Shift Change—Body Issue 2019
A country club is a peculiar place to meet Evander Kane, one of the NHL’s few black players. The San Jose Sharks left winger even gives me an ironic nod as the two of us, young black men, sit down to discuss racism and diversity at one of the whitest and most segregated institutions.
Everything about the Marine Drive Golf Club in Vancouver is a lesson in wealth and luxury. A sign up the road advertises that only—only!—five mansions and estates are available in a nearby housing community. The club’s porte cochere is so big it could fit a semitruck under it. The grand wooden staircase resembles the one Jack walked down to meet Rose in Titanic, transporting visitors to the many amenities that warrant entrance fees of 75,000 Canadian dollars ($56,000) and monthly dues of 335 Canadian dollars ($250).
Kane likes it here all the same. It’s where the NHL’s resident renegade knows he can stay out of trouble and avoid negative headlines. He became a member last summer, and on this day the club is empty, save for a few employees and some elderly white men playing a round of golf.
“You wonder, well, if I didn’t play hockey or if I didn’t make this amount of money or I wasn’t who I am …,” Kane says, looking out onto the club greens. “I know in the back of my mind this isn’t how it normally goes.”
Last year Kane signed a seven-year contract extension with the Sharks worth $49 million. He is, he believes, Marine Drive’s sole black member. The golf course has become his escape. It’s only a few hundred feet from his family’s home, and it’s become the place where he feels most comfortable speaking about incidents that are unique to someone who looks like him.
Take, for instance, the one he says happened five years ago. On a freezing February day in downtown Winnipeg, Kane, then in his second season with the Jets, stopped at a traffic light, and another car pulled alongside his Chevrolet. The three white men inside recognized him and tried to get his attention. When Kane ignored them, one of the men rolled down his window and spit on Kane’s car.
“I’m like, ‘Are you f—ing kidding me?’” Kane says.
Furious, Kane says he zoomed ahead when the light turned green, pulled his car in front of the agitators and got out to confront the group. One of the men emerged from the car, then placed his hand near the back of his pants, insinuating that he had a firearm. While Kane says he was “95 percent” sure the man was unarmed and just trying to scare him, he quickly realized that despite the overwhelming urge to “go over there and throw him through his own windshield,” he couldn’t risk beating up some random man, or worse, getting shot. Kane returned to his car and drove away.
As Kane recounts the story, looking out onto the 18th green, his voice is calmer than one might expect, in part because this isn’t the only incident he’s endured, or the only one he wants to share.
He understands—he lives—the gravity of it all, of being a black athlete in a white man’s world. And given a platform here on these 105 acres of land just minutes and yet a world away from where he grew up, he’s ready to embrace the responsibility that comes with bearing the truth.
“I think if you’re in an element where you can be your true self … you’re able to just walk freely,” says Gaurav Shukla, Kane’s business manager and longtime friend, who has been beside the hockey star through some of his toughest moments on and off the ice.
“I think he’s walked on eggshells long enough.”
Hockey is as white as the snowcapped North Shore Mountains in western Canada. Estimates vary, but the NHL is assumed to be at least 90 percent white, made up mostly of white Canadians and Americans and Eastern Europeans. From team owners to coaches to players to media members, as the old joke goes, the only thing that’s black is the puck.
Kane doesn’t resemble a stereotypical hockey player. Beyond the obvious, he has all his teeth. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Kane is imposing, but add in his caramel skin, long and curly ’fro, gladiator muscles and sleeve tattoos that go from his wrist to his elbow and he is not only a large man but a man with presence.
He finds that many people assume the worst. If they don’t think he’s a threat, they think he’s an athlete, though strangers usually guess basketball or football—anything but the sport he plays. “They won’t even think about hockey,” he says. “They’ll be talking about pingpong, cricket, rugby.”
He doesn’t pay much attention to how his physique is received, but he’s super aware of what his skin color connotes.
He gives a hypothetical: If Penguins star Sidney Crosby were to blow up at the media, it would be laughed off. But if Kane were to do it: “That stigma of an angry black man or pissed-off black man or unhappy black guy,” he says, “that kind of makes people wary.”
His father, Perry, taught him at an early age that he’d have to be twice as good to get half as far as his white teammates. Evander was on skates at 3 years old, gliding around the ice and shooting pucks at a wall near his home in Vancouver. When he was school-age, he woke up at 5:30 every morning to train for an hour before the first bell rang. After classes, he practiced at least three times a week with his school teams.
Kane loved hockey, loved how much better he was at it than everyone else. And he loved to prove his doubters wrong, or in his words, “shove it up their ass.”
