Hockey, much like the world, is being forced to reflect on its values

The world is coming to a reckoning, and it’s coming for hockey too.

The reckoning of hockey’s racial divide began many years ago. It’s cropped up in stories told by players of color in articles and videos from time to time when they felt confident enough to speak out against a culture that values the team above the individual. It came to the forefront again when the hockey world was rocked by allegations of mistreatment of hockey players of color by then-Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters.

The NHL vowed at the time that they wouldn’t tolerate such behaviors in their ranks. Then, the conversations about the larger issue within hockey at all levels died down again, pushed to the backburner as the NHL schedule hummed along.

It’s easy to ignore the issues facing the culture of your sport when you’re in the midst of a season. The games continue coming and there’s playoff spots on the line. Burying your head in the sand to not have to address what has been happening as you came up through the ranks is easy then. Burying yourself in your work is a common coping mechanism instead of doing the introspection and reflection that comes from the discomfort felt after being forced to confront the dark side of life.

Akim Aliu wrote about his experiences earlier this month for The Player’s Tribune, once again bringing the racial divide to the forefront of hockey culture. It was published on May 19th, and here’s a portion of what he said:

“There will be more reckonings for coaches, more incidents highlighting the dark side of hockey culture, more kids like [New York Rangers prospect] K’Andre [Miller] being told they aren’t welcome in the game. Hockey is not unique. It has the same problems that plague our whole world. There’s not much we can do about that right now.

What we CAN do is be honest.

What we CAN do is be courageous.

What we CAN do is stand up for one another.

That’s what hockey is supposed to be all about, right?

Hockey is not for everyone. Not yet.

But it damn sure should be.”

Aliu’s experiences in hockey were published right before news of Ahmaud Arbery’s violent death in February exploded in the news via release of video showing how he was hunted down on a day he was just trying to get a jog in. Just days later, George Floyd’s murder as a result of the actions by four police officers in Minneapolis tipped this topic to a boiling point across our nation.

Hockey, which is a fairly insular culture, could no longer bury its head in the sand. It was time to recognize that not only did the sport face a major problem, so, too, does our society as a whole. Some of hockey’s biggest stars and NHL clubs have subsequently released statements about these issues. Some are so generic that it’s basically performative lip service. Others, like the statement put out by Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews or Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin’s statement, are more raw.

After Seguin posted his message, what struck me was the overwhelmingly positive response from hockey fans of color in his mentions.

Words have meaning. Seguin hasn’t always been eloquent with them, or even particularly very smart with them. But this statement is a step towards human growth, and it should be recognized as such. The first step in addressing a problem is recognizing there is one, and going against the hockey culture grain by admitting it publicly allows for a much larger accountability network. If his words don’t reflect this awareness moving forward, he’s going to get called out for it and his own words put in the mirror for him to reflect on.

“I have to ask myself how I missed this for so long. Being successful playing in a predominantly white sport, I am guilty of not being aware and [I’m] not proud of that. I feel like I’ve always treated people equally, but I have this feeling now that I have a responsibility to do more.”

A lesser known fact about Seguin is that he’s actually been walking some of the walk backed by yesterday’s words for years now. He’s had a program called Seguin’s Stars where he brings members of the Boys and Girls Club here in Dallas to a luxury suite for every Stars home game every season. (For those unaware, players typically purchase the suite for the season from the team; they don’t usually get the use of that space for free.) These kids are by and large members of minority communities that wouldn’t necessarily have access to hockey tickets outside of the program.

But while that’s what most fans know about, what’s not as widely known is that he has also made additional investments in time and money to the Boys and Girls Club in McKinney. He built a ball hockey rink for the center a few years ago. He’s spent several Saturday mornings in the middle of the regular season in the years since out there playing ball hockey with kids of the center, with members of the Stars community outreach team also present to teach kids the basics of hockey.

The year after building the ball hockey rink, he went a step further, asking the Boys and Girls Club where else he could help. The answer? The center needed an updated classroom and some computers for kids to be able to use for homework and learning programs. He outfitted the entire classroom, including a hockey-themed STEM learning program.

They say actions speak louder than words, and investing in communities like this is a pretty big action. In a time where everyone is being forced to confront the world in which we live, the words Seguin publicly posted go a long way when the deafening silence of so many high-profile white athletes with large platforms sends a message of indifference or tacit acceptance of the status quo when it comes to the tribulations faced in this country today.