Two Minutes for Being a Minority

A few Saturdays ago I was at the Air Canada Centre to see the Leafs play the Canadiens. It was my first time to the ACC for hockey game, my only other visit coming in 2001 to see Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, a memorable show and the only time in the seven I’ve seen Neil Young perform that he played Down By the River, which has been proven by NASA scientists and Harvard academics alike to be the greatest song ever. But what a dichotomy of crowds in my two visits to the arena. One was an evening filled with a solid team effort and a celebration of Canadiana, and the other was a hockey game. Though I have witnessed the booing of the Montreal Canadiens in rival arenas throughout the NHL on television, with a special amount of vitriol coming from the ticket holders in Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto, I had never witnessed it first hand. I came prepared, wearing my Larry Robinson vintage Canadiens jersey, and I fully expected a playful boo or an occasion of drunken derision. But what surprised me, what offended and saddened me, was the unparalleled level of hatred the home crowd had for Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban. I had seen it on game broadcasts, but in order to fully appreciate the level of animus that the opposition has towards Pernell Karl Subban you really have to be there. It’s more than playful chiding of a respected opponent. More than an attempt to throw a valued foe off his game. What it is, and having seen it first hand I am convinced, that it is pure unadulterated hatred. And it’s because P.K. Subban is an African-Canadian.

I have wronged a good woman or three, so I know the difference between anger and hatred. I have seen it up close, and it is a tangible and violent emotion born of a fierce rage. But to have seen the manner in which the ACC faithful booed Subban, to have seen it from those in Philly and Boston and New York on television, the hopeful peacenik in me tried to resolve the spite and hostility as simply a part of pro sports. Subban, admittedly, plays with an edge. He has what the hockey community like to call “sandpaper”. But while those in the NHL of Subban’s ilk, those who get under the skins of their opponents with their combination of talent, wit, and lip, are often celebrated as players with “character”, Subban is almost universally derided by fans, media, management, and players. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why that is, except to argue that the NHL and the culture of hockey is one that fosters and accepts racism.

I’ll admit that I am biased in that I am a Montreal Canadiens fan. My winters are spent living vicariously through the Habs, and my springs rise and fall on their successes and failures. And I really like Subban. He has a personality, something I have argued in the past that the NHL notably lacks, and often eschews in favour of cliché and a culture that toes the company line. To attribute this double standard to racism may seem simple, perhaps in and of its self inherently racist, but consider the following non-scientific study. I took 10 players from a recent Bleacher Report article on the most hated NHL players since 2000, and I googled their names in quotations and the word hate. I tried to vary the players in terms of age, conference, position, market, and ethnicity. Additionally, I’ve noted their average ice time, points, and penalty minutes. Here are the results (as of February 6):

Player

   Google Results

Ice Time/Game

        Points

           PIM

Sean Avery

1 470 000

7:00

3

21

P.K. Subban

   871 000

23:35

20

64

Matt Cooke

   595 000

15:52

19

20

Jordin Tootoo

   396 000

14:01

21

66

Colby Armstrong

   390 000

11:17

1

4

Daniel Carcillo

   198 000

11:24

11

82

Trevor Gillies

   160 000

2:52

0

0

Patrick Kaleta

   111 000

13:27

6

69

Brad Marchand

   106 000

17:09

38

77

Maxime Lapierre

     46 700

11:10

10

96

It should be noted Armstrong has been out most of the year, but he still gets a lot of hate. Sean Avery is the clear winner in terms of internet hatred, but he’s a veteran, one the most hated players to have ever laced up a pair of Bauers and insulted another player’s starlet girlfriend, and has been dispatched to Connecticut of the AHL, most likely until his hockey career ends and his fashion career begins. But P.K., in only his second full NHL season, has 276 000 more Google hate-results than his closest competitor, Matt Cooke, who fancies headshots more than an aspiring actor. Trevor Gillies, whose only NHL accomplishment is his moustache, has also been dispatched to the AHL but maintains a hefty web-based hatred.  And even if you double Max Lapierre’s totals to account for bilingualism, he’s still nowhere close to Subban.

