Sports | Media coverage of Black players reveals hockey’s race problem

Critics should focus more on Black players’ talent than on their lifestyles

When Buffalo Sabres’ Evander Kane tweeted a photo of his Yeezy sneakers on a jet last Friday, The Sports Network (TSN) posted about it less than a day later: “Evander Kane has created a stir on social media a couple of times over the years with photos that appear to show him flaunting his money, and he was at it again on Friday.” Accompanied by a video in which pundits scrutinise Kane’s post, TSN asked the crucial question: is Kane flaunting his wealth? One of the only 32 Black players in the 714-player National Hockey League (NHL), Evander Kane has repeatedly faced strong criticism throughout his career. Criticism of racialised and other minority-group players tends to focus on details unrelated to their playing, and Kane is no exception.

Its players being 93 per cent white, the NHL is an outlier in North American sports. In contrast, Major League Soccer (MLS) is 48 per cent white, the National Football League (NFL) 28 per cent white, while the National Basketball Association (NBA) is only 25 per cent white. Of the big four professional sports leagues in North America, the NHL is worryingly white. Perhaps the league has gotten away with its racist attitudes in the past due to an overwhelmingly white make-up and audience. It was, as Rick Ross pointed out in a 2015 interview with Pitchfork, “the game they set up for the savage white boys.” However, as the league grows and more non-white players arrive, the NHL must address its problem with race.

Coverage in the media

A January 13 post on a New York Islanders website concerning Josh Ho Sang, a right-winger playing for the New York Islanders junior team, was titled “Josh Ho Sang Don’t Be The Mario Balotelli of Hockey.” Mario Balotelli is an Italian soccer player who currently plays for Nice in France’s Ligue 1. Like Balotelli, Josh Ho Sang has been branded “immature,” “flashy,” and as having have too large an attitude. For both Black athletes, the criticism focuses more on their lifestyles than their contributions to their sports. Balotelli’s critics have often made outright racist statements, such as when former Italian president Silvio Berlusconi said in February 2016 that Balotelli “has taken too much sun.” While criticism toward hockey player Ho Sang is more veiled behind terms like “upstart,” “overconfident,” and “cocky,” the racial undertones remain. Furthermore, articles like the Balotelli comparison prove that Black NHLers face racism everywhere in hockey reporting. The comparison between Balotelli and Ho Sang may accidentally prove itself true, as it subjects both players to thinly veiled racist criticism of their “immaturity,” “uncoachability,” and “attitude.”

The gifted but undisciplined athlete is a famous trope in all sports, but in hockey it seems to be reserved for players of colour. Take Patrick Kane, a white player for Chicago, who, like Evander Kane, has been accused of sexual assault. Patrick Kane is now being praised for ‘turning his career around,’ as a 2016 article in Crain’s Chicago Business magazine noted: “Gone are the headlines about the 28-year-old’s off-the-ice conduct, replaced by thrilling goal highlights and commercial appearances.” While Evander Kane’s case is rightly still being talked about, Patrick Kane’s misconduct has all but disappeared from hockey reporting.

The contrast between the media’s treatment of the two Kanes is striking. One is praised for ‘turning his career around’ after dodging a sexual assault allegation. The other is being criticized for posting photos of his shoes. TSN and other news outlets’ racial double standard when it comes to the players’ off-ice actions is painfully evident.

The most famous Black player in the league, PK Subban, has been frequentlyt criticized for his goal celebrations. Don Cherry of Hockey Night in Canada described his problem with Subban: “when he broke in, he acted like the hot dog, and he had a lot of people upset.” Forgetting the long history of elaborate celebrations by white hockey players, Cherry decided that Subban’s (rather reserved) jump into the glass was too flashy. It seems, as with Evander Kane and Josh Ho Sang, the largely white hockey media is uncomfortable seeing Black players succeed (and celebrate themselves) in hockey.

The Black history of hockey

In addition to negative press for off-ice faux pas, Black and other minority players in the NHL often find that their accomplishments go unnoticed. The sport itself was developed by Black players in Nova Scotia’s Coloured Hockey League in the 1910s, which contributed a long list of the game’s standard elements. The goalie was first permitted to make a save from his knees in that league, and the slapshot was also invented there. In the NHL, Black players like Grant Fuhr and Jarome Iginla were some of the first to achieve widespread recognition for their exceptional performance while other Black players, like Canada’s Angela James, go unnoticed and uncelebrated except by teammates, who call her “the best ever.” Val James, the first US-born Black player in the NHL, wrote that for ten years after retiring he found it hard to watch the game due to the racial abuse he suffered while playing. Even today, it is important to note the NHL struggles with blatant racism. In 2012 a fan threw a banana at Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers. He was fined only $200 by the league after claiming that he was “oblivious to the racial connotations of throwing a banana when he lobbed the fruit.” In fact, a banana is not a common snack at hockey games. Nor is throwing food at players a common practice. While moments like this are hard to ignore, white people who work in hockey still maintain that the NHL is an inclusive league.

The NHL’s 2017 Statement of Principles states that “all hockey programs should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. Simply put, hockey is for everyone.” A quick look at the demographics of the NHL proves this to be false. Black hockey players are subjected to blatantly racist abuse, lack of recognition, as well as thinly veiled racialized criticism by a white media that does not want to see them succeed or celebrate in the game.

Tarasai Karega, a former college player who has worked all her life in hockey, recently said that “it’s tangible that people stare at you like a U.F.O. just landed on Earth,” when discussing entering an arena as a Black woman.

The hockey media, in writing the history of the sport, and in its current coverage of Black and minority-group players, has contributed to hockey’s racism. Some first steps toward solving this problem would be recognizing hockey’s Black history and judging current Black players based on their on-ice actions, rather than using thinly veiled racialized language to criticize their off-ice decisions.