But no matter how good he was, he was a target. He remembers that at 10 years old, during the second period of a tournament game in which he’d already scored a hat trick, he went to the penalty box for an infraction. Parents approached the glass and laid into the preteen. We should chop your f—ing legs off. F— you. Somebody’s going to knock your head off.
He neither flinched nor cried. Instead, he says, he laughed: “In a way, it fueled me.” Kane would go on to score two more goals and, after the fifth, take a bow at center ice.
“The mindset is you have to outperform everybody three to four times what they’re doing just to get the same sort of evaluation that the other kids are going to get,” Kane says. “When I look back and I think about all the extra work I did compared to some of the other kids, there’s a reason I was able to make it to the NHL at 18 years old.”
Hockey has always been stained by racism. Tony McKegney, an Afro-Canadian from Montreal, signed with the Birmingham Bulls of the now-defunct World Hockey Association in 1978 but never played for the Bulls after owner John Bassett reneged on the deal because season-ticket holders threatened to boycott the team. Val James, who joined the Buffalo Sabres in 1982 and became the first African American to play in the NHL, was once subjected to a monkey doll with a noose around its neck. Current and former black NHL players P.K. Subban, Joel Ward, Kevin Weekes and Wayne Simmonds have each had racial epithets and/or bananas lobbed at them while on the ice.
The Atlanta Thrashers drafted Kane fourth overall in 2009. While Kane has only good things to say about Atlanta—he once brought hockey equipment to kids at an all-black private school who’d never played the sport; the kids loved it—he says his race became a factor when the franchise relocated to Winnipeg before the 2011-12 season.
There was the time during the 2012-13 NHL lockout when Kane posed for an Instagram photo in Las Vegas holding up stacks of cash as if they were a telephone—a money phone, if you will. It was a nod to boxer Floyd Mayweather and rapper 50 Cent, the Alexander Graham Bells of currency telecommunications. But Kane was criticized for not being more cognizant of Jets employees who weren’t being paid during the lockout, even though it was the owners who had locked out the players. He notes the hypocrisy he saw when the Indiana Pacers’ T.J. McConnell, a white NBA player, was photographed doing the same pose in July: “What was the difference? He plays a different sport and he’s a different color.”
In 2013, he shaved the letters “YMCMB”—short for Young Money Cash Money Billionaires, the then-record label of rappers Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj and Drake—into his head. This became a media fascination, even though it was just a 21-year-old hip-hop fan wanting a cool design. “We’ve got guys on our team that got ponytails. What’s the difference? Is that a race thing? Is that a culture thing? I think it’s both.”
“He’s just a big personality, and I think that can rub people the wrong way,” says former teammate Joe Thornton. “I like different. I don’t like the same guy being the same. I want unique personalities.”
In 2014, Kane was chastised again, by media and fans, for posing with wads of cash, this time for doing pushups with stacks of money on his back. This, he says, was a troll job to illustrate how easily he fields negative criticism. “I’m looking at it like, ‘Well, it’s because I’m black. It has to be, it has to be,’” Kane says. “I mean, the article [in the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean’s] that came out: ‘Winnipeg is the most racist city in Canada.’ You can dispute it, but that’s how I felt.
“Everything I said, you’ll probably have a bunch of people that will disagree with everything, but I’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who looks like me that disagrees with what I’ve said in the past.”
During his time in Winnipeg, Kane felt he was dodging accusations at almost every turn. He says people accused him of stealing an elderly woman’s dog, swiping $500 worth of groceries from an area Safeway and regularly dining and dashing at Winnipeg restaurants. “A f—ing restaurant? What the f— do I need to walk out on a f—ing restaurant bill for?”
There have been more serious allegations. In 2016, Kane was accused of grabbing a woman by the throat and trying to push her into his car outside a Buffalo bar, according to a police report. Kane denied the charge and four months later agreed to a plea deal that didn’t include an admission of guilt. A judge later dismissed the case.
In December 2015, in a complaint filed in the state Supreme Court in New York, Kane was accused of battering a 21-year-old woman in a Buffalo hotel. After a three-month investigation, prosecutors declined to press charges, finding “no evidence to support the filing of a criminal action.” In July 2016, the woman filed a civil suit against Kane, saying he had caused “serious emotional trauma” and “serious, permanent and painful personal injuries.” Two months later, Kane countersued, alleging his character had been harmed by the woman’s allegations. These cases are still pending. The woman’s lawyer did not respond to ESPN’s requests for comment.
Kane, who maintains his innocence, thinks the fact that he’s black and the woman who sued him is white had everything to do with some hateful social media comments he received about the allegations. “It was the last thing I thought I would ever be a part of,” he says. “And it’s unfortunate that people do create these automatic opinions based on a headline.”
