Hockey must take harder stance against racism

After two incidents of racist behaviour in the NHL's feeder leagues, Justin Cuthbert and Julian McKenzie discuss solutions at the professional and grassroots levels.

Video Transcript

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: What it is that we have to talk about is two racist incidents that happened in the NHL's two main feeder systems, I guess. I mean the OHL, WHL, NCAA, sure. But in terms of professional hockey, the AHL and ECHL, there's guys under NHL contracts involved. So this is an NHL issue. And as I mentioned, two racist incidents, one from each league. First was Krystof Hrabik, I believe that's how you pronounce his name, of the San Jose Barracuda's, so the San Jose Sharks main farm system or farm team.

And Jacob Panetta, of the Jacksonville Iceman of the ECHL, I believe that's a New York Rangers affiliate. So both of them delivered racist gestures towards Black players in the league. We have a suspension for Hrabik, 30 games, for his gesture towards Tucson Roadrunners forward Boko Imama. He apologized for his actions. He said that he didn't mean anything racist by it, which is another conversation unto itself that we'll get to.

For Panetta, this happened Saturday night. He deactivated or deleted his socials because Jordan Subban who was the person he directed the racial slur or gesture at, rather, called him out on Twitter. This all comes 10 days, two weeks after the Hockey Diversity Alliance's tape out hate campaign launched. And while that was a powerful message, clearly, it's not a message that it's infiltrating all corners of hockey.

I've talked a lot, right off the bat here, and I don't know actually how to send it to you, Julian. Because there is no real eloquent way to do so. But I guess how I will do it is just to apologize. To apologize that you still have to deal with this garbage as a Black hockey reporter. And someone who still has to comment about this stuff, which you know, I'm not going to say it sort of threatens your interest in covering this game at all. I'll let you speak for yourself. But I'm sure it makes it more challenging. So like I'll just throw it to you. And I'll do so with an apology.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I appreciate the apology. You didn't do anything. But I do appreciate where it's coming from. Just absolute ridiculousness, man. Like it's just the thing that just makes this really infuriating to read and to hear about and watch the video in the case of what happened to Jordan Subban, is that it comes not too long after the HDA Budweiser ad campaign for tape out hate. Like we're within like a two week window of the ad premiering on hockey night in Canada. And people seeing it on social media beforehand.

And players who are a part of that ad campaign, discussing racial incidents that happened to them in the past, but also acknowledging that they hear stories like that happened this season to other Black and other racialized players playing hockey, who have endured stuff like this. I think not even long after the campaign even premiered, there was a story that popped out of Prince Edward Island in a minor league, where a player was subjected to a racial gesture and his teammate retaliated and was suspended for it.

Like it was really sad to see that. And then to see within days, within two days, back to back incidents at the Pro level. Boko Imama, who was subjected to a racial gesture from Brandon Manning in the 2019, 2020 season. And I believe Brandon Manning was suspended for that, as well. So this is not the first time, obviously, Boko has had to deal with something like this. This is not the first time the NHL has had to step in and deal with someone doing something racist to Boko Imama.

And this Jordan Subban thing is just, like I can understand why people were looking at the video and they're trying to figure out what exactly was being done. I think Panetta, you see him, I think, at like 20 something seconds of the video. He kind of extends his arms out as if he's like an ape. And I'm curious if he went so far as to do noises or do anything like that. But you can kind of see what the raised arms and what Jordan and even PKA. We have to acknowledge the fact, PKA also acknowledged this too, and tweet this out. Like it's bad. It's just really, it's infuriating.

And like as someone who gets to cover hockey, and I'm grateful for the opportunity that I have, seeing stuff like this sometimes questions my place in hockey. And whether, and how other people feel about me and other Black people who play this sport. And other persons of color. And if I feel the way that I feel, I can't imagine what other casual or even more diehard POC fans feel about this.

Like I won-- like I almost kind of feel like my concern and my anger towards this almost sort of borders on apathy now. Like, I'm just like well, this is just how it is. This is just what happens in the sport. And if more and more racialized people feel this way, it's going to contribute to the downfall of this game. Like it's going to contribute to this game just continuing to plummet in interest levels in this country.

