It can be argued that no sport is more identified with Canada than hockey, which makes it an interesting mirror through which to examine how race is defined and constructed. And yet, for a nation that prides itself as a “cultural mosaic,” there is little to suggest that hockey players reflect that self-image. Look no further than the overwhelmingly white National Hockey League. With the excitement of the Stanley Cup playoffs still fresh on our minds, it is worth reflecting on the question, “why are there so few racialized players in the NHL?”
Racialized players are relatively few and far between in the game as a whole, let alone in the sport’s highest league. Although Indigenous and Black communities played pivotal roles in the early development of modern hockey (see for example, the book, Black Ice), the emergence of the NHL saw hockey become a primarily “white” sport. Some of the racialized players who did make it to the NHL (such as Willie O’Ree and Fred Sasakamoose) are now lauded as trailblazers, while others such as Taffy Abel have remained largely in the shadows. The list of those following in their footsteps has continued to remain a relatively small one.
In more recent years, high-profile incidents involving racism at hockey’s highest levels brought attention to and cast serious concerns regarding the prevalence of racism in the sport. For example, Don Cherry was fired from CBC’s “Coach’s Corner” for racist stereotyping of immigrants – the final straw in a long list of controversial on-air statements. Bill Peters, former coach of the Calgary Flames, resigned when racist taunts he had employed in the locker room on a previous team came to light. Other NHL players came forward to share similar experiences.
As researchers passionate about the sport, those incidents at the highest levels led us to wonder about the experiences of racialized players in lesser-known developmental levels still dreaming of a career in the game. Could racism at these levels “filter out” racialized players and impede their presence at the sport’s highest levels? Questions like these led us to conduct research recently published in the Sociology of Sport Journal in which we sought to examine racialized players’ experiences with racism at the competitive developmental levels.
As expected given our topic, the population of racialized players we could approach is a small one, and the leagues and teams we initially contacted about potential interviewees were not eager to facilitate our work. Through a multitude of strategies, we located 13 high-level hockey players from racialized communities who play/ed predominately in Western Canada; nine participants (from Black, Indigenous, Indo-Canadian and Asian communities) agreed to take part. Their highest hockey experience ranged from Junior “A” to semi-professional levels. Our interviews focused on themes such as (1) incidents in hockey that participants perceived as racist, (2) how various stakeholders responded to such incidents, (3) how systemic facets of the sport may condone racism, and (4) policy implications for combating racism in hockey.
Our findings suggest that racism is alive and well at the rink, with incidents being categorized into three broad domains: (1) verbal incidents; (2) physical acts; and (3) micro-aggressions. All our participants described experiencing verbal racism throughout their careers, beginning as early as 10 years old. Players like Peter and Stanley described facing unnecessary slashing and crosschecking, with racial slurs moments later cementing their suspicions that the roughness may have also been racially motivated. Experiences like these were common for our participants to endure, given their status as an “other” at the rink.
Although we anticipated discussions about verbal incidents and physical acts, we found more subtle barriers to be a common talking point. The underlying oppressions in hockey were often speculative and ambiguous, leaving players with no more than a “gut feeling” of being treated “less than.” For example, the majority of participants perceived that they were cut from a team or held back in their career based on inequitable treatment they believe was based on race, yet justified by amorphous criteria such as “effort” and “attitude.” Having been cut from a Bantam AAA team (13-14 year olds) under these ambiguous circumstances, Sahil tracked that coach’s past behaviour and discovered a similar trend of otherwise well-deserving racialized players who had been mistreated in one way or another. In this way, Andre’s reflection on his career progression sums up our participants’ more general sentiments: “I felt like I had to work twice as hard as others to get the same opportunity during my career, and thoughts it had to do with my skin color have undoubtedly crept into my mind.”
Participants described how they struggled to find the appropriate space to cope with racism at the rink. Little was done by stakeholders in positions of power (managers, league administrators) to address such incidents. The message received by the players was that they did not belong, with all at some point asking themselves the question of whether it was worth it. The racialized targeting of players we heard about makes us wonder about all the potential Quinton Byfields (a Black player drafted second overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft) who heard such messages and decided to leave the game. And indeed, although our participants persevered and were still playing hockey, some were reconsidering their future relationship with the game, as evidenced by Ajay’s thoughts:
There are just things to look at when I have kids. Do I want to put my kids in hockey? Do I want them to experience the things I experienced? …I guess I was able to cope with these things, but who knows if my kids would be able to, or if the incidents would be worse in their situations…it might be limiting to their lives. (Ajay)
While many hockey organizations and associated businesses have pledged to make changes to policy and practice since we conducted our research (e.g., Scotiabank’s “Hockey for All” campaign), the prevalence of racism in the game is still concerning. In this vein, our findings regarding policy implications – notably, that of education, enforcement, and oversight (as similarly reflected in a recent Policy Paper for Anti-Racism in Canadian Hockey) – continue to remain a pertinent point of discussion. With events of the recent past highlighting racial injustice across North America and around the world, hockey is among those with much to improve upon. Our research suggests that more work needs to be done, beginning at the youngest levels, to make the meaningful cultural change required and open doors to arenas for all players.
Ryan Sandrin is a PhD Student in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University. He also serves as the Director of Education for SFU Men’s Ice Hockey and formerly played on the team while completing his undergraduate studies. He has recently published his work in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, Policing: An International Journal, and the Sociology of Sport Journal.
Ted Palys, PhD, is a professor in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University. His teaching and research interests have focused on methodological and a variety of social justice issues, the latter primarily in the realms of Indigenous rights and Internet governance. His newest book (with co-author Chris Atchison), Research Methods in the Social and Health Sciences: Making Research Decisions (2021) is available through Sage Publications.
 Note that all names of participants and others mentioned in participant recounts are pseudonyms.
To read the full article:
Sandrin, R., & Palys, T. (2021). The hat-trick of racism: Examining BIPOC hockey players’ experiences in Canada’s game. Sociology of Sport Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1123/ssj.2020-0175 or email firstname.lastname@example.org