What truly surprised me about the survey, which admittedly has the scientific acumen of creationism, was that none of the players even approach Subban’s level of talent or importance to their respective teams. Subban’s average ice time per game is 23 minutes and 35 seconds. The next closest on this list is Cooke at a good 8 minutes less. Though Subban is the only defenseman on the list, the fact remains that hatred at the professional level is typically reserved for 4th line pluggers and fringe pros, who need to play the role of pest in order to maintain a roster spot. Arguably, Marchand is the only other player on this list whose team value approaches Subban’s, and it’s interesting that he has been Subban’s foe since their junior days, but with a substantially smaller hate-base.

I didn’t visit any of the many I Hate PK Subban Facebook groups or blogs dedicated to hating PK. I didn’t need to. I’ve seen the hate up close and I can imagine the violent animosity that is born of pseudonyms and invisibility. The internet is where the weak and the fearful hide in the safe shadows of anonymity to perpetuate ignorance. I’m fine with that. Haters gotta hate. The NHL has a long and unfortunate history with racism, and even more unfortunate is the manner in which it is tolerated by fans, media, management, and players alike. Don Cherry enjoys a rash generalization as much as the next ignorant old boy, often segregating players into Canadian, American, European, and French, all of which is dismissed by the CBC and the hockey community with the occasional tsk tsk or slap on the wrist, because at the end of the day Grapes supports the troops and minor midget hockey, and he’s old.

Kevin Weekes, the former NHL goalie and current analyst for the NHL Network and CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada, had a banana thrown at him in during a game Montreal in 2002 while a member of the Carolina Hurricanes. History repeated itself this pre-season in London, Ontario, when the Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds had a banana thrown at him during a shootout. After the Simmonds incident, Weekes was asked about racism in hockey, to which he replied: “Nobody should have to deal with that while they are doing their job,” but here, ten years later, Subban is dealing with the same culture. In a game this past December against the Florida Panthers, Panthers defenseman Krys Barch asked Subban upon his falling on the ice if he had “slipped on a banana peel.” Barch was suspended for 1 game and  apologized, though he argued that he hadn’t meant it in a racist manner, but his ignorance in using the phrase is fostered by a hockey community that consistently tolerates these types of actions. In 2008, Avery was suspended for 6 games, and eventually released by the Dallas Stars upon referring to Dion Phaneuf’s girlfriend, actress Elisha Cuthbert (Avery’s ex), as his sloppy seconds. Here, the NHL is telling the hockey community that the fragile feelings of a Calgary-born actress are more important than a culture of ignorance towards minorities. I’d like to see a Brendan Shanahan YouTube video explanation of that.

The hatred for Subban prevails throughout the league, from top to bottom. I often watch streaming broadcasts of NHL games, and on occasion I tune into the American feed, which is like watching a well-dressed stranger make love to your wife. The action is familiar, and yet the esthetics are all wrong. And during these telecasts, the American announcers treat Subban like a pariah, often referring to him as a diver and an insult to the sport. Which I suppose is their right as flagrant supporters of the team they broadcast, but when there’s so much this year to hate about the Montreal Canadiens (firing an assistant coach before a game, firing a head coach at the morning skate, trading a star player mid-game, throwing an interim head coach under the bus to appease the vocal French media) it’s suspect that they concentrate an inordinate abundance of energy on the play of one defenseman.

Hockey is arguably the least culturally diverse of the four major sports, and it is difficult to imagine a baseball, basketball, or football player being treated in the manner that Subban is, without outrage from either the media or civil rights organizations. This season, Japanese-Iranian pitcher Yu Darvish will debut for the Texas Rangers. What would the reaction be if in a visit to the Rogers Centre to play the Blue Jays he was singled out by the crowd with a rain of boos? What if Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash couldn’t play in Madison Square Gardens without being mercilessly jeered by the crowd for being Canadian? Why is it that similar treatment of Subban is dismissed as a reaction to his play and not his ethnicity, when a simple survey of players whose style of play match P.K.’s suggest that to be false? I’m open to suggestions, but I fear that the hatred of Subban is born not of style, but of ignorance.

Hate is a strong word, perhaps the strongest of words. There’s no room for discussion in hate, no space for tolerance or understanding to seep in and temper it. And while I don’t think that hockey fans, players, media, and management are card carrying KKK members who want to ethnically cleanse their sport, I do believe that it is time that the hockey community at large became more accountable for the actions of its citizenry.

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