“It’s the road that’s less traveled for us,” said Weekes, who played on seven teams from 1997 to 2009 and is now an analyst for NHL Network. “For a lot of people, you want to be somewhere you can see [yourself].”
As the country confronts social issues with a new intensity following the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, the NHL, which by Weekes’s calculation features just 16 black players on its 31 team rosters, is grappling with its own accountability.
But hockey’s diversity problem begins at the grass-roots level, many advocates say. Participants in the D.C. area can attest. It’s common to see maybe one or two black players on local high school hockey teams. And even that represents growth.
“It doesn’t cross your mind during games because you are trying to focus,” said Dimitry Kebreau, a forward at St. John’s. “But seeing that you’re the only black player on the ice feels different.”
Kebreau, also a black belt in taekwondo, developed into one of the area’s most prolific offensive threats as a junior, recording 42 goals and 31 assists on the Cadets’ formidable first line. He was introduced to hockey at age 10, when his mother took him for ice skating lessons. He saw a youth hockey team practicing and quickly grew interested. Soon, he was hooked.
Kebreau’s experiences have been positive. The Silver Spring native said he hasn’t experienced racism on the ice, which includes time with the Atlantic Youth Hockey League’s Team Maryland.
The ice wasn’t always so smooth for Marquise Cotten, a former player and now an assistant coach at Gonzaga. Cotten said he received mixed perspectives from friends about his involvement in the sport. Some were interested, while others criticized his decision to choose it over football and basketball.
“Being in the city, living in the city and growing up in the city, a lot of people are not used to seeing that,” Cotten said. “I didn’t mind it. I felt more peaceful playing hockey.”
It wasn’t so peaceful one day playing club hockey for the Bowie Bruins. Cotten was preparing for a faceoff when he heard an opposing player say under his breath, “Go back to Africa.”
Racism isn’t specific to the District or even America. Anson Carter, who grew up in Toronto, played 10 years in the NHL and is now an analyst for NBC Sports, said his sister has four children. None of them play hockey because his sister doesn’t want them to experience what Carter did growing up.
“The more work we do in the grass-roots level and the easier we make it for kids that want to play hockey and the harder we work at eradicating the racial insults with parents and players, we can make hockey easier to black kids to be players and fans,” Carter said. “That’s the work we have ahead of us.”
Racism has been a part of the sport since before Canadian Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier while playing for the Boston Bruins in 1958. Hockey is still visibly trying to shake it.
During a Zoom event put on by the New York Rangers in April, someone repeatedly used the n-word in the chat function toward prospect K’Andre Miller. For Miller, it was nothing new. “I have been targeted because of my race when I was in youth hockey by some coaches, parents, and players,” he later said on Twitter, “but I refused to give up because of my love for the game.”
Last month, Akim Aliu, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Canada, detailed in the Players’ Tribune how a teammate made fun of his appearance and even shoved a hockey stick into his mouth when he was with the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League roughly 15 years ago. Several years later, when playing for the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League, Aliu had issues with his coach. Aliu said Bill Peters criticized his music, called him the n-word and wielded power, in the form of playing time, over the minor leaguer. After Aliu came forward with that story to TSN in November, Peters resigned as coach of the NHL’s Calgary Flames.
This week, as worldwide protests continue following Floyd’s death, Aliu teamed up with other “minorities who play professional hockey” to form the Hockey Diversity Alliance. “Although we will be independent of the NHL, we are hopeful that we will work productively with the league to accomplish these important changes,” the group wrote in an open letter.
If the first step to fixing a problem is admitting one exists, professional hockey at least appears to be achieving that part. Since Floyd’s death May 25, prominent white players in the NHL have been more vocal about the importance of inclusion. Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks are among such players to deliver strong statements about the issue. And Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby wrote an eloquent post on Twitter that said, in part, the notion that things have improved is “very naive.”
These statements are crucial to the cause.
“These are public examples of support and not on the bus with your teammate or on the plane,” Weekes said. “We have to appreciate that because that shows a lot of courage on their part, too. For some of them, it’s uncharted waters.”
But as important as it may be for the top pros to take action, “I believe change will have to start at the grass-roots level,” Aliu wrote in his Players’ Tribune essay.
One of hockey’s barriers to entry for minorities, Weekes believes, is the fear of racism, and he told The Post that leagues at all levels should “implement the harshest penalties possible for anybody that’s a perpetrator.”
Another factor is cost. While some families, such as Kebreau’s, are willing to invest money in their kids’ hockey endeavors, others can’t handle the financial burden, in which equipment and spots on club teams can be expensive.
“It hasn’t been affordable on a normal basis,” said Cotten’s father, John. “If you talk about paying $125 to $155 for a stick and another $500 for a pair of skates and the extra training that they get — the average family in the inner city don’t have that income.”
Cotten runs the Purple Puck Tournament, in which 16 high school teams from various states have come to Southeast Washington each December for the past 28 years to play at Fort Dupont Ice Arena.
The arena, home to the Fort Dupont Cannons, the oldest minority club team in North America, was set to receive renovations, but when D.C. schools needed to upgrade their air conditioning and heating, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) asked to redirect funds earmarked for the arena. The arena received enough outside fundraising to proceed with the expansion.
Kebreau’s father, Vladimir, said that although it isn’t reflected in college or pro hockey, he has noticed more black players on the local youth circuit in recent years. Neal Henderson, who co-founded the Cannons and at first taught neighborhood kids hockey in a driveway, said he sees progress, too.
“Before,” said Henderson, who was enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2019, “not many thought of the fact that black kids can play hockey.”