Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland says any racist comments directed to Indigenous defenceman Ethan Bear are “totally unacceptable” and “disgusting.”
Holland says he was told about the issue by Oilers staff just before his season-ending address to the media on Wednesday.
Bear’s girlfriend, Lenasia Ned, posted on social media the defenceman “received numerous racist messages and comments” in the aftermath of the Oilers’ four-game series loss against the Winnipeg Jets in the opening round of the NHL playoffs.
The Jets tied Game 4 at 3-3 after a turnover by Bear, with Winnipeg eventually winning in triple overtime.
The 23-year-old Bear is from the Ochapowace Nation in southern Saskatchewan.
Holland says the comments are “totally uncalled for (and) totally unacceptable.”
The GM calls Bear an “unbelievable young man.”
“He’s a tremendous role model for all young athletes, especially in the Indigenous community,” Holland said. “He gives time to the community. He’s popular in the locker room.
“Two summers ago he spent his entire summer here in Edmonton in the gym every morning with our strength coach, focused, determined, committed to get himself in the best shape he could as an athlete to come into training camp to compete for a spot with out hockey team and he made our hockey team.
“I feel sick for him, I feel disappointed for him that he would he would get this kind of abuse. I think we’ve made strides, but there’s a long way to go to create a world where we’re where everybody feels safe and they don’t get this kind of racism and abuse.”
Holland said he planned to reach out to Bear.
“I’m 65 years old. I don’t live in that social media world. I want to talk to our PR people . . . and see what we can do as an organization to try to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future.”
Ned expressed her thoughts on an Instagram post.
“To hide behind a screen is cowardly. But to use stereotypes against him as an Indigenous person is dehumanizing and awful,” Ned wrote.
Bear, with Lenasia at his side, addressed the situation with a statement in a two-minute video posted to social media later on Wednesday.
“I know this doesn’t represent all Oilers fans or hockey fans, and I greatly appreciate your support and love during this time. I’m here to stand up to this behaviour, to these comments. I’m proud of where I come from, I’m proud to be from Ochapowace first nation. I’m not just doing this for myself, I’m doing this for all people of colour, I’m doing this for the next generation, to help make change to love one another, to support one another, to be kind to each other. There’s no place for racism in our communities, in sports or our workplace.
“I call on all of us to make change and end racism.”
The Oilers followed Bear with their own statement.
“The Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club is equally disappointed in these disgusting, cowardly and racist remarks. While we have witnessed progress in the area of equality and inclusion, this reprehensible behaviour demonstrates we still have significant work to do.
“We call upon everyone in Oil Country to stand up to racism, call out hatred and do their part in making our community one of acceptance, inclusion and respect.”
Oilers captain Connor McDavid showed his support for Bear.
“The Racist comments directed at our teammate and our brother Ethan Bear are not acceptable. The individuals who spew this type of hate should think twice about their behaviour. On behalf of all my Oiler teammates, we stand strong behind Ethan and against racism of any kind.”
The NHL also released a statement on Twitter later Wednesday.
“Ethan Bear represents both our game and his Indigenous heritage with dignity and pride,” the NHL said. “He, and all people from Indigenous backgrounds, deserve to feel empowered and respected on and off the ice. We stand with Ethan and his family in denouncing hate.”
The Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations said in a statement it was appalled by the racist comments.
In a letter, the confederacy writes it is concerned by the lack of response by the Oilers and urges the NHL to take action to address the issue.
“We all have a responsibility to speak out against racism in any circumstance, and to ask those involved to stop,” Grand Chief Vernon Watchmaker said.
“We are mindful that racism is hurtful and this has gone on for far too long.”