The past few years have baffled and exasperated him and reinforced his sense of otherness, both on and off the ice. “I’m a black hockey player in a white sport with white coaches, white general managers, white owners, white commentators,” he says. “Whether the intent is there or not, there’s some sort of bias.”
He feels it’s time for him to expose it.
Then counter it.
At the Marine Drive Golf Club, Kane’s suggestions for the future of the NHL burst out of him like air from the lungs of a free diver.
He wants the league to identify and cultivate a black fan base. He wants the league to highlight black hockey trailblazers like Willie O’Ree, Herb Carnegie and Grant Fuhr. He wants the league to embrace personalities, much like the NBA and NFL have. Kane grew up a fan of the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia 76ers because he loved Michael Vick and Allen Iverson, whose personas were as large as their games.
Kane has yet to formally address his ideas with the league, but he’s embraced the concept of being “more than an athlete,” recognizing that his veteran status now earns him a good deal of cachet. His dad always told him that the only way to get respect was to “put the puck in the net.” He’s done that—he’s increased his goal total in each of the four years since leaving Winnipeg (from 20 in ’15-16 to 30 last season)—but now he wants more than respect. He wants to broaden the game’s appeal.
“Seeing a player like Evander raise his hand and say ‘I want to do more’ shows we are moving in the right direction,” says Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive VP of social
impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. “The ability for our players to show individuality and for our sport to be open to diverse external expression, while remaining true to the culture of hockey, is critical.
“This is going to be an evolution, not a revolution.”
In recent years, the NHL has attempted to eradicate racism from the game, expanding its multicultural “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign and immediately handing out severe punishments to fans and players who use slurs or harass players.
The campaign has run into stumbling blocks. In August, Hockey is for Everyone was supposed to host a player ambassador summit in Washington, D.C., with the league’s 29 black players and representatives from all 31 NHL clubs, but the event was abruptly canceled. Davis says that because of conflicting player schedules, her department moved the event to a later date. Still, Kane was bothered by the missed opportunity. He says the league’s black players will need to do more as well. I ask him if there’s any relationship among them. He says most worry about risking their careers by speaking out more bluntly about hockey’s race problem.
“You’re wary about stepping outside and doing something that might disrupt the norm,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s like a Colin Kaepernick situation, but you look at that situation, he’s been blacklisted from the league. If all the black hockey players started doing something together, I don’t know what would happen. I don’t know how people take that.”
Kane is afraid of risking career opportunities too, but in his mind, the lack of diversity and resulting racism are the bigger problems. For instance, in the second round of the 2019 playoffs, when the Sharks played the Avalanche in Colorado in Game 3, Kane found himself serving two minutes in the penalty box for high-sticking. (He led the league with 153 penalty minutes last season.) That’s when an Avalanche fan yelled at him: “Go play basketball!”
“Would I like to grab that guy and pump both of his eyes shut?” Kane says. “Absolutely. But I’m held to a higher standard.”
Kane alerted a referee and his agent but says he never heard back from the league. An NHL spokeswoman says the Sharks and Avalanche were aware of the situation, but the incident didn’t make it to the attention of the league’s front office.
It’s this indifference that has led Kane to step out from hockey’s hermit crab-like ecosystem. He made the trip to the ESPYS this year, appeared on Sports Illustrated’s Fashionable 50 list and posed for the Body Issue. One could easily write off Kane’s campaign as the actions of a self-indulgent millennial wanting more attention for himself. Kane doesn’t dispute this. “I don’t see a problem with that,” he says. “I don’t know why anybody would. I think all that does at the end of the day is—everybody talks about growing the game. That’s not just on the ice. A lot of growing the game has to do with off the ice.”
Kane will defend the game he loves to the ends of the earth. (Just ask Jaguars defensive back Jalen Ramsey, who said last year that he could make an NHL lineup after practicing for six months. Kane then told ESPN, “I think I’d be about 1,000 percent times better at his position in six months than he’ll be at mine.”) But he worries that if the NHL doesn’t adapt to the era of branding, reality television and Instagram, it will continue to be considered the little brother among major American sports. “How is there a cornhole game on ESPN,” he says, “but the first round of the [NHL] playoffs, they got a series on the Golf Channel?”
This infuriates him, but it also motivates him. He realizes that he’s an imperfect messenger, but as it stands, he appears to be the only one willing to take the risk of speaking out against the faceless old guard.
“I’ve been in the league long enough, I’m more than established, and I’m just kind of fed up,” he says, seemingly more comfortable in his own skin than he’s ever been.
“I want to help change the game.”
Evander Kane, Chris Paul, Liz Cambage, and NFL stars such as Myles Garrett and the Eagles offensive line are featured in ESPN’s 2019 Body Issue. To see interviews, pictures, videos and more, visit our full 2019 gallery.