Wednesday, May 14, 2014

P.K., Publicity, and Panoply on the Ice

While the Donald Sterling saga was hogging the headlines, another race-related sports story percolated a week ago in the NHL playoffs. Montreal Canadiens' defenseman P.K. Subban, who is black, scored an overtime goal to defeat the Boston Bruins in Game One of their second round series, and it was widely reported that some Boston fans reacted by taking to Twitter and making racist comments.

Since the trustworthiness of American journalists ranks somewhere below that of used car salesmen and Third World dictators, my initial reaction was to raise my eyebrows over 1) the fact that all of the reports insisted the tweets were bigoted but didn't bother to tell us what they actually said, and 2) the fact that none of the reports specified how many tweets they were talking about.

But after going deep into the Internet's bowels and searching sources from north of the border, I was able to find cut-and-pastes of three actual tweets. And I can confirm that they were, in fact, bigoted. This was not one of those cases in which The PC Police look at a chipmunk and see it as a wolverine.

Although the offending words were redacted like military secrets on Cold War government docs, the redaction was fuzzy at the edges and it left the first letters exposed -- and thus I can tell you, with one hundred percent certainty, that one of the tweets referred to Subban as a "monkey" and another referred to him as a "stupid monkey," while the third went whole hog by using the old-school slur "porch monkey."

Part of me wonders if the people who typed those tweets are not Bruins fans at all, but fans of other teams who posed as Bostonians in order to make the Bruins and their partisans look bad.

The other part of me knows that sounds paranoid. Especially since I am no Bruins fan myself, having never been to Massachusetts and having once written that "Claude Julien looks like a Soviet commissar."

I guess as a hockey fan, I have a knee-jerk tendency to get defensive about stories like this one. The tendency is borne from having heard people who have no idea what they are talking about -- people who have never watched a hockey game, much less attended one -- accuse the game of having a racist overtone and its fans of liking it because it has fewer black players than the other "big four" sports.

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Hockey was not invented in the United States, which has always had a sizable minority population, but in Canada, which has not -- and for the first 70 or so years of the the NHL's existence, practically every one of its players was a Canadian. In other words, for many decades it was inevitable that there would be very few black players, if any.

Yes, more and more non-Canadians have made it to the NHL over the past few generations, but those players have come from many nations, not just the U.S. They have come In large numbers from Sweden, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic; and in smaller numbers from Latvia, Germany, Ukraine, Switzerland, Norway, and Slovenia. Needless to say, you won't have much luck finding black people in any of those places.

When it comes to U.S.-born talent, there is no getting around the combined fact that southern states 1) have a higher-percentage black population than northern ones, and 2) had literally no youth hockey leagues until the 1990's.

There is also no getting around the fact that hockey spent generations not being evenly ingrained into the culture of our northern states. For years it seemed like 90% of American hockey players hailed from the two states of Minnesota and Massachusetts -- neither of which is known for melanin.

So demographics alone have made it almost inevitable for the NHL to have less black "representation" than the NBA, NFL, and MLB.

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There is also an economic argument that goes basically like this: Equipment for hockey is more numerous and more expensive than it is for the other sports, and because kids are growing and the equipment needs to be replaced periodically, the larger expense gets compounded and magnified over, the ability to pay for ice time adds to the cost; and since few ice rinks are found in minority neighborhoods, the cost of gas goes up too...etc., etc....and top-tier black athletes tend to come from especially impoverished the ability of those athletes to gravitate towards hockey is crippled from the start.

Part of me wants to discount the economic argument, because my eyeballs and personal relationships tell me that most black people do not grow up in ghettos and slums these days. However, the argument is logical and it is backed by evidence, such as the fact that America's most prominent black hockey players tend to come from families in which money is not an overwhelming issue.

After all, Mike Grier tops the list of black American hockey players, and his uncle is none other than football Hall of Famer Rosey Grier...Seth Jones, the fourth player taken in last year's NHL draft, is the son of retired NBA player (and current NBA assistant coach) Popeye Jones...J.T. Brown plays for my Tampa Bay Lightning and I can't help but notice that his father, Ted Brown, played eight years for the Minnesota Vikings. (There's the word Minnesota again. I wonder what Brown's sporting aspirations would have been if his father had spent his career playing for the Saints or Chiefs?)

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Still, in spite of all these built-in hurdles, black players have been significant in NHL history -- much more so than the non-hockey-fan public realizes.

You cannot win a Stanley Cup without a money goaltender, even if your point-scorers are guys named Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, and it just so happens that Grant Fuhr -- the Hall of Famer who goaltended the Edmonton Oilers dynasty to five Cups between 1984 and 1990 -- is biracial. Fuhr actually has more rings than Gretzky because "The Great One" got traded in 1988, and Gretzky has repeatedly referred to him as "the greatest goaltender in NHL history."

During the same decade Fuhr was making a name for himself by keeping pucks out of the net, Tony McKegney became known for asserting himself in the slot and knocking pucks into the net. He had seven 20-goal seasons during the 1980's, including a 40-goal, 38-assist campaign for the St. Louis Blues in the 1987-'88 season.

