Special Erie Otters jersey helps underline importance of Black spaces in hockey

The special Erie Otters logo designed by artist Jo Dabney. (James DiCioccio / Erie Otters - image credit)
The special Erie Otters logo designed by artist Jo Dabney. (James DiCioccio / Erie Otters - image credit)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Last week I got a message in my Twitter DMs from Jo Dabney, a young Black artist I know. The 22-year-old told me she was designing a new jersey for the Erie Otters, a team in the Ontario Hockey League's Midwest division. Dabney was excited about this latest collaboration between a hockey team and an artist with anti-oppression practices.

That name might sound familiar. Dabney is the artist who designed the Black Rosie jersey for the Metropolitan Riveters of the Premier Hockey Federation, the women's league based out of the U.S. Her design made its debut last year in February, which is also Black History Month.

The jersey will make its first appearance at the MLK Jr. Day game on Jan. 16, and then be worn by the players for warmup throughout Black History Month. It will also be part of a limited-run merchandise series by Erie-based clothing brand, Erie Apparel. All proceeds from the sale of the jersey will go to Erie's Black Wall Street (EBWS), a non-profit organization. According to the Otter's website, EBWS will host "educational programs and activations" throughout the month. EBWS and Erie Apparel patches will also be featured on the shoulders of the jersey.

I love these partnerships because not only do they amplify the work of a very talented artist, but they also underline the importance of Black spaces in hockey and help people understand the history of racial injustice in the U.S., which absolutely resonates here in Canada. I did not know about the Tulsa Race Massacre (attacks and subsequent destruction of a thriving economic community of Black Americans in the early 20th Century) until I was taught it not by any teachers in school, but by friends and colleagues from Black Girl Hockey Club.

Sport is a vehicle for amplifying social issues and a pathway of connection for so many people. I have (un)learned so much about justice from marginalized communities through sport. Whether it has been Indigenous communities, Black communities, disabled communities or LGBTIQ2S+ communities all while loving sport.

Feeling seen

I have heard the rhetoric about keeping politics out of sports. But often, the people saying that are those who have racial, economic or gender privilege of the highest order and don't want to be bothered with other peoples' struggles. And for those of us who fell in love with sports that may not always love us back, initiatives like this one make many people not only feel seen but known.

This is why the coupling of sports and art is so powerful. People see the tangible efforts of a design that Dabney tells me is not only about the past and trauma, but the power of possibility.

"Most designs and events that focus on Black lives and culture are centred around Black history, the past," she said to me via Twitter, "but I wanted to centre on Black Excellence, the present, the future."

Her inspiration comes from the lens of a young person who has not only seen a shift in conversations about race and sports since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, but can contribute to offering her own vision and engaging it with a storied hockey club.

"A lot of the elements for the design are inspired by the history of the Erie Otters team," she said. "But the core idea was to stray from the recreation of traditional African patterns and create something new."

What I love about this idea is that it combines so many different relevant aspects with a vision that centres on a community not always understood.

In addition to opportunities for growth, it is essential that Black folks deeply connected to hockey as players, coaches, or fans be included in a space that has long been criticized for being unbearably white and unwelcoming in its culture.

The effects of this reverberate to other communities as well. Racialized players and fans see the recognition and celebration of the month with a beautiful jersey and it absolutely has an effect. Representation matters, but the joyous reminders matter, too.

Getty Images
Getty Images

In addition to learning about the past and moving forward in a manner that celebrates the accomplishments and gives hope to people working in hockey spaces or who just love hockey, it takes them out as tangential and makes a point to have them interconnected and interwoven in the new stories and collaborations.

The Washington Capitals are Dabney's favourite hockey team and her favourite player is former Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, now with the Dallas Stars. Holtby won a Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2018 but did not attend the celebrations at the White House because he didn't feel then-President Donald Trump represented his values. Holtby has also been a supporter of Black Lives Matter, while many other players in the largely white league have remained silent. It's not a time to be quiet. We passed that phase a long time ago. But not all paths in anti-racism are the same. There is room for all initiatives and efforts.

And maybe some people feel unsure of how to move forward in learning. But we have many blueprints for this. Local teams can hire Black artists to design new jerseys, hire Black photographers or even just hire Black women to work in the office. Listen to a panel, or go to a conference and donate time or money to one of the organizations doing that work.

There are fantastic documentaries and films that chronicle hockey history and Black contributions, all the while not forgetting Black Women in Hockey, who are far too often ignored. But that is changing, too.

Creating specific jerseys is certainly one way to help amplify the importance of Blackness in hockey, but ensuring that we focus on racial justice and diversity all year long is critical. If the hockey world sincerely wants to grow the game and make it more inclusive, collaborations should happen all year round.

Dabney should be creating jerseys all the time. We know that Black people are still Black in August.