Because like it or not, in Canada, especially, we are a country filled with different races, different ethnicities. It's not just white people who live in Windsor or wherever. It's Black people who live in parts of Nova Scotia or Indian people in parts of Southern Ontario. Or Asians who live in, or people of either South Korean or Japanese descent. I mean, who live in other parts of this country and West of the country. Like we are a country of a diverse population.

And to see a sport like this continue to trump up these racist incidents. Like, I can't imagine that being appealing to you know, more and more people who are racialized. It's just frustrating to explain. It's frustrating to see and to go into the apology with Hrabik. I'm tired of people saying they don't mean anything racist when they say something racist or do something racist. We think of racists as these old people who will just think racist stuff or say racist things and they're never going to change their mind about how stuff is. We have to reiterate the fact that if you do something Black, if you do something like what Krystof did, you're being a racist in that moment, too.

And you're showing your ignorance and you're being an idiot. And if you can't call the racists in that moment, be angry all you want. You're being a racist. Like there's so many layers to unpack from it and you could have a whole other conversation about how people need to view the idea of being racist and how that should change. This might not be the platform for it. I'm sorry I wasn't more eloquent in my answer with this. I normally try to be more. But this is just way too frustrating to have to deal with.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: No, I mean, I don't think you weren't. But this is a difficult conversation. You mentioned like what we see as, or what in our heads we think is the racist population. People that haven't been exposed to different cultures and so on and so forth. And hold on to those beliefs, because they don't know anything else. Now I wonder, because this isn't just a hockey issue, but it's rearing itself, rearing its ugly head in hockey more often than that. And it is because it's a predominantly white sport.

I mean, there are people who probably don't have Black friends. Didn't grow up with Black people. And I don't know if Hrabik's one of them. But you know, it's a fellow that was born in Czechia, the Czech Republic has come over to play hockey. And I don't know what the views are there. I know there are problems with racism in Europe, for sure. But this is probably someone who hasn't been exposed to the cultures that we were talking about. And it's not like this isn't a xenophobic sort of argument. It's not even an argument. It's not even really a point of view. It's nothing.

It's just that there are people in this sport who have not been exposed to those cultures, and that's why, and different culture. And that's why it's an issue in hockey that seems to come up because you watch the NFL yesterday and today, and the NBA. It's just an amalgamation of different cultures and people that have come together. And there doesn't seem to be issues like that, because there's an understanding and people know each other. In hockey, it is predominantly white. So when there is a Black player, and there is someone who's intolerant or doesn't know, and holds racist beliefs or inherently holds those beliefs, this is when we get these issues. And I don't want to act like I'm explaining it, but this is a hockey problem for multitude of reasons. And that's one of them. There's just not a built in tolerance, right?

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I have a question. How come, and you can tell me if I'm wrong and other people can tell me if I'm wrong. How come when we discuss those people who are, they come from these cultures where they're not exposed to Black people, and they have no, they don't have them in their circles or they don't, they're not exposed to them enough or whatever. How come whenever we hear those stories of people doing racial gestures to racialized people, like it just so happens that those players in the moment, some of those players in the moment, they think in the moment, hey, I'm going to do ape or monkey noises to a Black player. How come it's, how come we, I haven't seen it, maybe you've seen it. I haven't seen it. How come I've never seen a player, a white player, think oh, I'm going to do an ape thing to another white player. I don't think it happens nearly as much.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Happens at all.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I don't think it happens that much at all. You know. Like why is it that, you know, that comes up for these white players who do these racist things on the ice and when they're, like we see chirping and we see people fighting back in hockey all the time. But we don't see people, we don't, like white people who can always just feign ignorance. They know in the moment, oh hey, I could do a banana peel back to this guy. Because I, just for whatever reason I could think of it. But you never see that done, or you would rarely see that done to a white player. Like you could bring up the argument about them not being exposed to Black people, them knowing. Like yeah, like that definitely plays a part in it. But they still learn, some of those people still learn how to be ignorant, be racist. And that's a huge problem. And that is beyond hockey. I have to say. People are going to be like--

