Pucks in Deep: On MLK day, hockey should reflect

by Sam Stockton | 1/21/19 2:00am

Hockey is a fundamentally exclusionary sport. 

Most evidently, there is the basic requirement of a sheet of ice, which has, at least for a long time, only been available in cold climates. Now, we have NHL stars trained in Arizona, but the fact remains — particularly in the United States as opposed to Canada, and particularly in warmer climates as opposed to places like Michigan, Minnesota and Massachusetts, three states that have accounted for an astronomical percentage of American Olympic hockey players — ice time is expensive. On top of that, occasions when ice is available require a young player’s guardian be able to devote large swaths of time to driving to and from practices and games, which for hockey players with NHL potential abound even before age 10. Then there is the cost of equipment, which is higher in markets without a traditional hockey presence. The expense of putting your child into intensive hockey training (and again, I will stress that for children who will eventually become NHL prospects, this training begins at a startlingly young age) is approximately equivalent to putting them in private school. If your child shows potential, this is, like private school, an investment that could help them secure college admission or even a career. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, except of course that this type of investment — even with loans, used equipment and a carpool system — simply isn’t available to a great portion of the country. Given the socioeconomic structure of this country, a structure largely beyond the comprehension of this columnist and generally outside the purview of a hockey column, all of this is a long-winded way of getting to a point that is abundantly obvious from even a cursory glance at the roster page of any NHL team’s website: the NHL is overwhelmingly white and wealthy.

Today, in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I would like to devote this column to a topic to which organizations such as the National Hockey League and USA Hockey need to devote their attention — increasing diversity in what is overwhelmingly America’s whitest major sport. To this end, I do not have a proposal as to how either of these bodies can correct the issues I outlined in the opening paragraph, let alone issues of outright racism inevitable in an environment that has for so long been almost entirely white. Instead, I would like to take this opportunity to tell two stories about the intersection of race and hockey from the past calendar year.

The first story is nearly a year old, coming from the Pyeongchang Olympics. At those games, 20-year-old Jordan Greenway, then a student-athlete at Boston University, became the first African-American to ever represent the U.S. in the sport of hockey at the Olympics. The hockey in Pyeongchang was unique because the National Hockey League did not allow its players to attend, opening the door for a team reminiscent of the days when Olympic hockey was truly amateur. 

As a BU Terrier, Greenway was one of just 13 self-identified black players among the 1,690 athletes who compose men’s Division I college hockey. That 0.77 percent ratio is so low that it made the NHL’s measly percentage of black players, under 3 percent, look good in comparison.

Greenway grew up in Canton, New York, a small town not far from the Ontario border. Unsurprisingly for an upstate New York town, Greenway and his brother J.D. were generally the only black players on their teams growing up, so standing out as a result of his appearance is hardly new to Greenway. After all, at 6 feet 6 inches, Greenway could never have an easy time blending in.

For Greenway, success on the ice comes from his combination of that huge frame with his strong skating. As the NHL moves away from the suffocating, bruising play that defined hockey for much of the 1990s and 2000s and toward a game that emphasizes smaller, faster skaters, players who have size in addition to speed and skill have become unicorns, tremendously valuable to the teams that develop them.

Of course, Greenway could not be the first black U.S. Olympic hockey player without dealing with vitriol from old-fashioned hockey men insecure in the changing nature of their game. They pointed out that Greenway would not have made the team if the NHL had sent its players to Pyeongchang. This argument is, of course ridiculous, holding Greenway to an all-too-familiar biased standard from which his teammates were exempt because none of the players on this incarnation of the U.S. team would have cracked the roster had the NHL allowed its players to participate. And that’s without mentioning the fact that Dustin Byfuglien likely would have made an Olympic team comprised of NHL players and Seth Jones almost certainly would have, meaning that 2018 men’s Olympic team would have still seen its first black player even if the NHL had sent its players to Pyeongchang.

On the ice in South Korea, Greenway made his presence felt immediately, scoring a goal in his Olympic debut. Now, almost a year later, Greenway has been an effective player in his first full NHL season for the Minnesota Wild, who are clinging to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. However, Greenway, a rare player who saw his legacy, or at least one key component of it, established before he played an NHL game, need not fret over the pack of teams hovering around the playoff bubble.

The second story began in Chicago, just three days after Greenway scored the first goal of the American campaign in Pyeongchang. After a third period fight with Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy, Washington Capitals’ winger Devante Smith-Pelly took a seat in the penalty box to serve his five-minute major. As Smith-Pelly sat in the box, four Blackhawks fans began to chant “basketball” in his direction, the racial coding of which appears self-explanatory. The Blackhawks banned the fans from the United Center for life. Blackhawks and Capitals alike condemned the incident without qualification. Smith-Pelly offered a succinct and poignant analysis of the incident. “It’s sad that in 2018 we’re still talking about the same thing, over and over,” he said. “It’s sad that athletes like myself 30, 40 years ago were standing in the same spot saying the same thing.” If you needed evidence that racism was alive and well in professional hockey, here it plainly was. 

Of course, the most notable moment of Smith-Pelly’s season came a few months later. As the Capitals sought to clinch their first Stanley Cup in Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights, Smith-Pelly, doing his best Bobby Orr impression, dove across the crease to tuck a loose puck past Knights’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and tie the game. It was his seventh goal of the postseason, matching his regular season total in 51 fewer games. He scored in each of the final three games of the Cup Final. On that same night, Smith-Pelly lifted the Stanley Cup above his head for the first time. Later that summer, his name, Devante Malik Smith-Pelly, was engraved on that Cup. In an excellent piece for ESPN’s The Undefeated, Clinton Yates outlined exactly what it meant to residents of a town once regularly referred to as “Chocolate City” to see a man named Devante listed among the 2019 Stanley Cup Champions.

But unfortunately, the story does not end there. Divyne Apollon II is a thirteen year old who plays hockey for the Maryland-based Metro Maple Leafs. Coincidentally, he is the only black player on his team. At a tournament in Pennsylvania early in the new year, Divyne became the subject of racist chants from an opposing team. They told him to stick to basketball, imitated monkey sounds and directed racial slurs at him. The incident eventually led to a brawl with Divyne’s teammates vehemently standing up to their bigoted opponents.

If there could be a silver lining, Divyne’s Maple Leafs visited Smith-Pelly and the Caps for last Monday’s match-up with the St. Louis Blues. Smith-Pelly’s message for Divyne was to not let that kind of bigotry get him down, but it was his remarks to the media that offered perhaps a more honest assessment of the current state of racism in hockey, whether at the level of thirteen year olds or professionals. “Maybe I should be surprised, but I’m not,” Smith-Pelly said. “I mean, this happens every day. Still.”

The actions of a few bigots do not reflect the majority of the hockey world. Yet the fact that particular bad actors — more numerous than I have space in this column to lay out — feel perfectly comfortable voicing despicable racial attitudes in the hockey environment speaks to a culture the game desperately needs to address. That culture is much larger than just hockey, but all the same, a sport where diversity means less than five percent of the league is black simply isn’t doing enough.