Open Letter to Hockey Officials on Racism in Hockey

Subject: Open Letter to Hockey Officials on Racism in Hockey
From: Bob Dawson
Date: 26 May 2015

Dear Gary Bettman, Commissioner of the National Hockey League, Tom Renney, President and CEO of Hockey Canada, and David Branch, President of the Canadian Hockey League;

Canadians have always seen themselves as fair minded and tolerant people. Studies conducted by various sources (e.g. Canadian Human Rights Commission, Ekos Research Associates, Ipsos Reid, etc.), however, show that racism remains a fact of life in Canada. What’s more, it’s prevalent in all aspects of society. Even the “sport of hockey” is not immune from the disease that is racism.

Messrs. Bettman, Renney and Branch, racism in all its forms in hockey is often overlooked, downplayed or underrated as a critical issue. As noted in the Annex (History of Racial Incidents in Hockey -, racism continues to be the “ugly underbelly” of hockey at all levels both on and off the ice. Generally, it involves acts of racial discrimination, racial harassment and racial vilification by players directed at other players; by spectators directed at players; or racist behavior among rival spectator groups, which spill over into disruptions and violence in the stands. It also includes the racist actions of league and team officials (e.g. executives, managers, administrators, etc.), coaches, game officials (referees), hockey analysts and commentators.

Given its complexities, racism in hockey is an issue that is not going away any time soon. It, in fact, will likely increase as more members of minority groups participate in all levels of the game. If not addressed by you and your respective hockey organizations in a collaborative, more strategic and sustained manner, it could, as seen in the following, have serious and in some cases long-term ramifications that would not bode well for hockey.

For example, racist acts can humiliate, isolate, exclude and hurt players emotionally, particularly members of minority groups (blacks, Aboriginal peoples and persons of Middle Eastern descent) who are more often than not the targets of such acts because of their race, color or ethnic origin. At the very least in hockey, it exposes them to additional and undue stresses, which they often experience in their daily lives. If internalized, they can affect their health and well - being and lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, frustration and in some cases even depression. Moreover, it can then affect their mind-set, morale, and ultimately their on-ice performance, hockey aspirations and development.

More broadly, racism and discrimination in hockey could, among other things, lead to or result in:

• Unhealthy or toxic hockey environments in which increasing tensions affect players, coaches, parents and team officials and could create a public-relations issue and sully the team or league’s image.
• Increased player suspensions and/or fines, possible grievances, human rights complaints or lawsuits that might reflect negatively on hockey’s overall image as a team sport.
• Difficulty in hockey organizations attracting, recruiting and retaining members of minority groups, which would not bode well for already fluctuating player registrations.
• Talented minority group players aspiring to play in the NHL deciding instead to consider other professions or career paths, thereby affecting the potential “talent pool” from which NHL teams could draft future players.
• The ongoing departure of minority group players from hockey to take up other sports, which combined with current fluctuating hockey registrations, could put Canada’s hockey future at risk.

At the community level, racial incidents in hockey can have devastating effects on the “social and sporting life of communities” as well as the “intergroup relations” within and between members of different communities. Sadly, such situations have occurred in Alberta and Manitoba involving Aboriginal and white communities. This disturbing trend might escalate given the passion for hockey in many communities across the country and the ever-increasing emphasis placed on winning by parents, coaches and fans or supporters.

Messrs. Bettman, Renney and Branch, your respective hockey organizations, to their credit, have implemented measures to try and address the issue of racism and discrimination. They include sensitivity training sessions for hockey players, stiffer penalties and fines for racial slurs or offensive behavior, codes of conduct for players, coaches and parents as well as programs like "Speak Out!", “Respect in Sport” or “Fair Play”. These initiatives have, to date, done little to effectively tackle the issue of racism and change the hockey environment and culture.

Given the foregoing and what’s at stake with regard to the long-term future of hockey in Canada, it’s time and perhaps long overdue for you, as the responsible heads of the NHL, Hockey Canada and Canadian Hockey League, to rethink your current strategies and take a “collaborative and holistic approach” to combat the serious issue of racism. As an important first step, I strongly advocate that you urgently work together to convene a joint conference on racism in hockey open to hockey stakeholders and other interested parties. Such a conference, in my view, would (1) help lead to a better and more informed understanding of the nature of racism in hockey, (2) facilitate the identification and review of best practices employed by various hockey organizations and other sports, (3) provide an ideal opportunity for the exchange of ideas and discussion of joint initiatives and strategies and (4) enable the development and implementation of a “comprehensive action plan” to effectively change the current hockey environment and culture at all levels. The latter will require thinking outside the box, a serious commitment to make a difference, and a willingness to act upon the commitment on your part as well as your officials and hockey partners.

Messrs. Bettman, Renney and Branch, you and your respective organizations have a key “leadership role” to play in combating racism in hockey. You are well positioned to help “make a difference” and be “agents of change” in the area of racism not only in hockey, but the broader society. By first acknowledging the seriousness of the problem and then tackling it head on, the effects, hopefully, will ripple through all other aspects of Canadian society.

As a former hockey player, who experienced racism first hand and now serves as a family hockey advisor, I, like many other concerned observers of the game, would welcome the opportunity to share with you and/or your officials my views on the issue and ideas for tackling racism by participating in a "hockey conference or symposium", if one were held. Alternatively, I would be open and willing to meet with you and/or your officials on this important matter.


Bob Dawson, BA, MSW
Sports Writer, Diversity Management
Consultant and Black Hockey Historian
Ottawa, ON (Canada)