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: It certainly is.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Not a hockey problem. It's a problem that stems with society and their upbringing and that is a problem in itself. Like that's, like you have to fix that. And racism and that stuff is nurtured. That's not something you're just born with. Those people who are bringing them up. Like they teach them how to act like that like. It's just, it's disgusting. It's appalling. It's absolutely bullshit.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Oh, I mean.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Sorry for swearing, but it is.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: No, no, no. It's perfectly fine. I think what it is, I think in hockey, in society, people that don't know anything about the person that they're suddenly angry with, pull whatever they can come up with. The only thing that they can see. And the only thing that they know about that person is the color of their skin in some cases. And I do agree with you that there is deep seated racism within them to pull that out. 100% believe that. But that's why I think it happens, is because they're trying to come up with something, that's what they see and that's what they do and they probably believe that, as well.

But what I was trying to get at with like the culture and people not being exposed to this and that. That just tells me that training is required. Because the natural training that you get in a NFL locker room or in a college team, either basketball or football, you do not get when you're coming up in hockey. And so that means that they need to put something, they need to implement something where you are being trained on what's right and wrong and what the problems are with racism and so on and so forth.

There needs to be a level of training in order to teach people the rights and wrongs, because the natural, you know, tolerance, and that's not even the right word. But the natural sort of amalgamation between culture does not happen beyond European and North American when it comes to hockey. So I think that's a big thing. And that's where I'm going with this point. Is that there has to be a level of training implemented across all hockey. And with that level of training, there has to be consequences.

When you're taught this and that, and this is not right and this is where the bounds you can't overstep, that you're not going to play hockey in this league if you cross these boundaries. And that needs to happen at the NHL level, AHL, ECHL. Happens in the, needs to happen in the OHL. And honestly, you mentioned the thing in PEI, it's got to happen at the minor league level, as well. If you take the opportunity to play hockey away from someone who does something racist, well that's an appropriate form of punishment, honestly. And if that's not being implemented and upheld at all these levels, then we're going to have incidents like this. And we're still going to have them, but at least there'll be a punishment that is worthy of the crime, in my opinion.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Is that going to be sufficient? Because of the way that the sport is and because of the fact that it's predominantly white, like I think about the fact that, yes, we need to find ways at the minor league level to implement these sorts of trainings. But we also have to acknowledge the fact that for a lot of these different places where hockey is a thing, whether it's in the States, whether it's in Canada or in Europe. Like they don't necessarily think about racism that much. They might just think, OK, well we're just white people, that's just what it is. And they just have no clue how to handle that sort of thing. Right?

I hope that those people at least can see that like training or keeping being mindful of that sort of thing is something they have to think about. I'm just thinking of communities who have not found ways to make the game more accessible to other racialized communities. Or if those communities are just more or less predominantly white anyway, it just for whatever reason, they haven't appealed to those demographics.

I think there's a whole other step that needs to be considered, as well. It's not just, I think you have to implement those programs, but also just I think, you have to, maybe I'm not explaining this right if I say it this way. But you have to find a way to see to it that some of those communities, even if they are not in communities that have a population of racialized communities that can get into the game, they have to see the use for this, as well. My fear is just that, like for a place like in Toronto.

Obviously, it makes sense in the minor leagues that are there, you have to have stuff like this. Because you're going to have different races and ethnicities get into the game. Some small town of like a couple of thousand people, or maybe they have one minor Hockey Association, and it's like 97% white. Like they might see this and be like, well, we don't need to do this. We don't need to implement this sort of thing. We don't need to teach our children about that, because it's just white people who play. Maybe it's just a weird way of looking at it, but I'm just thinking of those at the lower levels who, for whatever reason, because of how they look, they might not see the use for it.

We have to find a way to see that like hey, they know, they should know that racism is wrong. Because at the end of the day, if they end up going to the major leagues with that type of thinking, that oh, well racism is just OK. Or they just have never been taught that stuff. Or ignorance, or they're just ignorant about it. That's also a problem, too. Like it's a grassroots level thing. But again, this is also just beyond hockey. This is something that like schools, upbringing with parents. Like exposures to different people.

