The Seth Jones Draft – Part 1: The Stereotype

Hockey, No Class Friday — By on June 24, 2013 at 12:25 am

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.

Dillon Friday

Philadelphia born. Raised in God's country aka Duluth, Minnesota. Give me a frozen pond and an open pitch and I'll be happy. Follow me on twitter @noclassfriday

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  • I completely agree that, now more than ever, with stars of all backgrounds in the NHL, hockey is indeed for everyone. But really, if you want to be a fan of hockey you can’t go to ESPN for it anymore at all. They don’t broadcast it, therefore they don’t give a shit about it. So in turn, fans shouldn’t give a shit what idiotic or stereotypical things ESPN says about hockey.

    I think any sports fan with a brain between his or her ears realizes completely what ESPN is now at this point – a place to stir up stories and controversy, not a place to go for informed opinion.

    This is an intelligent conversation that needs to be made, no question, but when’s the last time ESPN had an intelligent conversation on anything in the SportsCenter realm?

  • DB says:

    You are going to make me go and break out my O’Ree throwback.

    I blame the NHL for doing a terrible job of promoting their players, especially the black ones. You can get on certain ESPN personalities for not knowing more about the sport, but the NHL should be out there trying to force this country to know about its athletes.

    As for the draft, who do you think will be a better pro – Donovan McNabb or Darnell Nurse? Am I the only person who would laugh if the Flyers drafted Nurse? According to all of the mock drafts I have seen, he will not last that long but I wonder would Philly fans boo him well, just because.

    • Oh, they will boo, and boo vociferously.

      • Only because of the McNabb name, though. Not because he’s black. Wayne Simmonds and Donald Brashear are/were fans favorites here. Oddly enough, in a city with plenty of racism, Philadelphia Flyers fans don’t seem to be too racist … though that shirt is pretty indefensible.

    • Dillon Friday says:

      I agree that the NHL needs to do a better job of marketing its black players if it truly wants to grow the game. I know Simmonds is involved heavily in bringing the game to the inner city here in Philly, but that’s on a local level.
      As far as Don’s nephew, it’ll be a nice storyline and nothing more if he comes here. Given that the draft is in Newark, there should be a decent Flyers fan contingent there. It’s something worth watching.

      If you want the most shameless promotion of a black player check out ESPN’s The Season: Colorado Avalanche from 03-04. The producers make Peter Worrell seem like a budding star.

      • I actually kinda disagree. Trust me, when Seth Jones hits the league and proves to the world he is indeed what that is, the marketing will be above and beyond for him as a “black” player.

        However, just like the NBA trying to force market themselves to older white folk, the NHL would be well served to continue investing in their product. Making sure that all their games are available via digital stream, making sure that all coverage (ie. blog) is accommodated, and making sure that their players are made accessible at all times.


        • Dillon Friday says:

          That’s an advantage they have as a smaller league at least media wise than the others. They can get really personal a la HBO 24/7. Good point Ed.

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