It would be easy to label it “just another weekend in hockey.” And that’s what it was, as the NHL’s two minor leagues dealt with incidents of blatant and horrific racism.
This is entrenched in hockey right now, and has been for basically the sport’s entire existence. There are monstrous people operating in every facet of the game, and they aren’t simply going away because we want them to. They’ll have to be weeded out, or shamed back into the dark corners from whence they came.
It will not be a pleasant process.
Starting in the AHL, where Boko Imama was the target of monkey gestures by San Jose Barracuda forward Krystof Hrabik during a game on January 12th in San Jose. Imama didn’t see the gesture originally, though his teammates were quick to point it out to officials. The Barracuda immediately suspended Hrabik while a review was conducted, and the AHL this past weekend suspended him for 30 games. While he will be eligible to return this season, it sure sounds like his AHL career is over. The Barracuda will not welcome him back, and it’s unlikely anyone else will take a chance on a player from which you gain nothing.
It’s heartbreaking for Imama, who’s been through this before. Two years ago it was Brandon Manning, who had previously played in the NHL for the Flyers and Blackhawks. He was suspended for only five games.
Of course, this being hockey, this was no isolated incident. Jordan Subban, the youngest brother of P.K. and Malcolm, was subjected to the same gestures by opponent Jacob Panetta in the ECHL, the league one step below the AHL. There was video of this one:
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It was impossible to ignore the true symbolism of Panetta waiting until Subban’s back was turned, linesmen between the two, to mimic a monkey, exemplifying the cowardice of racists everywhere. Easy when you don’t feel like you face a threat, no? Well, it didn’t save Panetta from getting punched repeatedly by Subban when he turned around, or Panetta from turtling to fully sinking into being the ignorant coward that he is. Panetta was immediately released by his team, Jacksonville, and again, it’s hard to see where he’ll land again... on these shores, at least.
It is sobering for the entire hockey world, if not enlightening, to look at how rampant this problem is in the game. While we have seen this kind of thing in European soccer for decades — bananas being tossed, racist chants, monkey noises — it seems like something out of the 40s or 50s here. We just haven’t seen in-game incidents like this, and if we have they’ve been quite rare. It’s probably been going on at these levels but going unreported or ignored for a host of reasons, but now there are cameras everywhere, social media everywhere, and the awareness is just that much higher. Hockey can’t ignore it, though it will do its best at every turn.
And minor league players make for much easier targets. What would the NHL do if something like this happened in its own league? Both Panetta and Hrabik lost their AHL jobs. As they should have. Would the NHL go so far?
The process of cleansing the game of this detritus is going to be this ugly, and even uglier than this at times. This is still a sport that is mostly populated by rich white kids from the burbs, or country kids from somewhere in Saskatchewan, or Scandinavians, or Eastern Europeans. These are all places and settings removed from true diversity, where they simply don’t see people who don’t look like them very often, if at all. Where there aren’t consequences for thoughts and jokes that wound, because there’s no one around to explain why. And ignorance of morality isn’t an excuse. This is what it will look like if hockey is truly going to exorcise these demons. Show everyone the punishments, no matter how unpleasant or career-derailing they might be.
It was only two years ago when Manning, in a scenario nearly identical to that of Hrabik, was suspended for just five games. It was a few years before that when Andrew Shaw — showing his ass once again, even though he’d been teammates with Subban’s brother the year prior — sat for only one game after clearly using a gay slur toward a ref in a playoff game. There was also the NHL just sloughing off Morgan Rielly’s use of the same slur.
Yeah, AHL is the lower levels, and the NHL as a whole still has much to prove... everything to prove, in fact. But these two players lost their jobs. Hockey is not going to simply erase prejudiced and ignorant thoughts within every player, coach, fan, and executive. The evil lurks within. But what the league can do is make it clear what will happen to those who bring it out into the open, making hockey an even less welcome place for POC in the process. It’s unsightly as all get out, and this will hardly be the last time it happens. But the swift response is progress.