Sun, Nov 11, 2018 - Page 11 News List

Racism lingers 60 years after Willie O’Ree landmark

AP, WASHINGTON

Willie O’Ree is introduced to fans during a pre-game ceremony for the Hockey Hall of Fame prior to the Toronto Maple Leafs taking on the New Jersey Devils on Friday in Toronto.

Photo: AFP

Devante Smith-Pelly got up from his seat.

The Washington Capitals forward had heard the unmistakably racist taunts from fans from inside the penalty box. As a black hockey player, he knew exactly what they meant by yelling: “Basketball, basketball, basketball.”

“It’s just ignorant people being ignorant,” Smith-Pelly said.

That scene unfolded in Chicago in February, 60 years after Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier and paved the way for more minorities to play the sport.

O’Ree is being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame tomorrow for his pioneering career, and yet incidents like the one Smith-Pelly went through show how much more progress needs to be made in a league that is 97 percent white.

“It’s come a long way, but there’s still a lot of things that still need to change,” Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse said.

In 2011, Philadelphia forward Wayne Simmonds had a banana thrown at him during a pre-season game in London, Ontario.

In 2012, then-Washington forward Joel Ward was the subject of racist social media posts after he scored a game-winning playoff goal.

In 2014, then-Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban was the subject of racist social media posts after he scored a game-winning playoff goal.

In April, Detroit prospect Givani Smith was subjected to threats and racial taunts and messages after a junior game in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. His team had a police escort the next time they went to the rink.

“[O’Ree] had to go through a lot, and the same thing has been happening now, which obviously means there’s still a long way to go,” Smith-Pelly said.

Through his work as an NHL diversity ambassador over the past 20 years, O’Ree has tried to work toward more inclusion and better minority representation. He is eager to tell kids at YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and schools that hockey is another sport they can play.

USA Hockey and Hockey Canada do not keep participation statistics by race, although there are fewer than two dozen black players on NHL rosters.

The NHL celebrates “Hockey is for Everyone” month each season and quickly condemns racist behavior.

“A lot of it’s basically on your parents and how people raise their kids,” said San Jose forward Evander Kane, who acknowledged being the subject of racist taunting as the only black player on his minor league teams in Vancouver. “You can have all the awareness that you want, but at the end of the day, it’s really up to the individual and how they act and how they want to treat other people.”

O’Ree, 83, still remembers how he was treated in the 1950s as hockey’s Jackie Robinson. He did his best to drown out the noise by listening to his brother Richard.

“I heard the jeers and some of the racial remarks, but it kind of went in one ear and out the other,” O’Ree said. “He told me: ‘Willie, names will never hurt you unless you let them.’ He said: ‘If they can’t accept you for the individual that you are, just forget about it and just go out and do what you do best and don’t worry about anything else.’”

Simmonds is also quick to say that racism is not an issue unique to hockey or sports in general.

His solution is a zero-tolerance policy, which is what happened to the four fans in Chicago who were thrown out and banned from all home games by the Blackhawks.

“I think what could be done to keep these types of incidents from happening would probably be to ban those people who are doing those lewd acts,” Simmonds said. “I think if you set a strong example right from the start, you won’t have too many people acting like clowns.”

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