The NHL has a race issue and the league could be in trouble if they don't deal with it soon
"Basketball, basketball, basketball."
Those were the words four Chicago Blackhawks fans shouted towards Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly on Saturday night while he sat in the penalty box down 7-1 in the third period.
"Basketball, basketball, basketball."
Those are the words an accomplished African American hockey player has to put up with in 2018.
Taken out of context, those ignorant words make up one racist incident in a country where racist incidents occur all too often. But once you understand the National Hockey League's intolerant history it becomes clear that what happened on Saturday night is not an isolated incident like the league wants to suggest. Instead, it's one racist moment among many in a league so stuck in the past that racism has become commonplace.
If the NHL is going to survive and grow in this quickly evolving political climate, everyone from executives to players to fans need to stop and question the integrity of the league. The NHL has a race issue and the league might be in trouble if they don't acknowledge it soon.
“It’s pretty obvious what that means,” Smith-Pelly told reporters the day after fans chanted the word "basketball" towards him. “It’s not really a secret. It’s just one word; that’s all it takes. Whether it’s that word or any other word, we got the idea or I got the idea."
Though chanting the word "basketball" towards Smith-Pelly seems ambiguous, the intention of the fans becomes obvious when put into historical context. See, the NHL has a long history of not-so-ambiguous (blatantly racist) incidents dating back to 1958, when Willie O'Ree broke the colour barrier as the first black man to play in the NHL.
"In the penalty box, stuff would be thrown at [me], and they'd spit at me," O'Ree says of his early days in the NHL. Though the league would like to say it has come a far way since then, the reality is far more grim.
In 1997 Washington's Craig Berube got a one-game suspension for calling Florida's Peter Worrell a "monkey."
In 2002 a banana was thrown at former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes in a playoff game in Montreal. Nine years later, during an exhibition game in London, Ontario, a fan was fined a mere $200 after pleading guilty to throwing a banana at Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds.
In 2012, after Joel Ward scored for the Capitals in overtime of Game 7 against the Boston Bruins, angry fans flooded his social media with racially charged language and death threats.
During the 2014 playoffs a similar incident occurred, this time targeting Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban after he scored in double overtime against the Bruins. One year later Subban was traded from the Canadiens to the Nashville Predators, a franchise cornerstone (who now leads the Preds in points) in the prime of his career for an aging Shea Weber. Though the Canadiens admit "culture" had to do with the swap of players (out goes the loud black guy, in comes a calm caucasian), the fact that barely anyone mentioned race playing a factor in the trade says a lot about the NHL and the media covering the league.
“It’s disgusting,” Smith-Pelly said. “It’s sad that in 2018 we’re still talking about the same thing over and over. It’s sad that athletes like myself 30, 40 years ago were standing in the same spot saying the same thing. You’d think there’d be some sort [of] change or progression, but we’re still working towards it, I guess, and we’re going to keep working towards it.”
Out of over 700 players in the NHL last season, fewer than 30 were black. For such a small minority it's shocking how commonplace these racist incidents have become. What's even more shocking is how they get swept under the rug; how they become normalized as if they're bound to happen.
“It makes you sick to your stomach a little bit," Capitals defenseman Madison Bowey said. "But it’s part of the game, I guess.”
Anson Carter, a former NHL forward and current NBC analyst, called Saturday night’s incident “so sad” but also remarked that he is “never that surprised by this kind of thing.”
Capitals' assistant captain Brooks Orpik said, "I wish I could say it's surprising but it's probably not all that surprising."
Here's the thing: Just because something becomes commonplace, "not surprising," or "part of the game" doesn't mean its okay.
Generally when incidents like this occur players, coaches, teams, and the league are quick to release statements condemning the intolerant actions that took place. Rarely in the NHL does it go any further than that.
The four Blackhawks fans were removed from the game and have since been expelled from Chicago home games, a step in the right direction no doubt. But these are hate crimes we are talking about and they're being penalized less severely than streaking. Like the monthly school shootings that cause one week of outrage before the government chooses to do nothing and society moves on, the NHL's failure to penalize this conduct properly causes the status quo to remain intact; a status quo where racist conduct is apparently not tolerated but also not disciplined, leading to a league stuck in the past.
Hockey players are conditioned from a young age to just play hockey. They are not to be a distraction, not to talk out politically, not to garner attention. That's why watching a hockey interview is as boring as watching Citizen Kane. But that's going to have to change if the NHL wants to catch up to more politically-aware sports leagues like the NBA and thrive in this new political climate.
NHLers are going to have to speak out and demand change because the world around them is changing, and if the league doesn't realize that soon they might dig themselves a hole too deep to come out from.