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Sports Authority

Kramer: Hockey fans, start cheering for P. K. Subban

| Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Growing up in the State of Hockey, I remember making countless commutes to small towns scattered aimlessly across Minnesota. Venturing outside the Twin Cities alongside a busload of suburban high school kids, I always considered the pilgrimage to every corner of the state to be one of the highlights of my season.

A particular night in Chisago Lakes, a northern community notorious for their team of bruisers, immediately comes to mind. The entire town’s population filled the bleachers for the annual showdown against the privileged opponents from the Twin Cities; they clung to the outdated bleachers, shivering in what resembled more of a frozen tin can than an ice center.

Closing the Zamboni doors with a definitive crash, the ice management crew waved in the hometown boys from the locker room. “Enter Sandman” swelled. The fans met the earliest players with cordial hoots and hollers. A crucial piece of the Chisago Lakes community still felt painfully absent, however, as fans and players alike turned to face their gate and awaited the local hero.

A wild uproar erupted as the hometown captain, the only black varsity hockey player in the conference, sprinted to the bench.

From shift to shift, spectators from both teams supported him with a chorus of passion that any fan section in the United Center would envy. The respect for his talent transcended opponent lines; the rivalry simply never mattered, for everyone understood the rarity of what they saw. Everyone recognized that no matter the outcome, they saw a glimmer of hope in a local black hero, dominating in a sport that has felt unbearably white for far too long.

Now retired, I no longer see the electricity of that night in Chisago Lakes as I follow the NHL, especially considering its demographic. I watch as 31 executive office staffs hire and promote white candidate after white candidate for head coach and general manager roles. Even in associate positions and behind the bench, only a handful of exceptions arose in the past three seasons. The player population fares no better, as black players represent a small percent of the NHL body.

In a sea of white, figures like New Jersey Devils defenseman P. K. Subban act as punching bags for (also predominantly white) mainstream media sources across the country. Fans on social media oftentimes look beyond Subban’s consistency as an elite defenseman and instead point to his “excessive” celebrations. They minimize his fundraising for the Montreal Children’s Hospital but demonize him for his “diva” persona on and off the ice. They stay silent about his provision of Nashville Predators tickets to underprivileged kids but scream about his arrogance. From a TSN analyst telling Subban to play hockey “the white way” to Capitals coach Adam Oates claiming he disrespects the league, the tendency for the NHL community to use a double standard of scrutiny is appalling.

Granted, it goes without saying that the days of Jackie Robinson and Jack Johnson are over. Certainly all levels of hockey invite any player without barriers to entry, and certainly the lack of diversity in the league depends, at least at some level, on the disinterest of blacks to participate in the first place. Professional football and basketball leagues simply attract a higher percentage of black Americans.

Regardless of the progress in major sports leagues, systematic forces of racism outside the league makes black NHL players like P. K. Subban in dire need of fan support. The American socioeconomic divide between whites and minorities means lower wages and less financing for extracurriculars in black households. Full sets of hockey equipment and rising participation fees make ice time an expensive investment. Without economic equality, most blacks are sidelined.

Perhaps the problem is regional. In the Midwest, the hub of American hockey, blacks occupy 10% of the population, a 3% from the national average.

However, no statistic can justify the heart of the matter. No fact or figure can dismiss the criticism that black players like Subban face as they commit to a sport whose demographic makes them feel out of place. No massive contract or Norris Trophy win can make black players feel like they belong. Only the fans can do that.

Now more than ever, hockey needs to change, not only from the ground up but also from the outside in. Trailblazers like P. K. Subban only make real steps toward equality in major sports if all of us stop scrutinizing and start cheering.

Even you, Chisago Lakes.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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