When Joel Ward scored the overtime winner for the Capitals to end the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins’ season, a wave of racist tweets surfaced. They ranged from casually offensive to viciously hateful. None were shocking. But they illustrated the latent sentiment that exists in many pockets of the fan base that hockey is a sport to be played and enjoyed by whites.
It's about time that the NHL tackled its race issues head-on. If the league wants to move forward as a brand, they need to recognize that they can do something about racism. When Kobe Bryant yelled a homophobic slur at a referee that was caught on camera, the NBA swiftly and justly fined him and then produced a PSA campaign against usage of the word. FIFA, the global soccer association, has very publicly taken a stance against racism from fans with some of the world’s most popular stars.
Can one league end racism in the world? Of course not. But a laissez-faire attitude in the face of an obvious problem is harmful as well. Oftentimes, it’s not the overt bigotry that can do the most damage. It’s looking away when the more subtle disrespect comes along that shows what you’re made of.
There’s no reason the NHL can’t take a hard-line stance against this kind of foolishness. Like it or not, it’s shameful to the league. You might not be able to eliminate the backwards-thinking mouth-breathers who choose to populate social media networks with hatred, but if those people at least understand, officially, that the league isn’t having it, you could change some minds.
The NHL does a lot in communities of color to teach the game. Be it giving kids skates, equipment and facilities to play or teaching life tools in places that allow families to play hockey and prosper. But the NHL isn’t doing enough to educate its older fans about the history of players of color in the league. And it’s definitely not doing much to draw minorities to games as far as I can tell.
It is absolutely unacceptable that the working history of black players in the NHL is somewhat of an old wives tale. You hear people in hockey circles tell stories about players of color like they were ghosts or figments of someone’s memory from a long time ago.
The NHL needs to consider a plan more akin to how Major League Baseball treats its history of Negro league and Latin American players. Own it, respect it and celebrate it. Maybe then the people who keep their league alive will understand that racism isn’t okay, under any circumstances.
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