Not just a black and white: with players representing a wide array of minorities and nationalities, the NHL is fighting—and winning the battle over ignorance and bigotry – Special Section: NHL Diversity

Chuck O’Donnell

ART DORRINGTON TOOK A break from practice recently and pondered this question: Which hurt more, being called a really nasty slur on the ice or getting a two-handed chop fight across the wrists?

“That’s a good question,” Dorrington answers. “I guess it depends on how bad the slur was.”

Dorrington, who became the first black player to sign a contract with an NHL team when he joined the New York Rangers organization in 1950, spends almost all his time and a lot of his money running his own hockey foundation in Atlantic City, N.J., giving 30 or so disadvantaged youths at a time the chance to take to the ice.

The irony of the question isn’t lost on Dorrington. The fact that Dorrington had to stop and think about his answer speaks volumes. It says that in a sport where shrugging off a busted nose or a fractured finger or cranky back is part of the culture, where players don’t miss a shift with injuries that would send civilians to the hospital, simple words can be the most painful thing of all. They can sting more than an open-ice hit ever could.

Dorrington, by virtue of his place in history, may have been the first pro black player to hear the nasty words on the ice–“Yeah, there was always stuff being said,” he admits–but he wasn’t the last.

In fact, the NHL was headed for a serious public relations nightmare just a few seasons ago. Between November 1997 and April 1999, there were six incidents where a minority player came forward after a game, saying he was the target of offensive comments or racially inappropriate gestures on the ice by a member of the opposing team.

In an era where political correctness has heightened society’s awareness, this was “shocking stuff,” says one team executive, who asked we not use his name. “You didn’t see this sort of thing happening in other sports. It only seemed to be happening in this league. I, for one, was embarrassed when that stuff was happening.”

For a league trying to stand at the forefront of racial and ethnic matters, these were steps backward. For a league trying to diversify its mostly white fanbase, this was bad business. For a league where people such as Dorrington are trying to step up and be ambassadors, these were undermining moments.

However, what could have been a powder keg of controversy may have been diffused. It would be naive to think that the NHL’s 15 or 20 black players and the other handful of other minority players such as the New Jersey Devils’ Scott Gomez (who is hispanic) or the New York Rangers’ Manny Malhotra (who is Indian) haven’t heard any comments, but there’s a definite downward trend in the number of incidents being reported. In the past two seasons, no player has been suspended and only one player reprimanded for making a racially or ethnically insensitive comment.

This decrease coincides with the NHL stepping up its efforts to combat on-ice bigotry. Although it is the most ethnically and racially diverse league in North America, the evidence seems to indicate that it has successfully deployed a neutral-zone trap against racial name-calling on the ice.

“It’s going to happen again. It’s not over. But I think they’re definitely working in the right direction,” says Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first black player in 1958 and works as a director of youth development for the NHL Diversity Task Force.

The NHL has addressed the problem in many ways, but first and foremost, the league realized it had to come down hard on the players who made the comments, or at least on the ones who admitted to saying these things or whom witnesses helped incriminate. This often has been a sticky situation for the league, which frequently got caught in a he said-he said sort of thing. Over the past decade or so, the NHL has acted swiftly when it could substantiate the accusations:

* In 1990, the league decided not to take any disciplinary action when New York Islanders right wing Graeme Townshend, who is black, accused Ranger left wing Kris King of making a racial slur.

* The league didn’t act when Devils winger Claude Vilgrain, a native of Haiti, said the Quebec Nordiques’ Mats Sundin used “a little racial slur” in a game in March 1992.

* In November 1907, the Washington Capitals’ Chris Simon was suspended for three games for using a racial slur against the Edmonton Oilers’ Mike Grier, who is black.

* A few weeks later, Simon’s teammate, Craig Berube, was suspended for a game without pay for calling the Florida Panthers’ Peter Worrell, who is black, a “monkey” during an on-ice scuffle. Brian Burke, the senior vice president and director of hockey operations for the NHL at the time, said that although Berube apologized, “the remarks cannot be ignored.”

