The Calgary Flames are two years away from winning the Stanley Cup and I’m learning how to skate deep in the suburbs of South Calgary. I don’t know why, but my parents (namely my dad) thought I should learn. What’s funny, both my dad and I are from the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Ice only comes in bags, although we did manage to field a team in the second Mighty Ducks movie…. As I reflect back it was a marvel that my dad, who could barely skate himself, taught me all I needed to excel. And that I did, playing competitive hockey until my early teen years. There comes a point when you have to play all year round to keep up, so I stopped playing for a while.
I came back to the game in my early 20s for fun and play weekly. I love to blast around the ice every Tuesday at noon. It helps that I play against men 20 years my senior—which makes me look pretty good on the ice. But it’s not just about the exercise, there’s something underneath the surface that’s often just as important to some. A subtle ritual of “hockey culture” replays every week. Although I’ve only heard one racist remark in my 20 years playing as an adult (lots as a kid), it can get weird at times listening to the anti-Trudeau oil-loving Nenshi-bashing rhetoric. Sometimes it all seems out of place….
As an immigrant kid I caught the magic of the 1989 Flames Stanley Cup run, watched the weekly Hockey Night in Canada on basic TV, had the posters (Pavel Bure) on my wall, and spent endless evenings on the street or on the ice with stick in hand. I still remember the Christmas Santa somehow brought a new Easton aluminum stick, or the time the latest Wayne Gretzky roller blades with neon green laces and purple wheels emerged from the tree. Hockey is a defining cultural artifact that my childhood was immersed in. It helped me fit in, but assimilating also cost me a part of myself.
Hockey claims to draw the country together. Look no further than viewership during the Winter Olympics. Yet it’s also a space that I, and minorities like me, never truly belong. When you look across the rosters of any competitive team, visible minorities are a rare sight. I still don’t know how my family afforded the games and tournaments, and this was in the 90s. The sport is for the rich, usually white, and usually male. It’s no surprise that those who dominate presence also get to determine the “standards” of the game — and subsequently a part of Canadian culture too. But is it time to say goodbye to hockey’s influence?
Hockey doesn’t represent Canadian culture, rather a particular kind of culture that upholds certain world-views and values. A portion of culture that’s now fading away.
To understand those values listen to the tirades of the now maligned weekly edition of Coach’s Corner, featuring Don Cherry and his prejudiced rants. Cherry represents what he holds dear, and those who share his gaze love him for it. Which is fine I suppose, less all the prejudice, but when the gaze becomes the standard everyone else must match in order to fit, here’s where we run into problems. Deep problems that demand alignment to cultural assumptions in order to truly “be Canadian”.
What Hockey, Don Cherry, and Akim Aliu Teach Us About Racism in Canada
Hockey is ingrained into Canadian identity, or should I say dominant Canadian identity. An attack on the good ol’ hockey game, for some, is an attack on Canada itself. Look at how the mainstream media fell to its knees after the tragic Humboldt Broncos bus crash. But who’s Canada are we talking about? When we look at Don Cherry, we get the picture, it’s people who look like him. To state plainly — older white men.
The game is a monument to white masculinity, and more often now, the toxic pieces too. Canadians can be a modest bunch. We tend to simply accept societal norms rather than challenge them out in the open. That is until culture starts to shift or someone goes too far. Like Don Cherry, finally saying one too many stupid things about minorities. Yes, lots of Canadians agree with him, but the tide has shifted where enough don’t. This time he won’t be back, plus he overstayed his welcome anyway.
Then there’s the more recent explosion of bad coaches coming to light in the NHL. Akim Aliu broke the damn in a recent Tweet,
Not very surprising the things we’re hearing about Babcock. Apple doesn’t fall far from the Tree, same sort of deal with his protege in YYC. Dropped the N bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didn’t like my choice of music. First one to
— Akim Aliu (@Dreamer_Aliu78) November 26, 2019
Although there were a handful of white folks denying the claims, gaslighting Akim, and wondering out loud why he took ten years to say anything, most people were thankfully livid — in a good way.
Some players are confirming the allegations from Akim Aliu accusing Bill Peters of using the N-word towards him while playing in the minors.
And if you think Akim is alone in his experience, think again.
It is extremely difficult in this culture to stand up or speak up against those in positions of power. Especially at the highest levels where “being yourself” can be discouraged or even reprimanded by some. For a young player, not falling in line could cost you 💰 and your career https://t.co/NYZnL26XWK
— Jordan SamuelsThomas (@SamuelsThomas42) November 26, 2019
The reaction against (soon to be former) Flames coach Bill Peters was swift and unforgiving. For Don Cherry, a little slower with a few more questions. Like, “was it really racist?” The juxtaposition is telling because it says something about us. Canadians tend to decry racism only when it’s clearly out in the open. What Peters said is unacceptable but it’s been widely condemned because individual acts of racism are baaaad. Overt racism is a no-no. The unwritten rule is you’re suppose to keep that evil hidden. Where evil lurks it will keep finding ways to wound. It’s here Canadians of colour are continuously speaking up. We all hate individual acts of racism, yet we’re less eager to draw out racist beliefs and systems underneath the surface. We have a name for this too, white supremacy, and it operates best hidden in plain sight. That’s where it’s most effective, and it still exists today.
Canada is a colonized nation and although that was a long time ago, Canadians need to accept that the legacy of colonialism, including all the racism, still exists. Not merely in individual racist acts, but in the fabric of culture as well. That includes the fabric of the game. Ultimately, what Don Cherry said, what Bill Peters said, and whomever else gets outed in the coming days, it’s ALL COMING FROM THE SAME PLACE! We’re slow to think how complicit we are with the problem, and it’s not just a hockey problem, it’s a Canada problem.
Best Game You Can Name?
Is hockey really something we should be proud of as a nation? Is hockey culture something we should hang on to? Is the game really open and welcoming to all? Does it reproduce toxic masculinity? Is it even accessible? As demographics shift in Canada, hockey may be becoming less popular. It’s not disappearing any time soon (or ever), but it may be attracting fewer younger viewers and players. Is there anything that can be done to save it? Or perhaps a better question, should it be saved?
Although it remains stuck in the fabric of our nation, it should change and become a place where ALL can enjoy the game, as participant or viewer, without the feelings of, “me in my skin don’t really fit.” Hockey gets better when we reject the old, white, misogynistic culture for something better. However, that doesn’t mean it’s meant for everyone. People of colour, women, folks who can’t or don’t want to spend the money, you don’t have to. You don’t have to fit into hockey. You don’t have to participate in the culture of whiteness. And that won’t make you any less Canadian.
Photo credit: Erik McRitchie Photography