Hockey’s intolerance issues go beyond Don Cherry

Yahoo Sports NHL editor exposes persisting injustices in hockey culture in upcoming book

Recent social justice movements have sparked discussion around intolerance in hockey culture at all levels. FIle Photo Elias Grigoriadis

Hockey has, and continues to be an important part of Canadian identity. However, despite all the good the game has brought, hockey is tainted with a long history of inequality and racism, issues that are still embedded in hockey culture today.

Social issues that were otherwise brushed under the rug have surfaced in the past year, as the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired many athletes of colour to come forward and share their stories. Individuals who were once silenced have now been given a voice.

“Hockey is such a huge component of Canadian life, and national identity. You can sort of understand Canada by looking at hockey, through the media, through how it’s treated Indigenous People, Black people, and how it’s treated women,” said Arun Srinivasan, the NHL editor at Yahoo Sports Canada. “There are so many stories that need to be told.”

“A lot of hockey fans, and a lot of Canadians more broadly, won't even entertain the notion that Canada is a racist country,” Srinivasan said. 

Srinivasan recently signed a deal with James Lorimer & Company Ltd. to write a book about the history of racism in hockey in Canada. He hopes his work will shed light on the systemic racism that continues to linger in hockey today

“People think racism in hockey begins and ends with Don Cherry sometimes. I hope [my book] helps people make the connection, how hockey plays such a huge part of Canadian life, and that there's racism embedded within it.”

Srinivasan played recreational hockey until the age of 18. As a Person of Colour, he was the victim of racial insults and attacks, incidents that continue to affect him today. He hopes to share his own story and the stories of others who have also been ostracized by their peers because of the colour of their skin. 

“When I played hockey, I heard all kinds of post-9/11 racial insults, as you can imagine for a Brown guy growing up in Canada. You realize what it does to your sense of self only later."

Srinivasan believes more can be done to make hockey more inclusive and more accessible for all, despite class divide and ethnic differences. With how expensive hockey has become, especially for those who wish to play competitively, affordability continues to be a major issue.

“There have been superficial efforts [by hockey associations] I think, but I don't know how much better it's getting,” said Srinivasan. “As a kid I didn’t even realize, from a class analysis, why I was able to play hockey and a lot of my Indian friends couldn't. It becomes expensive, it becomes harder for People of Colour and for people who aren't financially well-off to afford it.”

“People think racism in hockey begins and ends with Don Cherry sometimes. I hope [my book] helps people make the connection, how hockey plays such a huge part of Canadian life, and that there’s racism embedded within it.” – Arun Srinivasan

The NHL has also been criticized for its inability to spark change, or incite players and fans alike to be more aware of the current state of hockey culture. Srinivasan believes the league needs to be a bigger ambassador for change.

“‘Hockey is for everyone’ is nonsense, they run out all these diversity initiatives and never follow up on them. Some teams should get some credit, but [generally] the NHL has implemented policy initiatives and has refused to act on their own initiatives. And they wonder why people are pissed off and don’t believe them.”

Unhappy with the NHL’s inability to take a stand and fight against racial injustices, San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane, former NHLer Akim Aliu, and several other players have formed a player’s association called the Hockey Diversity Alliance. Their purpose is to “eradicate systemic racism and intolerance in hockey.”

“I think the Hockey Diversity Alliance is a really good force for change. They called the NHL out, they called them ‘performative’,” said Srinivasan. “Hockey is a great sport but the culture is terrible. Why can't we try to improve it, and why is that seen as such an attack?”

Matt Dumba, a defenseman for the Minnesota Wild, received a lot of backlash for kneeling during the national anthem this past summer. Dumba, who is also a member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, did so to inspire change and stand against racial injustice.

“I hope for more allies and for more white players to stand up for their teammates, stand up to racism and injustices,” said Srinivasan. “I can't imagine how lonely that feeling must have been for Matt Dumba and for other players getting very tepid support from their teammates. I can only imagine how heartbreaking that must have been.”

Arun Srinivasan expects to have his book on the history of racism in hockey in Canada completed by Spring 2023. He hopes his work will incite change and shed light on past wrongdoings and the continued effects of systemic racism on the sport today.

 “I am just one guy doing a small part in this huge fight against systemic racism.”