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Racism Rears Its Ugly Head in the NHL…. Again.

I cannot tell you how much I don’t want to have to write this. But, we need to talk about racism in the NHL.

Two weeks after the Lightning started the NHL’s first all-black starting lineup, we’ve taken a 50 year step back into racism. Immediately following the Oilers’ first-round exit, Ethan Bear was subjected to racist messages and comments on social media. In the United States, we’re used to hearing mostly about the racism against black people. (I’m not saying we ignore all other forms of racism, just that this is the most talked-about form, especially in the last year.) These comments and messages have reminded many of us that racism comes in many forms and countries like Canada are not free from the shackles of racism, either.

The best way to combat racism is with education because racism is fear, borne of ignorance. Let’s learn together about Ethan Bear, first, then just how racism affects hockey.

Ethan Bear, Ochapowace, & the Cree

Origins

Bear is from Saskatchewan; for my fellow Americans, it seems to me like Sas is much like the Dakotas, Montana, and Minnesota in terms of geography and people. He grew up in the Ochapowace Nation, which is a Cree First Nation. Again, for the Americans, I would look at it like one reservation of a larger tribe, or like a “city” of that tribe. The Cree are the largest native population in Canada with 220,000 members. They even have representation in Montana, where they share reservation land with the Chippewa.

Junior & Pro

Ethan and his older brother Everett grew up playing hockey, though Everett decided not to pursue it as a career. Ethan played 4 full seasons in the WHL with the Seattle Thunderbirds. With each season, his performance improved. As a more two-way style defenseman, his point production was not earth-shattering, but in his final season in Seattle, he averaged just over a point per game with 70 points in 67 games. He also had 26 points in 17 games that postseason.

Bear was drafted 124th overall in the 5th round of the 2015 NHL Draft by the Oilers. He spent the majority of the first 2 years of his career with their AHL affiliate in Bakersfield, CA. If you missed the earlier subtext, Ethan has always been a hard-working player. He clearly put in a lot of work during his time in the AHL, as he was called up several times. And then, last season, he was given a full-time spot in Edmonton.

Ethan has hosted a hockey camp for the youth of the Ochapowace Nation every summer since 2017. He wants to be an ambassador for First Nations people in hockey. He has also proudly worn a jersey with his name in Cree syllabics in several Oilers games over the past 2 seasons.

Racism In the NHL

The comments Bear’s girlfriend Lenasia Ned referred to in the linked article were not specified. But the general theme was that Bear was “lazy” and the cause of the Oilers getting swept against the Jets. I did look for specific instances, but (thankfully) every search for his name was flooded with messages of support and condemnations of said comments.

History

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Some of you may remember the K’Andre Miller run-in with Tony DeAngelo earlier this year, as well as Miller’s Zoom incident. There was also the time Akim Aliu told the story of former NHL coach Bill Peters using racial slurs with him in Rockford. Wayne Simmons had a banana thrown at him during a game in 2011. Devante Smith-Pelly had “basketball” chanted at him in Chicago in 2018.

Ethan Bear’s plight is not unique, but that does not make it any less tragic. In fact, it makes it worse that this is a pattern in hockey, not just the NHL as a league. The instances I listed above did not only involve those in the NHL. No, many involved fans or “fans.”

What Gives?

So what is it about hockey that seems to give a space for racism? I don’t have an answer. All I have are things to point to that could potentially contribute. The biggest one is the lack of diversity. And I believe the reason that is is that hockey is inherently an expensive sport to play. The gear is expensive, especially when you play growing up and have to buy new gear almost every year as your body grows. The fact of the matter is, white people are statistically more likely to have money than any other race in the Western world. That is not an opinion, that is a fact.

The reason so many minority NHL players have hockey camps in the off-season is to reach the kids in the areas that would not otherwise have access to hockey. As I said above, Ethan Bear runs his own camp in the Ochapowace Nation. The NHL’s Hockey Is For Everyone initiative has implemented similar programs, as well. Hockey In Harlem has been going strong for years. But there are not nearly enough to change the diversity significantly.

Growing

Racism has the capability of choking the life out of hockey. From a sports perspective, alienating all non-white people will shrink the pool of players to nothing very quickly. From a human perspective, no one likes a racist. Especially in this day and age, racism is unacceptable and tolerance for it is at an all-time low. No one will want to hang out with hockey people and no one will want to play the game if they see that hockey is a haven for racists.

This seems insanely obvious to me—but then again so does not being a racist. Clearly, many hockey fans and people in the NHL world don’t share my worldview. It’s going to take us who truly believe that Hockey Is For Everyone to combat hate. It should not be up to the minority players to end racism in the NHL. It’s up to all of us. It’s going to take time. Education does not happen overnight. It’s going to take fans in the stands calling out the ignorance of others. It’s going to take fans holding the NHL accountable for acting in the best interest of all its players, including those of color.

Do better.

Further Reading

I do not presume to know the struggles of a hockey player of color. Therefore, I would be remiss if I did not include the voices of those who live through the struggle.

In addition, here are some very in-depth articles about racism in the NHL.

-Heidi Thomas (@DamselOnDrums)

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Heidi Thomas

Armchair hockey coach, passive horse racing fan, full-time dog referee.

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