The recent incident between black player PK Subban of the Montreal Canadiens and white player Krys Barch of the Florida Panthers has reminded fans of the challenges the NHL faces in confronting racism in the game. While Barch’s remark — asking Subban if he’d slipped on a banana peel — appears to be more the result of monumentally stupid insensitivity than outright racism, the discrimination black players face continues to the present day.
Earlier this season, Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds had a banana thrown at him in a preseason game in London, nine years after Carolina Hurricanes goalie Kevin Weekes experienced the same treatment in Montreal. During the 1990s, black players Peter Worrell, Donald Brashear and Mike Grier were all victims of racial taunts from NHL opponents. While the NHL responded forcefully to these incidents, this type of racism — overt and condemned by all — is only one example of the systemic biases which pervade the NHL and Canadian hockey in general. More subtle forms of bias infect analysis of European players and player safety.
There is a myth, widely accepted, that North American players are born with — or develop by virtue of their heritage — the ‘grit,’ ‘toughness’ and ‘heart’ required to win championships. This myth holds that Europeans do not possess these qualities. Believers argue violent ‘enforcers’ are necessary and North American players are generally honourable, while Europeans are more likely to engage in ‘cheap shots’ and ‘sucker punches.’
This view is popular because of a hockey establishment that is almost uniformly North American, that employs a disproportionately high number of former ‘goons,’ and that has television coverage which constantly reinforces these messages. As a result, television coverage of the NHL is biased and predicable, and the league suffers from group-think, unable to innovate or address challenges like concussions.
The three men with the most responsibility for hockey operations and player safety are Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell, Senior Vice-President of Hockey Operations Kris King, and Senior Vice-President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan. During their NHL careers, Campbell and King had 84 and 176 fights, respectively. Shanahan, a future Hall of Famer, had 97 fights in his storied career.
Currently the league is beset by an epidemic of concussions that have jeopardized the careers of many stars, and reeling from seemingly fighting-related deaths of three former ‘enforcers’ in the offseason. While medical experts call for a ban on fighting and all head shots, the NHL has decided to place three men with a career average of 119 fights (many players never have a single fight) to address the issue of brain safety. This is akin to hiring a chain-smoker to lead the fight against lung cancer. While the NHL’s decisions about player safety seem curious, it is not alone in trusting former fighters as wise guardians and analysts of the game.
Former ‘enforcers’ provide much, if not most, hockey analysis on Canadian television. They are led by Don Cherry, but include Mike Milbury and PJ Stock on CBC; Nick Kypreos, Brad May and Marty McSorley on Sportsnet; and Matthew Barnaby and Tie Domi on TSN. For the most part, they espouse a Cherry-esque view of the game, lauding fighters (surprising in Kypreos’s case since his career was ended in a vicious fight), hard hits and ‘grinders’ while opposing any changes which might threaten hockey’s violent traditions. They can be relied upon to cherry-pick highlights in order to showcase virtuous Canadians and cowardly Europeans.
While not all the analysts are former fighters, they are generally supportive of the prevailing ethos which deems them necessary. On the odd occasions when a ‘progressive’ like Kelly Hrudey deviates from the accepted view, he is generally shouted down or ridiculed. Mike Milbury, the presumed heir to Cherry who once beat a fan with a shoe as a player, has denounced safety measures as leading to the ‘pansification’ of the game and called fellow analyst Pierre McGuire a ‘soccer mom’ for advocating a ban on head shots. Sadly, these type of comments are the norm rather than the exception on the air.
While ‘enforcers’ pervade every network, there is no prominent commentator, coach or general manager who calls for a ban on fighting. Only this week, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke bemoaned the decline of fighting and publicly agonized over his decision to send Colton Orr (378 games played, 20 points, 921 penalty minutes, 111 fights) to the minors. Burke called the reduction in fighting this year a ‘dangerous turn in our game.’
Most Canadians apparently disagree; a 2011 Ipsos poll found that 54 percent of Canadians believe fighting should be banned. This is remarkable considering how little exposure this point of view receives in the mainstream hockey press. The absence of another group may also explain why the traditional or ‘neanderthal’ view of hockey is the only one on offer.
Europeans make up approximately 22 percent of NHLers. In the past five seasons they have been 45 percent of top 20 scorers and they win an unusually high number of individual awards. Despite this, there is not one prominent European commentator, general manager or head coach employed in the NHL or on a major network. As Europeans generally play a more graceful, less violent brand of hockey, their exclusion means this view of the game is given short shrift. The largest group of minorities in the NHL is not represented in the broadcast booth, behind the bench or in the boardroom.
To understand the absurdity of this situation it is instructive to consider other North American leagues. Can any fan imagine the NBA without Phil Jackson or Pat Riley? How about baseball with no room for Ozzie Guillen, Cito Gaston or Joe Morgan? The NFL has several black coaches and its broadcast teams are fairly representative of the players on the field. In an effort to ensure equality, it adopted the “Rooney Rule” after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney. It requires each team to interview a minority candidate when hiring a head coach. The NHL and the media that covers hockey are light years away from this type of thinking. Consequently, hockey fans can expect a pro-fighting, anti-European bias for the foreseeable future.
The dominance of the ‘neanderthal’ view of hockey is demoralizing for thinking hockey fans. The drumbeat is so unrelenting, an Orwellian situation is created where the phenomenal Sedin twins are routinely derided as the ‘Sedin sisters,’ and the ‘heart’ of the elegant Stanley Cup winner Tomas Kaberle is questioned; ‘goons’ like Marty McSorley and Tie Domi, both authors of vicious, cowardly attacks on other players, are regarded as brave warriors; and infantile, selfish tantrums leading to penalties by players like Darcy Tucker are treated as evidence of ‘heart.’ As a result, the NHL alone among North American leagues celebrates mediocrity while denigrating excellence. Until the NHL learns the value of diversity, it may not evolve past its Neanderthal Era.