If he’s had a free moment in the past couple months, Gary Bettman probably joked to himself that at least hockey’s problems could sink into the background during the shutdown due to coronavirus. But as we know, these kinds of things never go away, nor should they. Especially when they’re as rampant as they are in hockey.
Today, Akim Aliu posted an article on The Players Tribune, detailing his life in hockey and how big he thinks the problems of racism, homophobia, and misogyny are still in the game. Aliu was the pivot point of hockey news back in the fall, when the racial abuse he suffered at the hands of his AHL coach, Bill Peters, cost Peters his job with the Calgary Flames and once again ripped off whatever loose covering hockey had tried to use to shield its still massive problems with race.
Some of Aliu’s stories are well-known in hockey circles, particularly his refusal to participate in a hazing ritual with his OHL team and his fight with Steve Downie — the highest order of fuckwad hockey has to offer. Both of those Aliu documents here. And Aliu’s right that his actions did give him a label of “problem” that he couldn’t shake throughout his amateur and minor league career.
Aliu’s article makes for a fitting bookend to Colin Wilson’s interview on TSN’s Bar Down with Jesse Pollock. In it, Wilson basically exposed just how hard it is to be different in hockey, even down to the tape on your stick. Wilson told Pollock that he really enjoyed using the rainbow tape on Pride Nights in the NHL during warm-ups, but would never dare during a game for fear of what opponents and and teammates alike would say to him.
Wilson tried to walk this back on Outsports, saying he was merely talking about any colored tape, but that didn’t really clear up hockey’s problem with anything that’s different than what’s expected and what’s come before. It certainly doesn’t take a Holmes-ian level of deductive reasoning to figure out why other players would mock any player using rainbow tape and what vocabulary they might dig into. Perhaps they’d all just claim they were saying “rag it,” because it’s worked before and that’s definitely something people say every day.
Hockey is littered with stories of foreign-born players afraid to wear or buy certain clothes on road trips for fear of what they’ll hear from their staid (read: boring-ass) North American teammates. On the surface it seems innocent enough. But is it to those who are different as individuals, i.e. a minority in either race or sexual orientation? Aliu is making it pretty clear that it is not.
Of course, hockey couldn’t duck these problems early in the shutdown either, with a vile invasion and attack on K’Andre Miller during a Zoom interview. Hate and ignorance isn’t stopped by COVID-19 in hockey, or the world as we’ve seen. You don’t seem to see these things when players in other leagues are doing their social media gatherings.
One of Aliu’s main points in his article isn’t the outward, noticeable attacks on difference in hockey. It’s the much more prevalent silence on them from many more people in the sport. Which is what Wilson also sheds light on in his interview. Wilson is shied or outright terrified of something as simple as using league-sanctioned and sponsored tape during a game. Who’s going to call out much larger transgressions? Aliu mentions that his captain in Rockford, Jake Dowell, spoke up in his defense to Peters after his disgusting actions. What did it get them? Aliu demoted to the ECHL and Peters on the road to an NHL job. It took 10 years to come to light. Things are different a decade later, but how much? K’Andre Miller might have some thoughts.
Hockey is so far behind on all of this. And worse yet, other than token gestures, it hasn’t showed that it’s terribly interested in catching up. Hockey’s biggest problem is how many of its players and officials grow up in a “hockey culture.” It’s the one sport where a majority of players leave home in their mid-teens to play in junior leagues in Canada or the U.S. They don’t have a normal high school or college experience, and many never finish high school. Everything they learn comes from a hockey dressing room and hockey players or former ones. We can see how that’s working out.
Another jarring portion of Aliu’s article is the description of fighting Downie in practice, and not only how accepted this was but branded a tradition or “part of the game.” It’s one thing in the NHL (and even there it’s basically been shown to be beyond stupid), but what kind of culture is simply OK with kids fighting for entertainment? Contrast that with the outrage over the Kansas-Kansas State brawl a few months ago. But hey, one’s just hockey tradition borne out of good Canadian boys being Canadian, and the other is...well, you know how they’d finish that sentence.
Wanting to stand out in hockey is considered one of the sports biggest crimes by the sport itself, even to this day. So how will it ever accept someone who naturally stands out?
Update: And to perfectly illustrate the problem, here’s hockey’s leading You-Have-To-Listen-To-My-Horseshit-Because-I-Never-Shut-Up peddler Robin Lehner dismissing Aliu wholly: