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Kitchener Rangers winger Givani Smith’s experience is the latest in a long list of racial incidents in hockey

Threats led to team needing a police escort to arena for playoff game

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Hockey has a race problem.

This is neither hyperbole nor conjecture. A sport that internationally is predominantly white and domestically (specifically the NHL) composed of mostly American and Canadian whites, has struggled to recruit nonwhite talent and proactively eradicate racism from its locker rooms and arenas.

Last month, after Game 6 of the Ontario Hockey League (a developmental league for the NHL) conference finals, Kitchener Rangers winger Givani Smith was racially harassed by fans after he flashed his middle finger at the bench of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the Rangers’ opponents. One man posted a photo of Smith on Facebook with the caption “Hockey N—–.” The Rangers said the Detroit Red Wings prospect also received a death threat.

“There were threats, physical threats after Game 6,” Rangers general manager Mike McKenzie told the Waterloo Region Record. “Before we went up to the Soo there were racial things in his inbox on social media. It was pretty disgusting to see some of the stuff that he had to deal with.”

The threats, which were sprinkled alongside Smith being called “coward” and “douche bag” on social media, were so severe that Smith and the team needed a police escort to the arena for Game 7, the first time that has ever happened, according to OHL commissioner David Branch. A security guard was also posted outside of the arena’s press box, where Smith was seated during the game because of a two-game suspension he received for his action in Game 6.

While it is unfair to blame the OHL or the Greyhounds’ fans for an isolated incident, what happened to Smith joins a long list of racial incidents in hockey that are either met with indifference by the nearly monolithic leagues and their hypermajority-white fan bases or weak-handed punishments.

In February, during Black History Month and the NHL’s Hockey Is For Everyone celebration, Chicago Blackhawks fans chanted, “Basketball!” at Washington Capitals right winger Devante Smith-Pelly, who is black, while he was in the penalty box. The Blackhawks kicked the fans out, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called the fans’ behavior “unacceptable and reprehensible” while at the same time absolving anyone else of blame, referring to the incident as “isolated in nature.”

That would be news to fellow black players Wayne Simmonds, Joel Ward and P.K. Subban.

Simmonds, a right winger for the Philadelphia Flyers, had a banana thrown at him by a Red Wings fan during a meaningless preseason game ahead of the 2011-12 season. The man was fined $200 but feigned ignorance, saying that he was unaware of the racial connotations of throwing a banana at a black man despite A) fruit not being a common item at a concession stand and B) hats and catfish normally being the only acceptable things to throw on the ice. Bettman called the incident an “obviously stupid and ignorant action by one individual.”

Later that season, Ward, then a member of the Capitals, was called a “n—–,” a “f—ing n—–” and, despite being the son of Barbadian immigrants, a “sand n—–” by Boston Bruins fans after scoring the game-winning goal that knocked the team out of the first round of the 2012 playoffs. The Bruins released a 34-word statement that called their fans’ words “classless” and “ignorant.”

Two years later, Subban, then a member of the Montreal Canadiens, was also called variations of the N-word by Bruins fans after scoring a game-winner in Game 1 of the playoffs. One Boston fan took her anger a bit further, tweeting out an image of a noose with the caption “Tied something for SUBBAN” accompanied by a smiling emoji. The Bruins again, this time in 30 words, called the actions of its fans “in no way a reflection of anyone associated with the Bruins organization.”

On top of that, Subban, like many other black players, has been heavily criticized for his post-goal celebrations despite fistfights being allowed — and, to an extent, encouraged — in professional hockey. Bruins left winger Brad Marchand, who is white, had to be formally warned by the NHL to stop licking other players during this year’s playoffs. Marchand, a habitual line-stepper, was suspended for five games earlier this season, his sixth career suspension, for elbowing an opponent in the head. If NHL officials were as serious about racism as they are French kissing, maybe fans wouldn’t feel as emboldened to harass the few black players who are in the league.

If the NHL — and, by extension, the OHL and other leagues — doesn’t figure out a way to build and promote a more inclusive environment, what happened to Smith (and Simmonds and Ward and Subban) won’t be the last. Hockey fans, not to mention those in the other three major American sports, have for whatever reason come to believe that hockey arenas are safe spaces for spewing ignorance, and it’s on those in positions of power to squash that mindset.

Because if not, the stories will get worse.

Mark Connors, a 12-year-old goaltender on a Nova Scotia peewee hockey team, was called the N-word by an opposing player after making a save. Connors’ father told CBC News that his son “felt like he didn’t belong.”

Hockey Nova Scotia, the governing body of hockey in the province, swept the incident under the rug as quickly as possible. “There was an incident, an issue that was brought forward. It was investigated and dealt with,” the organization said.

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"