their annual budget to support Indigenous hockey. It asks that retail outlets and equipment manufacturers assist in establishing lending libraries to help mitigate the cost of gear.
“This is a very important moment for us to be in,” she says. “We have choices coming out of this situation that will impact us moving forward.”
To ask a question at next Monday’s Zoom session on Implementing Anti-Racism, it is necessary to register by the end of the day on June 24. Registration is allowed after that, but only to watch.
Szto says she has hope for a future in which Canada’s game more accurately reflects its demographic make-up.
“We have a ways to go,” she says.” We haven’t done anything to change the structure. We are not out of the woods yet.”