* In October 1998, the NHL interviewed 14 people before deciding it had found insufficient evident that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Sandy McCarthy and Darcy Tucker had made racial comments and gestures toward Worrell.

* A month later, the league didn’t take action against the Philadelphia Flyers’ Chris Gratton, whom Worrell accused of calling him an “ape.”

* In April 1999, Sharks defenseman Bryan Marchment was suspended one game for using “an offensive comment” against the Canucks winger Donald Brashear, who is black.

* A few weeks later, McCarthy, then with the Flyers, said Leafs winger Tie Domi “dropped the `n-bomb’ on me” during a game. The accusations could not be substantiated.

* Ottawa Senators forward Vaclav Prospal was ordered last season to attend a diversity-training session after calling Montreal Canadiens defenseman Patrice Brisebois a “frog,” a slur directed toward Brisebois’ French-Canadian heritage.

O’Ree and others feels the NHL has sent a loud and clear message.

“When these occurrences happen, the NHL steps in and makes the necessary fines and suspensions, letting the players know this type of conduct can’t be tolerated,” says O’Ree. “These players aren’t just representing themselves, they’re representing the teams that they play for and the league.”

While one NHL official suggested that such things are said “in the heat of the battle,” and that players such as former Canadiens great Maurice Richard heard enough anti-French-Canadian slurs “to fill a book,” O’Ree and Mike Gartner, the former president of the NHL Players’ Association, say that doesn’t give anyone a license to say anything they want.

“The players are trying to goad other players to try to get them off their game, get a little edge on them,” O’Ree says. “I think when it comes down to where you have to make racial remarks, that’s over the line.”

Adds Gartner: “Some players are trying to hit a nerve and they’ll go to any lengths to do that. You have to balance it. You shouldn’t say something that you wouldn’t want said to you. That’s how you know you’ve gone over the line.”

Once the league showed it was going to get tough with people if they used racial slurs on the ice, it began to try to a little preventative medicine.

Before the 1999-2000 season, each NHL team was required to attend a diversity seminar. “It went very well,” says O’Ree. “There was a fellow by the name of Zachary Minor. He works in New York. He does a lot of consulting for the NBA and NFL. So the NHL hired him and I went and did nine seminars with him. He gave just a tremendous presentation. He introduced me and said, `Here’s a gentleman here who played in the early 1960s and some of the things he had to go through …’ Well, 99% of the guys came up and shook our hands afterward. They told me, `This was needed. We have a better understanding now.’

“Mike Grier, Anson Carter, Donald Brashear, Peter Worrell, Grant Fuhr, Fred Brathwaite, and Jerome Iginla, they all wanted to know what it was like,” says O’Ree. “I just told them how it was back then. It’s different now. I told them how it was back then and how I handled it and the things I had to do just to stay and play.”

O’Ree says the league has now set up a confidential hot line for players to call “if they do hear something during a game.”

The NHL’s final step has been to form the Diversity Task Force, which takes the league’s message of racial harmony to the streets. As defined by the league, the task force “is a not-for-profit program designed to introduce children of diverse ethnic backgrounds to the game of hockey. The program’s mission is to assist and enable local youth hockey programs to teach hockey, and other life skills, to economically disadvantaged children, creating a fun experience for boys and girls of all age levels.” In other words, the league will go out and help the Art Dorringtons of the world gather equipment and help teach him how to run his program better.

The recent formation of the task force has allowed the NHL to put a human face on its new initiative. When O’Ree shows up to talk to one of the 30 or so NHL-sponsored hockey programs or at any other special event, the kids often look at him with reverence.

“I never dreamed I would be in the position I’m in now,” O’Ree says. “To see the look on their faces and know I’m making a difference in their lives is a wonderful feeling.”

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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