Hockey Canada’s appeal for minorities helped by Kadri, other ethnic NHL players

Stacey Kwan

September 24, 2009

A few weeks before the minor hockey season officially kicked off, Hockey Canada has sent out a plea to ice arenas and equipment suppliers to reduce costs in an attempt to make hockey more accessible to a wider range of participants, particularly ethnic minorities.

And while Hockey Canada does not keep statistics on the number of minority youngsters enrolled in amateur leagues, the move comes at a time when the NHL is spotlighting some up and coming young hockey players who are visible minorities.

Some experts say that may be key to making ethnic minorities fully accepted at the entry level.

“I looked up to the first Asian player in the NHL, (Korean born goalie) Jim Park when I was growing up,” said Dennis Lim, a Toronto amateur hockey player who began playing in the 1980s.  “It is easier to identify with [him].”

There is a stigma that hockey is a ‘rich white kids’ sport, but a spotlight on NHL players who are minorities may help remove that, Lim said.

In the most recent NHL draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs picked up Nazem Kadri, who is

of Lebanese decent and a Muslim. Kadri, P.K. Subban and Devon Setoguchi are changing the face of hockey on the professional level.

Hockey Canada has been working to ensure that ice rinks across the nation are safe and friendly environments. Their major program to help ensure this is called Speak Out!

According to their website, Speak Out! was started in 1997, “in order to educate and prevent bullying, harassment and abuse in hockey across Canada.”

“It’s a session in which the volunteers learn about the ethics in sports, how to be a role model, and about the power they have,” said Paul Carson, Hockey Canada’s director of development.

Speak Out! Is a mandatory off-ice workshop for any adult who becomes involved in minor hockey in Canada whether they are the coaches, referees, or working for the

local association.

Besides the program the game itself has built in deterrents.

“There are rules and regulations in the game of hockey itself to help diminish the number of incidents,” Carson said. “The officials have the ability to penalize players if they hear anything with a game misconduct.”

But some parents say the policies don’t work.

Maria Athwal’s son is half-South Asian, and has been playing minor hockey for seven years.

Her son has himself had to contend with unfriendly comments.

“A player once told him he was a pretty good goalie for a coloured kid,” she said. “The consensus is that it is part of the game, so it is accepted.”

In those seven years, Athwal has seen only one referee kick out a player for making a racial comment on the ice.

This is not just an issue at the minor hockey level, it’s happening at the professional level as well. In one case, Sean Avery, then a member of the Los Angeles Kings, allegedly made a derogatory remark towards then Edmonton Oiler Georges Laraque, whose parents are Haitian. In the end Avery was not punished, as the NHL was unable to gather enough solid evidence.

This is not unusual, explained Bill Hutton, risk management officer for the Ontario Minor Hockey Association.

“If a referee doesn’t hear it, because he’s in the corner and it happened in front of the net for example, then it becomes a matter of one player’s word against the other,” he said.

Hutton recalled four incidents in the last five years that were reported to the OMHA.

Three of those four involved a racial slur on ice and the fourth was an incident in which a team of First Nations players was confronted by another team in the arena’s lobby and someone called out the derogatory term, ‘Wagon burners’.

In each case there was no conclusive evidence who said the derogatory remarks but in the First Nations case there were many witnesses and the local regional executive of the offending team had a session with the players, coaches, and parents to discuss issues of bullying, harassment, and discrimination.

Dennis Lim says despite everything, he has seen a change.

“More and more ethnicities are playing the game,” he said. “I even participate in Korean and Asian only hockey tournaments.”

He said that this is evident particularly in Toronto, where there is more diversity.