Hockey has a racism problem, but its biggest stars remain silent

CALGARY, CANADA - APRIL 7: Akim Aliu #29 of the Calgary Flames skates to the bench after socring his first NHL goal against the Anaheim Ducks on April 7, 2012 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)
Akim Aliu detailed the racism he faced in the NHL in a piece for the Players Tribune. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

Let’s rip the Band-Aid off from the top: the silence of white NHL players when it comes to the racism their fellow black hockey players continue to endure is deafening.

On Tuesday, a powerful piece written by former NHL player Akim Aliu was posted to The Players' Tribune, and in it, Aliu details more of the racist abuse he endured from childhood on as he pursued his NHL dream. Aliu wants to see change in hockey, to make “Hockey is for Everyone” more than a catchphrase rolled out for a couple of weeks every year.

Aliu didn’t say it, but in order for that to happen, white players will have to step up and speak out.

I’m not talking to the black players here. They know what racism is; they’ve experienced it. It’s not their job to fix it. Not alone anyway.

No, with only a reported 43 players of color in a league of over 700, they cannot create change by themselves. And again, it’s not their job.

In the six-plus months since Aliu revealed on Twitter that his then-coach Bill Peters directed the N-word at him repeatedly in 2009 over Aliu’s taste in music, he hasn’t gotten a lot of support from those within the sport. We’re hard pressed to find any of the NHL’s stars who have gone on the record, whether with reporters or on social media, to condemn racism within hockey.

It’s not for lack of trying, at least by some media members. Salim Valji, a Canadian sports writer, tweeted on Wednesday that he’s reached out to no fewer than six players, including superstars Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, to ask about race and has been rejected every time.

On Wednesday afternoon, Dallas defenseman Stephen Johns quoted Aliu’s tweet and wrote, “We have to do more as a hockey community,” and a short time later Anaheim goalie Ryan Miller tweeted the link to Aliu’s story and wrote, “I hope that we can all listen and be active participants in the change that is needed.”

The bar is low, but it was meaningful to see two current players acknowledge the problem. Johns and Miller can’t be the only ones, however.

Aliu wrote that he’s met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to discuss inclusivity, and that their discussion is ongoing. At the Board of Governor’s meeting last December, Bettman reportedly unveiled new league policies and training programs, including mandatory counseling on racism and bullying for NHL personnel. He also said there would be an anonymous hotline to report such incidents.

On Thursday morning, an NHL spokesman responded to a Yahoo email and relayed comments Bettman made during All-Star weekend earlier this year in which he said that the hotline was still in development as the effort is being made for a platform that allows for anonymous reports to be made by phone or digitally and is accessible in multiple languages. Bettman also said that the league has retained an outside firm to investigate other “issues that have already been brought to light,” and that there’s plans for an executive inclusion council that will work at the league and club levels.

NFL also grappling with race issues

The NFL has its flaws — witness the recent suggestion that teams might be more inclined to hire a minority head coach or general manager if they’re bribed with an improved third-round draft pick — but in recent years some white players have stepped up in support of their black teammates and the injustices black Americans face.

No doubt there should be more of them willing to do so, but recently retired pass rusher Chris Long and quarterback Josh McCown have both been vocal allies in the fight for racial justice. Earlier this month, Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady signed his name to a letter written by the NFL’s Players Coalition asking the federal Department of Justice to open an investigation into the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black jogger who was allegedly pursued and killed by a white father and son.

Brady wasn’t the only white man to sign the letter, but his doing so gave even more weight to the Coalition’s effort.

Where is that in the NHL? Granted, the majority of Brady’s teammates over 20 years in the NFL have been black, not at all the case for hockey players. But whether he’s had 1,000 black teammates or one shouldn’t matter.

Why should Aliu have suffered in silence for years? Why did he have to endure verbal abuse, not just from ignorant fans but physical and verbal abuse from at least one teammate, Steve Downie? Why was it Aliu who paid a price after not taking part in a hazing stunt and fighting back when Downie smashed seven teeth out of his face, with language like him being “difficult” mean he never got to fully live his NHL dream? Why should Peters, who clearly was bigoted, have had so much sway over his career?

Whether it comes from coaches and equipment managers or teammates or fans, why should black players at any level of hockey have to suffer alone?

Teams at pretty much every level stress brotherhood or family. Family is an everyday thing. Family is good and bad and pushing through the tough times and making each other better, not turning a blind eye at best when one member is being targeted and taking part in the targeting at worst.

Last month, New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller took part in a Zoom chat with fans and was repeatedly called the N-word by one user before the chat was shut down. What was most glaring was that not only did it take the Rangers four hours to make a statement condemning the language, they didn’t even show support for Miller within the two sentences.

The Rangers said they were “incredibly appalled” by the behavior, but where was the sentence saying “we are thrilled that K’Andre is a member of our organization” or something similar? Show Miller you have his back.

Getting to the NHL, as it is with any professional sports league, is an arduous, all-consuming pursuit. It’s predawn practices at the town rink as a kid, expensive equipment, endless drills and, to some extent, good genes.

Akim Aliu did those things, and until the day he was marked as the “uncoachable” problem child for fighting for his life, as he wrote, against Downie, he seemed like a surefire NHL player; scouts lauded his size, shot and elite skating ability.

But he didn’t back down, and it likely cost him his career. And he’s not backing down now.

Aliu wrote that he doesn’t want to drag hockey and everyone associated with it into the mud. He wants to fix the game he loves.

If he’s going to do that, he’s going to need help — help from white players.

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