Hockey’s had a rocky couple of weeks.
Without even diving into the Don Cherry situation, the underbelly of hockey culture has been placed in the spotlight. The first example outside of Cherry came on Nov. 20, when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock. Shortly afterwards, a story came to light that he had purposefully humiliated then-rookie Mitch Marner in front of the entire team. While this probably doesn’t do much more than paint a picture about the type of coach Babcock was, it was the catalyst to Akim Aliu, – currently a free agent – to tweet about how one of the coach’s “proteges” had used racial slurs towards him 10 years ago while protesting against Aliu’s choice in music.
It didn’t take long before people put two-and-two together and realized that the “protege” that Aliu was referring to was Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters. The Flames immediately launched an investigation, and surprised many by doing a thorough job. The conclusion was Peter’s admitting to using racial slurs and resigning as coach of the team. Aliu, who was born in Nigeria, but grew up in Ukraine and considers himself Ukranian-Canadian, has now met with the NHL to discuss the matter.
Let’s be honest, this has been a long time coming. Hockey has long been a predominantly white sport, and it’s clear that Aliu’s experience is more of the rule rather than the exception when it comes to racism in the sport. I’ve seen too many people defend this behaviour, using various excuses from calling the players sensitive, to claiming Aliu is seeking a payout (he isn’t) and claiming that coaches do what it takes to motivate their players.
Racism, sexism and homophobia are all far-too common parts of the culture of hockey. I’ve been called just about every name under the sun, and I’m a white guy. The experiences of these athletes who come forward and expose coaches, executives, players or whoever, should be heard and welcomed. We as fans of the game should be excited by this opportunity to root out those who use the sport to justify their behaviour. Players are looked at like employees and coaches are often looked at as bosses.
No, this isn’t hockey’s demise, as I’ve seen various social media commentators suggest. This is a conversation that should have happened years ago. Hockey has been stuck in a bubble for too long, and stories like Aliu’s are far too common. We’ve heard story after story of professional athletes describing their experiences with racism and abuse, and more are coming to light. Imagine how many stories we’ll never hear if things don’t change. To defend this type of behaviour is to accept it as acceptable, and it is not.
Photo by Mackenzie Lad