P.K. Subban and hockey's problematic relationship with players of color

P.K. Subban and hockey's problematic relationship with players of color

Rather than talking about P.K. Subban's double overtime Game 1 winner, or the electrifying hour and a half of playoff hockey that preceded it, the hockey world spent the bulk of the time before Game 2 talking about the racist comments it generated.

Well, not so much the racism itself. Not even the victim of it.

The primary concern here was the city of Boston, wherefrom this handful of despicable comments came.

Fortunately, when Subban spoke on the issue after Game 2, he said exactly what the good people of Boston wanted to hear.

"First things first," he began, wisely, knowing where the heart of the issue lay for many, "the Boston Bruins are an Original Six franchise. They’ve been around for a very long time. They’re respected. It’s completely unfair for anybody to point the finger at the organization or the fan base."

He closed by saying the same thing two more times.

And with that, Boston's long national nightmare was put to bed, absolved by the victim, as was his responsibility, apparently. Subban was praised for his powerful words, for his class, and a great sigh of relief poured into Boston harbor like tea from the patriots. Their ordeal was finished.

P.K. Subban's ordeal, however -- the one of a black player in a league that still, in 2014, has absolutely no idea what to do with him -- continues unabated.

There was more going on here than just a handful of racists being racist in a racist vacuum. There's a serious underlying issue at play: hockey's relationship with its black players is progressing slowly -- too slowly. That got missed, as the controversy devolved into Boston fans washing their hands of it while loudly, aggressively, invoking the No True Scotsman fallacy.

"This guy's not a fan!"

"Yes he is."

"He's not a TRUE fan, though."

But of course he is. There's no morality clause in fandom, and the sooner we accept that the jerks walk and cheer among us, the sooner we might be able to move on to hockey's problematic relationship with its players of colour.

The coverage of P.K. Subban, let alone the rest of the league's visibly ethnic players (and honestly, any group of foreigners, for that matter, and especially Russians), remains slanted. It's difficult to put a finger on. All that Subban and the other players of colour know is that the rules are different for them.

Subban casually pointed this out after Shawn Thornton sprayed him with a water bottle from the bench in Game 4. “I don’t know if it’s part of the game," he said, of the move. "I’m sure if it that was me who did it, that would be a different story. It would probably be on the news for the next three days."

He's right. The coverage takes on a different tone with Subban. Consider the squirm-inducing column from the great Ken Dryden that ran in the Toronto Star over the weekend. It opened like this:

Hey Mom! Mom! Mom, look at me! I’m doing a somersault. I’m hopping on one foot. I’m scratching my left ear.

— P.K. Subban craves attention.

If only they wouldn’t shoot to one corner, deflect the puck to the other, make me split to one side, then back again, and throw up my glove to the top corner to catch it. It’d be a lot simpler.

— Carey Price prefers to avoid it.

This is a column that's supposed to be singing the praises of Subban and Price. Instead, it opens by painting one as a mature, team-first guy, and the other as an attention-seeking little boy.

Part of this is Dryden's goalie bias. He's a legend of the position, and he sees the netminder as a special kind of hero. But Dryden is also operating with a racial bias, even if he doesn't recognize it.

He continues, going so far as to actually note Subban's race in the piece -- a rare, helpful clue that there's something bubbling under the surface. After praising Price as understated, in control of his emotions, and spare in his movement, we get this:

Subban is his antithesis. Hey Mom, hey opponents, hey world, I’m here. His size, the fluid, forceful grace of the way he moves, his black skin in a mostly white-skinned game, his confident, risky style. Subban could be only scratching his left ear, and people would still notice.

It's true about the ear-scratching. It's not often that hockey fans see a black man scratching his left ear. That is, unless they also watch one or more of the other major sports, where black players populate the game to an extent that their skin colour really no longer bears mentioning.

To many hockey fans -- too many -- Subban looks like a basketball player, and there's only one reason for that. While they've never seen him dribble a basketball, they have seen him carry the puck through the neutral zone while black.

This is a problem, because hockey, perennially the little brother of the four major sports, has developed an identity rooted in what their players are not, as opposed to what they are. Not arrogant. Not selfish. Not showy. Not full of flopping, diving, embellishment. Not basketball.

Only the last of these things is actually true. Hockey has the arrogant, the showy, the selfish, the flopper. Plenty of them. But for the most part, fans like to think NHLers are beyond that. The moments they prove they aren't, it's uncharacteristic. It's gamemanship. It's not classy. It's not hockey.

It's basketball. And Subban -- or Evander Kane, or Dustin Byfuglien, or Black Player X , to these people -- screams "basketball". (I get it too. "Stick to basketball" or some variation is a common troll comment on my hockey writing.) As a result, if a player looks like Sean Avery, it takes Sean Avery-level behaviour to get a reputation as a me-first guy, brash, reckless, arrogant, et cetera.

If you're black, however, you have to prove you're not.

It's mostly subconscious. Subban is playing to a crowd of people that see his skin, then connect it to the type of athlete they don't want their hockey players to be. The type of athlete who "doesn't play the game the right way," a phrase that rhymes with the phrase it tends to actually mean.

The criticism Subban faces, then, has less to do with him and more to do with perceptions and biases these people have allowed to guide their thoughts, and to colour, no pun intended, their vision.

This may not be capital-R racist -- I'm sure most of these fans would never say an unkind word about a black person just because he's a black person. They likely don't even realize the connections they're making -- but it's still racially-driven, and has to stop.

