CALGARY—Manager Tommy Neeposh and the First Nation Elites hockey team were excited to play in Quebec City for the first time. The boys, aged 13 and 14, were from First Nations communities across Eastern Canada, including the Mi’kmaq, Mohawk and Cree.
It was May 25, 2018, and the team had travelled more than 16 hours to be there for a weekend tournament, the Coupe Challenge Quebec AAA.
But when it was over, Neeposh said they no longer felt welcome.
Throughout the tournament, the team was subjected to various racist taunts. Mocking war cries from the opposing team. Tomahawk chops from parents in the stands. Powwow music played by a laughing DJ, and a biting comment from the opposing team’s coach: “Gang de sauvages,” or “gang of savages.”
Neeposh said he’d never experienced racism at this level — and neither had his boys.
Despite the taunts, the Elites won that first game, and decided to play on. “But it happened every game.”
After the second day, Neeposh told his players, “If you want to go to a high level, you guys are going to face racism.”
Some of the boys still talk about it, he said. Others have stopped playing hockey because of it.
What happened to the First Nations Elites is unfortunately just one of many incidents in a sport currently facing a reckoning after several high-profile allegations of racism on and off the ice.
There was no apology, said Neeposh, who is now waiting for the results of a Human Rights Commission complaint about his team’s treatment by the organizers of the tournament, AAA team the Bulldogs de Quebec. He wants to see Canadian hockey’s top organizations — Hockey Canada and provincial groups like Hockey Quebec — enact stricter rules to prevent racist behaviour.
“ ‘What happens on the ice should stay on the ice.’ Yes, I’ve heard that term,” said Neeposh. “But when it comes to racism, it shouldn’t.”
Hockey’s race problem
In the past few weeks, powerful figures in Canadian hockey have faced consequences for actions that were once acceptable or at least swept under the rug. Most notably, longtime Canadian broadcaster Don Cherry was fired for refusing to apologize for referring to immigrants as “you people” in the last of his many controversial on-air tirades.
Cherry has said before that he doesn’t think hockey has a racism problem, on his former weekly CBC segment Coach’s Corner.
That wasn’t true then, and it’s still untrue today, according to players, coaches and parents who have seen it first hand.
On Monday, former pro hockey player Akim Aliu alleged on Twitter that Bill Peters, the current head coach of the Calgary Flames, used racial slurs while coaching Aliu on the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs ten years ago.
Peters issued an apology Wednesday, saying he takes responsibility for the incident, that it came in a moment of frustration, and that he’s regretted the incident since it happened. During a weeklong investigation by the Flames organization, other allegations about Peters being physical abusive toward his players surfaced. Peters submitted his resignation on Friday.
Throughout the week, current and former players took to Twitter to voice support for Aliu, and to point out hockey’s race issues.
Players facing racial abuse is unfortunately familiar territory in Canadian hockey. Earlier this year, 24-year-old Jonathan Diaby, a defenceman in a Quebec-based semi-professional league, said he and his family members were subjected to racist taunts during a game in St-Jérôme, Que.
Just last week, Zachary Sukumaran, a 17-year-old who lives in Millbrook, Ont., said an opposing player told him “Go back where you came from, you … immigrant.”
Having heard comments like this on the ice since he was 12, Sukumaran said he finally snapped and yelled back at the other player. Officials intervened, and Sukumaran was ejected from the game. The opposing player received no penalty, with the referees saying they hadn’t heard the comment themselves.
After his ejection, Sukumaran punched a dressing room door, breaking his hand. The injury has put the Peterborough, Ont., player out of action for six weeks, but he’s determined not to let this kind of language stop him from playing hockey. Instead, he wants to see stricter and more efficient on-ice punishments for racist taunts.
“As time goes on, there’s going to be more people of colour playing the sport,” Sukumaran said. “There’s a lot of people immigrating to Canada. One day, their kids are going to want to play hockey.”
‘I was a Black man in a white man’s game’
The recent news revealing stories of racism at hockey’s highest levels has triggered some difficult memories for Bill Riley.
The 69-year-old from Amherst, Nova Scotia, skated in 139 games from 1974 to 1980 for the Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets. Riley said he and his Capitals teammate Mike Marson were the only Black NHLers back then.
“Let’s call a spade a spade. I was a Black man in a white man’s game, and I didn’t want to rock the boat. I heard a lot of stuff that I pretended I didn’t hear … we heard some terrible s–,” he said.
For the most part, Riley said his teammates and coaches were good to him. The racism he faced instead often came from opposing players and fans.
But Riley does remember some incidents with the Capitals organization he said he’ll never forgive them for. Like when a coach laughed after the team’s bus driver used the N-word toward a Washington taxi driver.
“Nothing was ever said about it. Nothing was ever done about it,” Riley said. “And we had to live with that because we figured if we opened our mouth and if we said anything, that we’d be deemed as trouble.”