Like hockey alone can't solve this problem. This is very much a problem that has poisoned the sport of hockey. This is something that I understand is beyond that. But hockey needs a lot of help with addressing racism and ensuring that future generations of players don't have to worry about being subjected to racial gestures and slurs from opposing players. It's enough and it's disappointing, and a lot of work needs to be done.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Hockey cannot fix itself entirely. And it certainly can't fix society as a whole. But an organization like Hockey Canada can implement training. It can make sure that all of its coaches go through training. I mean, there is like a level of certification that you need to reach, I believe, to coach at least a reasonably high level in this country. So I mean that should be a layer, this sort of training should be a layer of that overall training in which you becoming a coach or coaching at a high level.

But it's on the federations. Like it's on Hockey Canada, it's on USA Hockey. But when you get to the professional leagues, it is a privilege to play professional sports. And the NHL has, you know, obviously ties with the NHL in East Coast Hockey League or ECHL now that it just goes by. Like they have the power to put these trainings in place. And they have the power to put punishments in place. So if the warning is there, and you execute on the threat of hey, you're not going to play in this league again and you're going to have to go to the KHL. Because for some reason they become more desirable, players who are intolerant for the KHL, but that's another conversation.

But if it's a zero tolerance policy, and it's a privilege to play in these leagues, then you know, at least there's a step in the right direction. 30 games doesn't do anything. 30 games does not threaten this guy's hockey career, his profession, his way of making money for his family. Like it doesn't do anything. Now he could go home and play in the Czech Republic or Czechia, I'm sure. But let's, you know, we can take steps towards fixing what's at home here and what's immediately in front of us.

And I think harsher punishments, sure. Training, warnings, like we need just more stricter provisions in place here to limit and curtail some of this. But again, you're right, we're not going to fix everything. We're not going to fix society with hockey, that's for sure. Games got to fix itself, first. But there are definitely things that can be done. Because right now, 30 games, it's just a slap on the wrist, really.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: That's what it feels like to me. But you bring up a really good point with just the fact he'd go play elsewhere and all that. Like it just had me thinking about, like I'm looking at Krystof stats right now. Like 21 games played this year, one goal, three assists, four points. This guy is going to be a career minor leaguer. Would you imagine if this guy was talented and junior and could be a really good player? Maybe he ends up like, but he had all these racist things in junior and all that. And even as he kept his way up the ranks, there were just all these troubling things that kind of went around him, and whatever.

And he ends up in some team and he continues to still be a piece of crap. And still ends up bouncing around. Like the parameters as they are right now, still allow for players like that who, a guy like Krystof Hrabik, minor leaguer, probably not going to play an NHL game. There are guys in the NHL right now. I mean, there's one I'm thinking of, and I think you could probably figure out who I was detailing when I was describing his upbringing.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah, I thought you were going there.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah. If they're talented enough, NHL teams will give them a chance, too. That's a whole other thing that has to get addressed, as well. Like 30 games definitely is nothing. Imagine if the guy was 10 times more talented. 30 games. Maybe the team that's not a poison might think, you know what? Maybe we shouldn't have him on this team anymore. But if this guy was like 10 times more talented, man, there would be a bidding war for this dude. And that's also something else that has to be addressed, too.

It's the way that we kind of view talent and stuff like that. Like it's, again, it's a whole other conversation for another day. But like yeah, like 30 games for this guy is nothing, too. I fear for another incident to happen with another guy who has a shred of talent, who might end up being on another NHL team or another AHL team because they're talented. Like that's also another problem that has to be thought about, too.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Well, that's where the league's got to take it out of teams hands. Because unfortunately, again, you can't fix, you can't fix hockey. You can't fix society. You can't fix every executive who might put something, you know, that might put winning over doing what's right. Right? But the league can do that. The league can put the implement, the protocols in place to avoid having players that do cross the line from playing in the league. And that's what it comes down to. So the federations, those in charge, the people that can make decisions, they've got to step up here. Otherwise, we're just going to keep seeing 30 game suspensions and players like Boko Imama get continuously abused on the ice while he's just trying to make a living playing hockey, which is honestly, the worst thing ever.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: And for that guy, I bet those two racial incidents that were addressed by the AHL, I'm willing to bet for him, that's just like the tip of the iceberg. I'm willing to bet for that guy it is the tip of the iceberg. The fact that, like how rare is it that you end up being the victim of two racial incidents in one professional league, both suspended for? Yeah, it's ridiculous. Also, another thing I'll add to, and what's funny about this, is that I brought this up in light of Boko Imama getting, being subjected to racial abuse by Brandon Manning.

