Sports  Unsolved, unnoticed, underreported

What Evander Kane tells us about racisim in the NHL

Evander Kane, formerly of the Winnipeg Jets, has recently left for the Buffalo Sabres following a series of events whose meaning remains obscure. Here are the facts, as we know them.

On February 3, Kane showed up to a Jets team meeting in a tracksuit, in violation of the team’s dress code for such occasions. Allegedly to “send a message,” Kane’s teammates threw his clothes in the shower. Later, an hour before puck drop, Kane told team officials that he would not play in the scheduled game in his hometown of Vancouver. Then, on February 11, Kane was traded to the Sabres. Last, but certainly not least, Kane is a black man who plays hockey.

Is that last point salient to the events in question? Nobody who remains on the Jets seems to think so. When asked to comment on the tracksuit incident, Kane’s then-teammate Blake Wheeler said, “We’re professionals, we make a lot of money. And we’re expected to uphold a certain standard. That’s the code we live by. That’s just the way it is.” That may be how Kane’s teammates view things, but there are deeper issues at play here than mere professionalism. Kane has long been known for being ‘controversial,’ and the criticisms that have previously been leveled at Kane that made him a ‘controversial’ player have been uncomfortably tinged with racial assumptions. This reputation almost undoubtedly contributed to Winnipeg’s decision to ship him off after this recent incident.

Kane’s first brush with media infamy came in 2012 when he posted a photo of himself holding stacks of cash to Twitter. It set off a media firestorm of sorts, with some accusing him of being disrespectful to NHL fans and employees by posting a record of his wealth during the lockout. Kane has stated that he thinks that much of the criticism he received for that picture happened because he was black. Not everyone agrees. Commenting on Kane’s claims, Don Cherry, everyone’s favourite hockey bloviator and unreconstructed old-school Canadian, said, “When he says stuff like that, it gets the crowd against him […] to say it’s racial is ridiculous.” Of Kane’s character, Cherry said, “He’s gotta straighten out a little. You can’t be a loose cannon in hockey. You can in football and you can in basketball, but not in hockey.”

That kind of line illustrates the type of racially-motivated criticisms that black players receive in hockey and in other sports. First, Cherry identifies Kane’s posting of the picture as a problematic behavior that needs tamping down, and then says that that sort of behavior is acceptable in sports that are considered to be blacker than hockey. Cherry probably doesn’t even think of his criticisms in racial terms, but he is hostile to the entrance of an element of stereotypically black culture into his white world of hockey.

Cherry’s bias against blackness can be seen again in a YouTube clip entitled “Is Don Cherry Racist?” The clip compares Cherry’s analyses of the play of two rookies. First, we see Cherry – infamous for encouraging goonery in hockey – uncharacteristically criticize then-rookie P.K. Subban’s play for being violent and disrespectful, even ominously implying that somebody will hurt Subban if he doesn’t moderate his style of play. Next, we see Cherry enthusiastically cheer on the violent playing of Brad Marchand. The only obvious difference between the two players that could account for Cherry’s varrying reactions is race. Subban is black and Marchand is white. This analysis is uncomfortably reminiscent of the racist trope of the ‘uppity black man’ who needs to be put in place by white authority.

This subtle kind of prejudice, which quite often goes unnoticed by the person uttering prejudiced words, is an insidious and pervasive force in modern sports commentary. It can make sports feel unwelcoming to minority groups who wish to participate, and it will be hard to eradicate. Admittedly, hockey has its share of overt racism in addition to the more covert forms too: from P.K. Subban being the target of thousands of racist tweets from Bruins fans, to Wayne Simmonds of the Flyers getting a banana thrown at him. These acts of overt racism combine with the more frequent airings of dog-whistle prejudice to create a potentially hostile environment for non-white players. Troublingly, since the members of media who criticize black players in subtly racist ways do not think of themselves as racist, it will be very hard to convince them that they need to change their tune.

The question of race is not as hotly debated in the NHL as it is in leagues like the NBA and the NFL. This is, perhaps, because there are simply not as many visible minority players in the NHL, as there are in the other leagues, to bring this issue to the up. In recent years, players in the NFL like Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks have called out the media for using words like thug to refer to black players whose attitudes are perceived as being threatening to the status quo. The NHL needs more players like Kane and Simmonds to speak up about how fans and the media treat them to help hockey break out of its comfortably tolerant self-image.

So did Evander Kane get shipped out of Winnipeg because he was black? It’s complicated. I would not say that Kane’s blackness was the only reason, or even the most important reason, for his trade to the Sabres. Clearly, there was a toxicity in the Jets locker room that went beyond questions of race. However, I think it is clear that Kane’s race was a factor that distanced him from the fans in Winnipeg, contributed to his reputation as a ‘controversial’ player, and thus nudged the Jets in the direction of letting him go. Unlike Cherry, I say that race is of course a factor in hockey, just as it is a factor in every other facet of life in Canada and the U.S. To say otherwise is naive and ultimately damaging.