We see it at work in hockey all the time. Memes contrasting some heroic and always white hockey player to a basketball player, usually Lebron James, pop up regularly. Here's one that made the rounds after T.J. Oshie downplayed his star turn at the Olympics:

On the surface, this is about ego. Nothing wrong with that. Hockey is a team game, we hear all the time. 20 guys playing together. No room for anyone who thinks he's bigger than the room. Not like Lebron "taking my talents to South Beach" James, and there's nothing racial about saying so.

Aside from the fact that the players associated with ego tend to be uniformly black. The criticism that they're spoiled, ego-driven, and selfish simply seems to stick to black players a little easier.

And what do you know: It also tends to be the black players in hockey that gets slapped with the label as well.

Subban sparked controversy in January for celebrating too hard after an overtime goal versus the Ottawa Senators. After scoring the winner, he dashed across the ice to his teammates, hugged them, then tugged on his jersey a couple times.


Meawhile, Patrick Kane shouted "Showtime!" -- hey, like these guys! -- after scoring a big playoff goal versus the Wild, and no one cared. But if he was Evander Kane...

And can you imagine what people would say about, say, the way Rick Nash's goal totals tend to match his assist totals -- a hint that he's an incredible goal-scorer with terrible vision -- if he looked more like Dustin Byfuglien? He'd have been pegged as a selfish player ages ago. One wonders how many Olympic teams he'd have made. But there are no questions about Nash's commitment to his teammates.

Patrick Kane and Rick Nash are both highlight-reel players. Ethnic 'em up a bit, on the other hand, and the stuff that makes them special players becomes the stuff that makes them problems. The coverage would change.

On the Winnipeg Jets' bid to improve by replacing coach Claude Noel with Paul Maurice, Sportsnet's Mark Spector wrote, "when arguably your best two players are immature freelancers like Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane, can you ever succeed in the National Hockey League?"

Now, I've met Mark Spector several times, and not once did I get the sense that my blackness was at odds with his whiteness. I think he's a good man and I don't intend to disparage him. The tone of racial dialogue in sports, let alone in this country, has become so poisonous that we can't even bring it up without someone bristling at the inferrence that they're a racist on par with Donald Sterling, the big-time, old-time racist of the moment. I'm not calling anyone a racist. I'm talking about biases based on racial perception, and I firmly believe that Spector missed an important bias check before writing this article.

I also firmly believe that the majority of hockey fans think the same way he does.

The evidence of this is stark. It's in controversies like Evander Kane's money phone, which drew outrage during the NHL lockout, when NHLers were supposed to act like they weren't making millions playing the sport.

Other players tweeted photos of their new sports cars, walked around in expensive suits, did things that rich people do -- but Kane was the one who became the poster-child for the over-monied, spoiled athlete. Like I said earlier, it just stuck to him a little better.

Kane has been a controversial figure in Winnipeg for some time. The city's hockey fans don't know how to handle him, and when this gets pointed out, defensive Winnipeggers argue that nobody has ever had a problem with the black players on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, their Canadian football team.

True. But the CFL is a niche league, and the expectations for an athlete's comportment in the still-predominantly white sport of hockey are a great deal different. It's not just about Kane being black -- it's about Kane being a black hockey player.

Kane actually came right out and said it. "I think a good portion of it is because I'm black, and I'm not afraid to say that," he told The Hockey News back in February. "A lot of people pretend. People try to be politically correct, but you can see through that. But here's the thing, though: I don't feel like a victim and I don't want to be perceived as one. But do I think that's true? Absolutely."

I also think that's true.

Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press disagreed. "To hang it on Winnipeg as a city more racist than the next is simply wrong," he said, closing a column in which he spoke to members of the Blue Bombers, who said things like, "Winnipeg isn't Atlanta, Georgia," which is true.

I'm sure it made the good people of Winnipeg feel better to have someone standing up for them, since, of course, they, not Kane, were the real victims here. (Sound familiar?)

It also served to ignore the real issue, which is that Kane wasn't wrong. He wasn't saying that Winnipeg is a special kind of racist city. That's silly. He was saying that much of the criticism he faces has a racial undercurrent. Far too often, people spend so much time fighting the straw man of the first interpretation that they miss the uncomfortable truth of the latter.

Or maybe they miss it on purpose, because it's uncomfortable, and they'd rather get angry at the person pointing it out than consider what he's trying to say, and what it means about them.

I suspect I'll also experience this phenomenon when this column appears online.

All of this isn't to say that hockey treats every black player problematically. They don't. Just the ones who fail to conform to their mould of how a player should act. Just the ones who stand out.

Jarome Iginla has long been embraced in this game. People rarely talk about his blackness. I'd argue it helps that he's light-skinned, that he tends to be short on words, and that he's so self-effacing, so stereotypically "hockey" that he bristled at the fanfare that accompanied his first game back in Calgary after leaving the Flames.

And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with being that way. That's how Iginla is.

But you can't expect it out of every black player. You can't attack black players that choose to be themselves, that opt not to hide their personality under a bushel. And yet hockey does, again, and again, and again.

It's time for hockey to figure this garbage out, because the influx of talent of colour isn't about to stop. The NHL is slowly growing more diverse. Too slowly, one might argue. To wit:

If we’re extrapolating Canadian population statistics to the NHL, we’d expect there to be something to the tune of 206.7 players of colour. I’ll concede the .7 - give me 206 guys. There are 41.

Still, 41 is more than there used to be, and soon there will be more than 41. Hockey is making strides towards representation. They're Douglas Murray strides, but they're strides nonetheless. P.K. Subban, Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien are hardly alone in this game.

And as the look of the NHL player slowly changes, the look of the NHL player in our minds needs to change as well. Ideally, much more quickly.