Confession – I’m a hockey fan. Yes, hockey. And like my honors classes in high school, being a Black girl in a hockey arena can often be a lonely experience.
Undoubtedly, the “whitest” of the four major sports league the National Hockey League boasts less than 20 Black players and few Black fans. Nevertheless for me, hockey was a game that intrigued, but slightly confused me until my oldest brother took me to my first St. Louis Blues game as tween and I became hooked.
Further fueling my fandom legendary Afro-Canadian goalie Grant Fuhr (who hockey great Wayne Gretzky refers to as the greatest goaltender in NHL history) came to play for my beloved Blues giving me a quiet reassurance and even justification for my love of the game. And though I have overcome the loneliness that comes with loving a sport only a handful of my Black friends and big brother enjoy as much as I do, there are the rare occasions when I feel unwelcome as a hockey fan. Last night’s Game 7 playoff match between the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins was one of them.
The Capitals-Bruins series was among the most surprising and hotly contested of the first round of the 2011-2012 playoff season. Each game won by only one goal and with three overtime matches in the series, the Capitals’ sudden death victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions proved an impressive feat that provided great entertainment.Yet immediately after right winger Joel Ward rebounded the puck slapping it into the net past goalie Tim Thomas winning the series for the Capitals, a sizeable amount of disgruntled fans took to Twitter to spew racial epithets and racist remarks at the Black player who took away the Bruins’ chance for a repeat title.
“How the f*ck did Joel ward get out of my plantation? #WheresMyCotton”
“Joel ward is a f*ckin n*gger #F*ckYou”
“Purple Kool-Aid is everywhere in the Washington dressing room right now”
“I wonder if Joel Ward is the only black hockey player to score a game 7 OT winning goal hahaha? #monkeys”
What these tweets expose is an underlying current of racism and the often unspoken resistance many hockey fans feel towards a game trying to increase its diversity.
Now while such prejudice is not uncommon to the city of Boston – cue Leonardo DiCaprio telling Anthony Anderson’s character in The Departed, “Put it this way, you're a Black guy in Boston. You don't need any help from me to be completely fucked.“ – such vitriol is ironic in that the Boston Bruins were the first team in the league to break the color barrier in 1958. Willie O’Ree was the first Black player drafted by the National Hockey League, he was the first to play and as hockey’s Jackie Robinson, he continues to serve as an ambassador of the sport. A co-director of the NHL’s diversity initiative, O’Ree overseas 39 inner city programs through Hockey in the Hood. According to Mr. O’Ree, more children of color than ever are playing hockey, however this trend of racial inclusion has seen slow progress and sometimes received a frosty reception at the professional level.
Wednesday night’s racist Twitter rants by Bruins fans bookended this 2011-2012 NHL season in acts of bigotry. During a preseason contest in the historically African-American city of Detroit, Michigan, a Red Wings fan threw a banana peel that landed in the pathway of Wayne Simmonds, another Black right winger who plays for the Philadelphia Flyers during a shootout attempt.
Following the game, Simmonds shrugged off the incident by saying, “When you’re a Black man playing in a predominantly White man’s sport, you’ve got to come to expect things like that.”
The pervasive perception of hockey as a “White man’s sport” is challenged by authors George and Darril Fosty in their book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925. In Black Ice, the Fostys’ research not only reveals the contributions of Black players but also asserts that modern hockey’s roots came from the sons and grandsons of African-American runaway slaves who settled in Nova Scotia.
While the new evidence presented in the book garnered a cold reception from hockey historians and has yet to receive formal recognition from the NHL, it serves as a teachable document and another troublesome reminder of how history often erases and overlooks the contributions of people of African-descent.
Even though the revelation of a Colored Hockey League may not immediately help players like Joel Ward and Wayne Simmonds fend off racist onslaughts, understanding the long tradition of Black participation in hockey can serve to give players and fans like myself some solace that we belong in this game.
Jamila Aisha Brown is a freelance writer, political commentator, and social entrepreneur. Her entrepreneurship, HUE, provides consulting solutions for development projects throughout the African diaspora. You can follow her on Twitter and engage with HUE, LLC.