Hanging up the skates
The often unheralded contributions of Black pro hockey players like Riley to the evolution of the sport is covered in the 2016 documentary “Soul on Ice,” directed by filmmaker and self-professed hockey ultra fan Damon Mason.
But despite his lifelong love of the sport, even he felt the need to step away when he was younger.
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Mason, 49, is a first-generation Canadian whose parents came to Canada from Guyana.
He grew up playing road hockey with his friends for hours each day, with real maple leafs taped to their jackets. He’d watch the sport every week with his family and loved how it brought them together.
But there were barely any Black players he could watch on TV. And during road hockey games and shinny, he would hear jeers from white players about how “Black kids don’t play hockey.”
“When you’re going to play hockey and you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m going to be Bobby Orr’ and ‘I’ll be Wayne Gretzky.’ My favourite hockey player as a kid was Guy Lafleur, and I remember this kid told me that I couldn’t be Guy Lafleur because he’s white,” Mason said.
Though he played on hockey teams for two years, he said he eventually felt that if white players said they didn’t want him, he didn’t need them either. “Why would I waste my time with something that’s not inviting to me?”
“There are so many stories of young Black kids who played the game of hockey that said, ‘You know what, it’s not even worth it. Why am I even doing this? I don’t even want to do this anymore.’ ”
Almost 40 years later, Neeposh’s 15-year-old son is grappling with the same decision Mason made. A talented player, he soldiered on after the Quebec City incident, as did many of his teammates. But other incidents began to pile up.
This year, Neeposh said his son isn’t playing.
“I had a son who wanted to play hockey and had a dream … He said, ‘You know, Dad, I’m not as motivated as I was before. I’m just not.’ He’s treated differently.”
Someone to look up to
Racism in hockey isn’t just a Canadian problem. In 2018, Divyne Apollon II, a 13-year-old player, was subjected to racist taunts at a tournament in Maryland. His teammate’s mother, Tammi Lynch, heard about the incident and decided to make “End Racism” stickers for the whole team to wear at the next game. The gesture turned into an advocacy organization called Players Against Hate.
Lynch said she had no idea what players such as Apollon faced on a regular basis.
“Hockey’s traditionally been less diverse. And I think people look at it as … a white person’s sport,” she said. “If you’re not the target of it, you really don’t know how bad it is.”
Neeposh said he was surprised when in October this year, USA Hockey announced it was increasing the penalty for on-ice racial or derogatory slurs to a match penalty, which means the player in question will be suspended.
It’s a positive change, said Neeposh, but he’s disappointed that the U.S. “beat us to it.”
Hockey is the quintessential Canadian sport, he said, and yet it’s always been mostly white. So it can be hard for young players from visible minority groups to feel welcomed.
Neeposh said in particular, he feels like racism against Indigenous players isn’t treated the same.
“Now look at this incident with Peters … they step on it right away,” he said. “But when it happens to First Nations, Indigenous kids … they don’t take it seriously.”
Hockey Canada includes racism under anti-bullying, abuse and harassment policies. On Friday, after Peters’ resignation in Calgary, the organization released a statement listing measures it had taken over the years to help make hockey a safer and more inclusive sport.
One of the groups trying to make hockey more accessible and inclusive is the Hockey Education Reaching Out Society (HEROS), a charity that aims to empower marginalized youth through hockey. It was founded in Vancouver, but has programs in Calgary’s Forest Lawn and Bowness neighbourhoods as well. Samuel Broomfield, 18, volunteers at Forest Lawn.
Broomfield has been with HEROS for nearly a decade. The Calgarian is a first-generation Canadian whose parents are from Jamaica. He said his dad loved the sport, but the high cost of equipment prevented him from joining organized hockey. But when HEROS reached out to families in Calgary with children who’d never played before, he quickly developed a passion for the game.
Broomfield said the program’s volunteers and other players took time to make him feel welcome. Now he passes along what he’s learned to the kids in the program today.
“It gives some of these kids out here from different backgrounds (an opportunity),” Broomfield said. “You get to see how much they start to fall in love with the sport.”
‘Rush of pride’
Decades after leaving hockey, filmmaker Damon Mason found himself drawn back to the sport.
While living in Calgary in the early 2000s, he slowly started watching hockey again and heard about the Flames while working as a local radio host. Though he was never able to afford Maple Leafs tickets as a kid, Mason jumped at the chance to see the Flames.
When he arrived at the Saddledome, Jarome Iginla, the team’s captain and top player, immediately stood out to him.
“From there, I just had this rush of pride,” Mason said of watching a Black player excel in the sport.
Iginla was one of hockey’s most dominant stars at the time, consistently ranking among the league’s scoring leaders. It made Mason interested in Iginla and the Flames, but also rejuvenated his love for the sport as a whole.
“I’m thinking about the young kid that was like me at seven years old, and now he has somebody he can look up to,” Mason said.
With files from Philip Croucher and The Canadian Press