Racist Heckling and Hockey

Aside from some rare incidents in the past, I always thought that hockey was a sport consisting of tolerant individuals who never judged on race or nationality.   Unlike other sports (European football comes to mind) I was never aware of any prejudice from players or fans.  Imagine my surprise and dismay when I read the reports this morning of a bigoted spectator who threw a banana at Wayne Simmonds during last night’s Detroit/Philadelphia game.

According to reports (the game wasn’t televised in the States), Flyers Simmonds was attempting a shootout when a banana was tossed on the ice. 

He stated: 

“I’ve never had a banana thrown at me before. That’s a first for me. I guess it’s something I obviously have to deal with—being a black player playing in a predominantly white sport. I’ve grown a lot playing in this league and throughout my whole life. I’m not going to dwell on that. It’s over with now.” –  Boston Herald

Two thoughts came to mind when I read this story:  1. Thank god this wasn’t in Detroit.  As a Wings fan, I never want to see this intolerance at the Joe Louis Arena, and; 2.  How can something like this happen in 2011?

Racist acts have occurred in the NHL before.  Kevin Weekes had a banana tossed on the ice during a Habs/Hurricanes playoff series in 2002.  In 1997, Washington Capitals Peter Worrell was called a “monkey” by the Avs Craig Berube  (who later received a one game suspension).  There are even accusations that Jerome Iginla was left off the 2002 Hart Trophy ballot due to the color of his skin.  But occurrences like these have not happened in years.  Why the sudden resurgence?

It could be attributed to the rise of black players in the last decade.  There are currently over 20 black players in the NHL.  This is a significant increase from the 19 total that played in the 90s.  Most of them have legitimate talent (like Dustin Byfuglien and P.K Subban) and are significant part of their team’s roster.  No doubt these players will serve as role models for younger black athletes, and the amount of black hockey players may increase exponentially.   

This may cause an influx in racial heckling.  Heckling is a major part of hockey.  As a spectator, we see it as our job to razz the opposition with chants and boos in hopes that it’ll throw them off their game.   Sometimes the playful ribbing can be harsh and cruel and perhaps this is what was behind the incident with Simmonds.   

I don’t doubt that there are fans that find this behavior perfectly acceptable and can justify it by the acquisition of a “W”.  Those are the people that need to be educated.  Winning isn’t that important and I’d rather see my team miss the playoffs than resort to such appalling actions.  If we are to have true racial tolerance in the NHL, the first thing to remember is that the opposing player is a person and is susceptible to the same thoughts and feelings as the rest of us.   

I am curious how die-hard fans will react when a black Sidney Crosby enters the league; someone who is not only a great player, but who is crowned by the media as being the face of the NHL.  Considering that Crosby is usually met with boos and mock crying in 29 arenas in the league, what will be done to his black counterpart?  Let’s hope that he’s hit with a slightly cooked octopus and not a piece of fruit.

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