Ted Nolan has dealt with racism throughout his decades-long association with hockey.
He recalls one coach making fun of him by saying he was “stickhandling by chopping the puck with a tomahawk.”
Despite some recent initiatives by the NHL to tout growing diversity within hockey, Nolan says not much has actually changed.
“You don’t see much difference,” said Nolan, a longtime coach at the NHL, major junior and international levels. “It’s the same thing, but I think we’re just getting a little bit better with words to make it sound like we’re doing better.”
The ugly side of hockey was an full display earlier this week. Ethan Bear, an Indigenous defenceman with the Edmonton Oilers, said he received numerous racist messages after his team was swept by the Winnipeg Jets in the opening round of the NHL playoffs. A giveaway by Bear led to the Jets’ tying goal in the final game.
The Oilers supported Bear with a strongly worded statement, and teammates, including team captain and NHL regular-season scoring champion Connor McDavid, voiced their support on social media.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also released a statement on Bear.
“Racism and hatred have no place on the ice, off the ice, online, or offline,” he said on Twitter. “We’re with you, Ethan — and we stand with you and hockey fans across the country against this unacceptable behaviour that far too many Indigenous people face.”
When it comes to the sports community, Nolan, an Ojibwa from the Garden River First Nation near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., says sentiments of solidarity are not enough.
“It’s time that sports, especially hockey, you’ve got to take a firm stance on comments like this,” Nolan said Thursday in a phone interview. “We’re past the stage of just saying words, you’ve got to start doing some actions.
“Finding out who these people are and banning them from our arenas, from our facilities. We don’t need people like that.”
Nolan said changes need to be made at the grassroots level, as well as in the upper echelons of the sport, to combat incidents of racism in hockey.
“You still hear about some crazy stories about racism with 12-year-olds, and fans yelling at them,” Nolan said.
“I think society in general, we have to get a better education out to people that all people are equal,” he added. “All people are important. We all have sensitivities. We all have emotions. We all have families. We’re all proud of who we are as individuals. And because we play a sport doesn’t separate us from who we are as people.”
Nolan said more diversity is needed in the game. Not just on the ice, but critically at the management level.
“Kids emulate what they see,” Nolan said. “They see people who look like them, they get inspired.
“Not everyone’s going to be a player, but certainly some people could be scouts, they could be analysts and GMs and management, all those professions. But if you don’t have anyone like you in that trailblazing position, it’s pretty hard to get in.
“If you haven’t got anyone who knows who you are and where you’re from and the feelings that we go through, it’s extremely hard. So we just need more people like us in a position to inspire and give opportunities.”
Nolan has been one of those trailblazers, turning a highly successful coaching run with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds — including two league titles and a Memorial Cup triumph between 1990-91 and 1992-93 — into a chance to take the reins with an NHL team.
Nolan took over an underachieving Buffalo squad and within two years turned the Sabres into Northeast Division champions, a feat that saw him awarded the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year in 1997.
But instead of seeing his star rise, Nolan was out of a job after a tumultuous changing of the guard in Buffalo.
It would be eight years until he found another head coaching job in the NHL when he was hired by the New York Islanders for the 2006-07 season. The year before he had led the Moncton Wildcats to the Quebec Major Junior League title.
“It was frustrating as heck,” Nolan, 63, said of his lack of NHL opportunities. “Then your anger gets the better of you and that’s not a good thing.
“You just have to sit back and analyze that now you have the chance to hopefully have an even bigger impact on trying to make it a little easier for the next generation.”
After two years with the Islanders, Nolan coached in the American Hockey League and with the Latvian national team before returning to the Sabres for the 2013-14 season.
He was fired after the Sabres missed the playoffs in two years with Nolan at the helm. He said his phone has been silent since.
“You look at the hiring practices in the league. It’s almost like you recycle all the time because those are the guys you grew up with. Those are the friends you have, and that’s you’re comfort zone,” he said.
“When I got let go, not one team called me up and said ‘Do you want to be an assistant coach? Do you want to be a scout? We’d love to have you.’ No one called. It’s extremely tough when you have to go through that.
“So hopefully we’ll have some trailblazers who will be hired into management positions so they can get more of our people to scout, manage and be part of this great game.”