More recently, Jarome Iginla has twice led the NHL in goals; been awarded the Lester B. Pearson Award as the league's most outstanding player; and twice been awarded the ESPY for the league's best player. In 2009 he won the Mark Messier Award that recognizes "an individual as a superior leader within their sport, and as a contributing member of society."

Three years ago, Joel Ward's stellar postseason propelled the Nashville Predators beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. A year later, after that success earned him a lucrative free agent contract with the Washington Capitals, he famously ousted the Philadelphia Flyers from the playoffs with his series-winning overtime goal in Game Seven of the opening round.

And of course there is P.K. Subban himself. Last season he won the Norris Trophy as the NHL defensive player of the year. This year, nobody has played better in the playoffs than him; and if the playoffs ended tonight he would probably hoist the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason's most valuable player.

If anyone is looking for a "golden era" of black hockey, we may well be entering it. Iginla is still playing; this season saw Ward notch his first career hat trick; Subban probably has yet to hit his prime, since he just turned 25 yesterday; and out west, 21-year-old Devante Smith-Pelly has scored three goals in the last two games to stake his Anaheim Ducks to a 3-2 series lead over their cross-town rival, the LA Kings.

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Of course, when people allege that there is bigotry in hockey, they usually aim the allegation more at fans than at players, and therefore it is important to point out that there was no turmoil to speak of when Willie O'Ree broke the color barrier in 1958.

If only Jackie Robinson had been treated that well when he signed with the Dodgers 11 years earlier...

And more to the point, if only Doug Williams had been treated that well when he became a "quarterblack" 20 years later...

When it comes to Bruins fans in particular, it is hard to imagine them stewing in anti-black sentiment for a number of reasons. One of those reasons, interestingly enough, is the fact that the Bruins were the team that broke the color barrier by signing O'Ree.

Another reason is the fact that Anson Carter was one of the Bruins' most popular players during his stint with the team.

And finally, there is this: Iginla plays for the Bruins at this very moment, and P.K. Subban's younger brother, Malcolm, is under contract with them at this very moment (though he currently plays in the minors).

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I cannot stand it when people criticize hockey for lacking diversity -- partly because those people are wrong, and partly because everyone assumes those people are right simply because they've been conditioned to think that way.

Hockey is as diverse a sport as you will find. Look on the ice at any NHL game and you will find people from many nations working together to achieve a common goal. They do this even though many of their homelands are bitter rivals in the political arena. They do this seamlessly even though they speak a half-dozen  native tongues between them.

In my adolescence, Russians were Soviets and were looked upon with suspicion. Today, Russian president Vladimir Putin is sowing discord in Eastern Europe and intends to keep smaller nations under his thumb. Yet I look at Russian hockey players as fellow human beings, as people  my kids should emulate; I do not look at them as invaders on my continent, or as willful pawns on the chessboards of tyrants.

This is the essence of diversity and it is diversity in its highest form, with its focus on the individual instead of the group. It comports not just with what I believe as a sports fan, but with what I believe as a human.

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I have problems with the contemporary notion of diversity, most of which you can figure out from the three paragraphs immediately above. I do not like it when perfectly fine words are hijacked and used as shibboleths, when they are used to advance an agenda while suppressing thought. I feel that this has been done to the word "diversity," and therefore I have mixed emotions about the way the NHL handles race.

The NHL seldom acknowledges differences in skin tone, and I think this is good. The league does not trip over itself to point out that the man who just got the hat trick is black -- just like it does not trip over itself to point out that the other guy with a hat trick is from Stockholm. If Joel Ward scores the winner, the league simply says that Joel Ward scored the winner, no different than it would if Sidney Crosby scored it.

This avoids the ridiculous-looking spectacle that ensues when a bunch of 40- and 50-something white guys act like they are so excited about Joel Ward being black that they won't be able to sleep tonight. I don't doubt that they are happy to see black players do good, but come on...

On the other side of the coin, however, I am often disappointed with this same approach. I look at the abundance of black talent in the league, and at black players who are playing the world's greatest spectator sport at its highest level, and it boggles my mind that the NHL is not hyping their success. This seems to create a situation in which the league impairs its chances for future growth by not getting its "you are one of us" message out to minority youth.

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I'm not sure how to wind this post up and not sure I even have a main point.

It started with me wanting to defend the game I love from what I thought was an unfair attack. And I sought to do that by saying things that few people have bothered to report in the "Subban slurs" coverage. Then it morphed into a stroll through black hockey history. Then it morphed into an indecisive analysis of the NHL's racial marketing (non)strategy(ies).

So I guess I will wrap it up without saying anything more, other than to repeat my obvious mantra that the game of hockey is a game for everyone -- and to repeat my oft-uttered plea that you start watching it if you haven't already.

There was a Game Seven last night and there are two elimination games tonight. One of them will even include P.K. Subban. If you have any preconceived notions, just be sure to leave them at the door...

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