Why black hockey players get an icy reception

OPINION - In 2011, it's embarrassing that black hockey players not only expect racism, but they're prepared to mentally deal with the after effects...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Racism reared its ugly head Thursday night during a NHL exhibition game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Detroit Red Wings in London, Ontario.

During the overtime shootout, a fan threw a banana on the ice, landing just in front of Flyers’ winger Wayne Simmonds, who is black.

To the credit of the 23-year-old rising star, Simmons handled the situation like a true veteran on-and-off the ice — scoring a shootout goal against Detroit’s goalie Jordan Pearce and not losing his cool in the postgame interview.

“I don’t know if it had anything to do with the fact I’m black,” said Simmonds, who grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, two hours from where the incident occurred. “I certainly hope not. When you’re black, you kind of expect (racist) things. You learn to deal with it.”

In 2011, it’s embarrassing that black hockey players not only expect racism, but they’re prepared to mentally deal with the after effects.

Simmonds won’t have to go far in order to find a fellow black hockey player that has experienced a similar act of racism. Close friend and former goaltender Kevin Weekes had the same thing happen to him in 2002 in Montreal while playing for the Carolina Hurricanes.

“We’re nine years later, right? Nine years later we are still have the same conversation even though we have made these strides,” Weekes told theGrio Friday, ironically enough while representing the NHL at the Congressional Black Congress in Washington DC.

The strides Weekes, who works for CBC Sports and the NHL Network as a commentator, makes reference to is “Hockey is For Everyone,” the NHL’s diversity initiative that offers children of all backgrounds the opportunity to play hockey. With more than two dozen players including Simmonds, Evander Kane, and P.K. Subban, the NHL is headed in the right direction in terms of diversifying their rosters.

“While we might have made a lot of strides from the league’s standpoint, by no means can we be complacent,” Weekes added. “There’s a lot of work to be done. A lot of that work is helping to change the mindset of people.”

Changing the mindset of the players on the ice is one thing — changing the mindset of the fans is a much harder uphill battle. As a partial season ticket holder of the Los Angeles Kings, I’m often the only black fan in my section. On a good day, I’ll come across five fans inside Staples Center that look like me. Of the 30-plus games I’ve attended in the last three seasons, there has only been one incident where a fan has made a derogatory comment in front of me towards a black player (in fact it was in reference to Simmonds when he was a member of the Kings).

“We have millions of great fans who show tremendous respect for our players and for the game. The obviously stupid and ignorant action by one individual is in no way representative of our fans or the people of London, Ontario,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

With the NBA canceling their preseason Friday and the lockout showing no signs of ending anytime soon, this would be the ideal time for the NHL to recruit the average black sports fan. Hands down, hockey provides the best live experience over any other sport. But I can’t blame someone for being turned off by hockey for good after reading about what their black players are still forced to go through.

As for Simmonds, Weekes plans to call him after allowing him some space to breathe and reflect on the situation.

“I’m going to tell him to keep his head up. He’s an excellent kid who has come a long way. He’s able to live his dream and do a lot of positive things. He’s in a great situation and I just want to enforce that.”