I had written a story for HABs eyes on the prize for SB Nation a few years ago. Like in light of stuff like this, like we have to put the feet to the fire. Not just to have Black players step up or racialized players step up and be like hey, you know what? Like we want to find a way to fight and make sure this doesn't happen. We need to continue to put the feet to the fire for white players, people who would normally, they're the ones who would normally do this sort of stuff. Not everyone, obviously.

But they're the ones who are getting suspended for the sort of thing. We have to ask them about racism. We have to ask them what they're doing to ensure that their teammates, their persons, their players of color, are being kept safe from this sort of thing, and are stepping up in defense of them. And that has to happen, too. This can't just be a thing where it's like, hey, let's get Boko's perspective on this. Or let's get PKs, let's get Jordan's perspective. I want to hear from people. Like Bob Buckner, I think, addressed it for the San Jose Sharks in light of what happened with Hrabik after the fact.

The head coach, we know about Bob Buckner. There are other people in the hockey world where we're predominantly white we need to hear from, as well. And I'm happy to see that there are people in media who immediately denounced it. But we need to continue to see that happen. And those people at the end of the day, need to ensure that the game is safe for players of color in hockey. Like that also has to be addressed.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I was touching golf just a lot of random stuff here. But this is just, it gets crazy.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I mean, if there was an easy way to solve this problem. It would have been solved already. But this is difficult. But whoever, well we'll leave it here. Well, you can comment on if you like. But for those who can't make decisions, it's about awareness. For those who can make decisions, it's time to start making decisions that help prevent these things from happening again.

So you can do your part, regardless, right. Whether it's awareness, whether it's continuing to talk about it. I feel like we're heading in a better direction, even though this is steps back. You know, two incidents in the last week. There is more awareness to this. And hopefully, it diminishes a little bit. Slowly but surely, hopefully fast. But hopefully, there's less at the grassroots level and the minor league level. Because it's probably rampant, honestly.

A decade ago, 15 years ago when I was playing hockey, not that I was ever subjected to anything that was really truly meaningful and deep seated and hurtful. But I've definitely seen and heard terrible things on the ice when I was playing minor hockey. I'm sure, you're an experienced in sport, you have, too. Way worse than me,

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Even recreationally, bro.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Exactly. I'm not talking about high level. I'm just, that's what you hear.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah. I remember like playing--

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: People take the one thing that they can see, and they try to get, and they try to hurt you with that one thing.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: That's crazy.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: That is the crux of this. Like, there's certainly racism rampant in the world. But when it's happening in sport, it's people are picking out that thing, and then their real intentions and beliefs come out.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah. And we see it at the grassroots level, we see it on the way up to. But even recreational. That is also just like, like Subban, I remember I've played ball hockey games, where I've seen, like one of my best friends, who is also Black. Like I was playing a game once and I heard someone on the other team like yell like racial slurs at them. And they were completely broken by it. And it was one of the most, one of the worst things I could see. Because that person doesn't normally get affected emotionally like that, but they were just broken by that. And it was absolute bullshit that had happened to him. So this is something that just like, it's the fact that it just still, we still deal with this. It's just, it's disheartening, man. It's really disheartening.

So I really appreciate the apology off top here. I know you didn't have to do that. But like it's just, it's good to see that people care. It's good to see that people have stepped up in the last few days, have just said like no, this is not OK. And this is not something that we want to see in the game. And maybe 15, 20 years ago, we would not have seen it. We also might not have had the parameters to have people voice their opinions like that. But also, I think people are a little bit more aware of how this is a problem now.

And at the end of the day, yeah. And at the end of the day, you're right. Like it's good that people are addressing this and maybe the next step and all this is that we'll maybe see a day where this happens less and less and less. But until that day, I'm just going to continue to feel upset and angry about these things when they happen. And it's disheartening for me, it's disheartening for other hockey media. It's disheartening for fans, as well. And it's, I feel for everyone right now who is deeply affected by this, because I don't want to see racism in this game.

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