Jonathan-Ismael Diaby: Does ice hockey have a racism problem?

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Jonathan-Ismael DiabyImage source, Getty Images
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Jonathan-Ismael Diaby

A racist incident at a Quebec hockey arena has reopened old wounds about what some former players are calling the dark side of Canada's national pastime.

Jonathan-Ismael Diaby is not used to quitting.

At 24, the defenceman has been playing semi-pro hockey hockey for almost a decade. On the ice, he is focused, methodical and surprisingly agile for his 6'5" frame. He also happens to be black.

But after fans hurled racial insults at him and harassed his family, he decided to walk out mid-game.

"I was conflicted... I just wanted to fling my stick in the guy's face," he told the BBC after the incident.

"But then I was thinking of doing what I did, which was to leave the game peacefully and make a change after."

Trying to raise awareness for the racism that visible minority athletes face is what he is doing now.

Video of the incident and Diaby's subsequent openness about the experience have caused a stir in Canada, where hockey is more than just a sport: it is an intrinsic part of national identity.

The video shows a fan of the opposing team confronting Diaby in the penalty box. The man can be seen making a racist gesture, and showing Diaby a picture on his mobile phone of a baboon.

Soon, several fans began to harass Diaby's family and his girlfriend, touching their hair and telling his father (a former pro-footballer in the Ivory Coast) to "go back home".

That's when Diaby decided enough was enough - so he went to the locker room to change and then left with his family.

"Being a visible minority, we deal with it every day," he says. "But that was the first time I saw a big group of people pushing towards negativity like that."

League commissioner Jean-François Laplante has apologised to Diaby and his family.

"Racist, sexist, homophobic comments are completely unacceptable and cannot be tolerated, whether it's in everyday life or in our arenas," he said.

But it is not the first time a hockey player has been harassed for his race.

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Nashville Predators' PK Subban is one of the most recognisable faces in hockey today

In April, Detroit Red Wings prospect Givani Smith had to have police escort him to junior league play-off games after receiving numerous racially motivated hate messages and death threats on social media.

Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds has had bananas thrown at him on the ice.

In 2014, Bruins fans hurled racial epithets at PK Subban online when the star hockey player scored a game-winning goal for the Montreal Canadiens.

These incidents are familiar to Peter Worrell, a retired pro-hockey player who played in the National Hockey League for seven years in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"It's the same crap that people do all the time," he told the BBC. "It always goes back to the monkey, it always goes back to the bananas, it always goes back to 'go back to Africa'".

He says racist taunts were a common occurrence in junior league arenas. His most vivid memory was from a game played at the Marcel-Bédard Arena in Beauport, Quebec, when he was just 17.

An aggressive fan of the home team was at it again with the same old racist insults. But this time, his tormentor was joined by several others, cheering him and egging him on.

Meanwhile, Worrell sat on the bench, trying his best to tune them out.

"The biggest thing I remember is a sense of helplessness," Worrell says.

Worrell thanks his coaches and his teammates for sticking by him that day, and letting him know that what was done to him was done to everyone.

But he still wonders why more wasn't done to remove the disruptive fans.

Diaby wonders too. Security officials did little to intervene when his family was being harassed, even going so far as to suggest his parents move seats to defuse the situation.

Since the incident received widespread coverage, the North American Hockey League, the semi-pro league Diaby plays in, said it would increase arena security and implement new measures to try to eliminate discriminatory behaviour.

Stories like Diaby's and Worrell's challenge two of Canada's most cherished institutions - hockey and multiculturalism. Canadians like to believe they are, indeed have a worldwide reputation for being, polite and egalitarian.

The fact that this sort of hate is happening in small-town hockey rinks is difficult to fathom for many.

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Willie O'Ree, the first black player in the NHL, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018

"Is it hockey that has the race problem or is it society that has the race problem?" asks David Singh, a sports journalist for SportsNet.

"The simplest answer is that hockey has predominantly been a white sport and it's been viewed as a white sport since forever."

Willie O'Ree became the first black player in the NHL in 1958, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson took the baseball field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Today, about 7% of NHL hockey players identify as non-white. Compare that to two-thirds of NFL football players, three-quarters of NBA basketball players, or about 60% of MLB baseball players.

These statistics can lead some to question why black athletes would play hockey.

"Basketball isn't made for black people. Hockey isn't made for whites," Worrell says.

"It's not just white people who have that thought process. Quite frankly there's a lot of people in the African-American community who feel the same way, which has always mind-boggled me, as to why you would limit your possibilities."

Part of the reason for the slow diversification in hockey, Singh believes, is because of the young age that pro-hockey players are minted.

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Peter Worrell, pictured here playing for the Colorado Avalanche in 2003, says he experienced racism as a young hockey player

In Canada, parents will often put their sons on skates before they can fully walk, and children who show promise on the ice are selected for elite training camps when they are still in elementary school.

This means it may take another generation for hockey's demographics to catch up, Singh says.

There are signs of change. In 2018, the NHL launched a campaign called "hockey is for everyone" aimed at promoting its commitment to diversity. The league also appointed a new vice-president, Kim Davies, in charge of social equity.

Worrell says despite the disappointment he felt when he heard Diaby's story, he does think things have gotten better. He pointed to the recent trade of Wayne Simmonds from the Flyers, which generated lots of press.

"Twenty years ago, the fact that he was a black player would have been prominent in every story… it's not even in the paragraph anymore."