The NHL has suffered from two racism scandals in two weeks: one from a television personality in Canada and another from a head coach. The incidences have forced the entire hockey community to face many of its shortcomings, including its promotion of cultures of secrecy and its preservation of outdated perspectives.
The first scandal emerged in the firing of Don Cherry, whose 40-year broadcasting career ended after he commented about the lack of poppy-wearers on Remembrance Day in Canada, specifically targeting non-native Canadians for neglecting the widely supported tradition.
“You people — you that come here, whatever it is … could pay a couple of bucks for poppies. … These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada,” said Cherry in his “Coach’s Corner” broadcast segment. Remembrance Day is a memorial holiday in Canada to commemorate the Canadians who have fought and died in armed conflicts.
I find that Cherry’s comments about the holiday reveal a belief that Canada’s immigrant population is somehow less patriotic or grateful for the Canadian way of life than native-born Canadians. More surprisingly, Cherry showed a complete lack of remorse when confronted about the charged statements, simply responding with a back-handed apology: “I know what I said and I meant it.”
Cherry’s comments are all the more significant as he is a fixture of hockey for Canada. He hosts a segment during the game intermissions on “Hockey Night in Canada,” a highly televised program that draws in around a million viewers weekly. Even before the emergence of his anti-immigrant comments, Cherry failed at many aspects of his sports commentator career, bringing into question his suitability for the position. He could not pronounce players’ names correctly if his job depended on it — which it evidently did not — as he often mispronounced dozens of players’ names.
He hardly seems capable of finishing a thought coherently, as his co-presenter constantly reminds him of what he’s supposed to be talking about. He has also referred to the Carolina Hurricanes as “a bunch of jerks” for their team celebrations, dubbed concussion spotters as “dum dums,” clearly an opinion with no place in 2019, and generally prefers the “good Canadian boys” over other players, even as the sport spreads internationally.
Despite all of this, his brash personality has been a draw for his segment since the ’80s as he brings in millions of viewers, some of whom only tune in to watch his segment instead of the actual game. I have made several references in previous installments of this column to the old guard of hockey, who prize rough play and toughness over skill and strategy. Cherry is the figurehead of this way of thinking and his firing should represent a changing of the guard of television personalities.
Just as the dust was settling on the Cherry incident, the horrendous play of the Toronto Maple Leafs set into motion another chain of events. The Leafs finally decided to fire Head Coach Mike Babcock, which was a major decision in and of itself. The Stanley Cup-winning coach was fired for the first time in his career because his team, despite looking amazing on paper, has performed horribly on the ice.
When Babcock was fired, it emerged that he had forced Mitch Marner as a rookie to rank his teammates from least to most hardworking. Marner reluctantly obeyed to avoid disappointing his new coach during his first year in the NHL, but Babcock soon made the individuals at the bottom of the list aware that Marner thought they were not hardworking. The hockey world responded with anger at this manipulation of a young and talented player for strange team dynamic gamesmanship. Former player and current NHL analyst Jeremy Roenick called the strategy “an arrogant move” and one that “stoops way too low” while former player and current broadcaster Ray Ferraro regarded the tactic as “absolutely amateurish.”
Then, the other shoe dropped. The emergence of this story led former NHL player Akim Aliu to come forward with his own story of Bill Peters, former Babcock protege and now former head coach of the Calgary Flames. About 10 years ago, when Peters was a coach in the NHL’s minor league affiliate AHL, he referred to Aliu, born in Nigeria and raised in Ukraine and Canada, with a racial slur in reference to the music Aliu played in the locker room.
Another black player in the NHL, Evander Kane, correctly points out that even though the Babcock story led to the development of the Peters story, they are not remotely morally equivalent. Babcock used ill-advised coaching techniques and will probably work in the league again while Peters referred to players with racist terminology and has rightfully been fired from his position as head coach.
These incidents must make the NHL mindful of some difficult realities. First, it cannot let its culture of being a boys club prevent the league from shedding light on injustices that take place in locker rooms. Next, it must avoid becoming an echo chamber: 93% of active players are white and 100% of head coaches and ownership are white. The NHL must make sure its internal mechanisms and even television personalities reflect its external marketing that “hockey is for everyone.”
About a year to the day before Cherry was fired, Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder of the game as we know it today. Hopefully, in light of the events that have taken place lately, we can celebrate the anniversary of O’Ree’s induction to remind ourselves and the league about the uphill climb of inclusion and recognize that there is clearly still a long way to go for professional hockey.