Keyshawn Johnson sat idly by like a fourth grader who hadn’t done his homework. He crossed his arms and smiled politely with a look that screamed, “Please don’t call on me.”
Next to Johnson were Barry Melrose and a male SportsCenter anchor in the midst of a discussion on the previous night’s NHL action. The conversation died down, and the anchor noticed Johnson’s conspicuous silence.
“Key,” he asked with a chuckle, “anything to add?”
Johnson stretched out three fingers on his left hand and counted them off with his right. “Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby … that’s all I got.”
In March, the question of the day finally made its way to Stephen A. Smith. “Whose streak is more impressive? The Miami Heat’s or the Chicago Blackhawks’?” Miami if you remember was in the middle of a 27 game winning streak. The Blackhawks had begun their season on a 24-game regulation unbeaten streak, which included overtime and shootout losses.
Stephen A. gave an audible, dismissive puff that he’s mastered over the years before launching into a overly syllabic diatribe on the question at hand. The Blackhawks? Please. According to Smith, their streak was only sustained because hockey has ties whereas Miami had won all of its games. Chicago’s most recent win at the time had come against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that Stephen A. asserted he had no idea existed.
Both incidents, although they came years apart, perpetuate the stereotype that blacks and hockey simply do not mix. It’s the equivalent of white men can’t jump, dance, sing, etc. — the one society accepts for the sake of humor.
Keyshawn might really only know three hockey players. After all, he grew up in Southern California and played his college ball at USC. But over years in professional sports both as an athlete and an analyst at the World Wide Leader, one would think he’d accrue some hockey knowledge. That’s not his role in that situation though. The anchor was looking to make a joke at Key’s expense, and Johnson obliged. He played into the stereotype because the timing called for it. Everyone laughs, screen fades to black and we’re on to the next topic.
Stephen A.’s ignorance is inexcusable. The anchor in some ways forced Johnson to uphold the stereotype. Smith, on the other hand, reinforced it. For better or worse he speaks as a black commentator for a black audience. When Stephen A. dismisses hockey, at the risk of hyperbole here, it’s as if his entire culture scoffs at the game.
Moreover, Smith grew up and works in a media market that supports not one but three NHL teams. The league rid itself of ties eight years ago. The Columbus Blue Jackets began play in the year 2000. Maybe he really didn’t know.
Hockey has long been played by an overwhelmingly white population. Baseball, basketball and football had stars both black and white from the dawns of each sport. For far too long racism tainted the early days of the games.
Hockey, it seems, never really faced that problem for lack of a better word. Instead its own Jackie Robinson, the Boston Bruins Willie O’Ree, broke the so-called color barrier to very little fanfare. He took the ice in 1957 for the first two games of what would be a 45-game career. O’Ree scored four goals and totaled 14 points over parts of two seasons. He is remembered fondly for his class (our own Jason Clinkscales calls O’Ree his favorite interview) and willingness to spread hockey to the African-American community. But O’Ree is hardly a legend, although he was nearly a point-per-game player in the minors, and there’s something refreshing about that. He was a hockey player trying to make an honest living.
And it’s not just O’Ree. Name the NHL’s first black entrant into the Hockey Hall of Fame. You can’t, can you? Now name the goalie who backstopped the Edmonton Oilers to five Stanley Cups in the 1980s. Grant Fuhr jumps off the tongue immediately. Race becomes secondary.
This isn’t to say hockey is completely free of racism though because it’s not. The abuse the Washington Capitals Joel Ward received after eliminating the Bruins in overtime made my stomach churn. The advent of Twitter gave voice to thousands of idiots, but still the hate was real.
In a preseason game in 2011-2012, a fan threw a banana at the Philadelphia Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds prior to a shootout attempt. I’ve personally witnessed hateful use of the n word (is there any other use?) in locker rooms growing up.
For the most part these incidents have been few and far between. Hockey is as rich as it has ever been with young, black stars, including Simmonds in Philadelphia, Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban in Montreal, Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien in Winnipeg, Chris Stewart in St. Louis, Kyle Okposo in New York, and Emerson Etem in Anaheim.
Yet the stereotype still lives as Stephen A. Smith showed in March. As long as people accept it or laugh, it will continue. Chris Rock’s Caretaker laments the lack of “brothers” in “The Longest Yard” saying, “This ain’t hockey!” and we howl. Lil’ Wayne drops the line “put a m’f’er on ice like the Maple Leafs/that’s a hockey team and I ain’t know no hockey teams,” and we admire Weezy’s cleverness. Philadelphia vendors stick Simmonds’ number 17 on the back of t-shirts under a “The Black Guy” name plate and watch the clothing fly off the shelves.
In less than a week Seth Jones will become the first African-American to be drafted first overall into the NHL. Through his presence alone, Jones will introduce the wonderful sport to a demographic that’s long felt shunned by a tired stereotype. It’s long past due. Hockey is for everybody, truer now than ever.