Hockey and multiculturalism are two of Canada’s most defining qualities, but a new study shows discrimination and a lack of diversity within the sport creates a tension between the two.
Changing on the Fly, conducted and written by North Delta Secondary graduate and recent SFU PhD recipient Courtney Szto, looks at the experiences and relationship the South Asian community has with ice hockey.
Szto got the idea for the study when the NHL came out with their Hockey is for Everyone campaign. It evoked a memory of her time working at Sport Chek, when a young boy of South Asian descent came in to get hockey equipment and his turban didn’t allow it to fit safely.
In the course of her study, Szto talked to South Asian players, parents and coaches to see what she could learn about the discrimination that community faces in the sport. (In the study, South Asians are defined as people with ancestry from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Fiji and East Africa.)
What she found was South Asians within the sport consistently faced discrimination in the form of racism.
“Just hearing they get called things like the ‘n-word’ on the ice, is always kind of shocking to the Canadian psyche, because you’re like, ‘oh this is not the stories we talk about’ and we expect Canadians to be better than this,” Szto explained. “To hear it from people and how consistent everybody’s story was, was quite troubling.”
What was even more surprising for Szto was how many of the South Asian players considered racial slurs from the opposing team “fair game” — meaning in an in-game situation, players should do what’s necessary to gain a strategic advantage over the opposition.
“It was just weird to make sense of that. One would think that whenever we call anybody the ‘n-word,’ that’s pretty clear-cut racism,” Szto said. “But when it takes place on the ice in that context, the assumption was ‘well other teams are supposed to hate us, they’re supposed to get us off our game, and anything they do is technically is fair game.’”
According to Jeff Wales, president of the North Delta Minor Hockey Association, players will inform the association that something discriminatory was said, but would rather forget about it and not go further with the complaint.
“It’s not the part they like, but I think for most people to be able to go out and enjoy hockey and enjoy playing, they’re willing to put up with that,” Wales said. “I think the frame of mind a lot of people come to it with is ‘I don’t like it, but I’ll put up with it because I enjoy playing hockey.’
“They don’t think about it as being so bad [that] they don’t want to play at all. They would rather play and put up with it a bit.”
According to the players interviewed in the study, where fair game chirping becomes an act of racism is when it happens in the locker room or outside the rink, or if a teammate or coach treats them different based on their race.
As the discrimination in hockey continues, many South Asian hockey parents are creating their own training programs, allowing their kids to train in a environment where they wouldn’t have to face these issues.
“It’s a pretty interesting development and I’m not really sure what’s going to happen in the next years. It’s something we need to keep an eye on, because it looks like self-segregation, right?” Szto questioned. “You’re creating your own little pod of players, but it’s because they’re not getting a fair shot in the mainstream system.”
Though South Asian players in house-league ice hockey are roughly on par with white hockey players, Szto said, when South Asian players want to play more competitive hockey, opportunities become limited.
Among the 26 subjects who were part of the study, seven played elite level hockey. Those seven felt they received fewer opportunities and less recognition despite their high performance and stat output.
In the study, Szto notes that only three per cent of the 700 players in the NHL during the 2016/17 season “identified as racialized.” A similar ratio exists among what Szto terms the “gatekeepers” of the sport: only five out of 315 NHL coaches and three out of 524 NHL scouts that season identified as racialized.
What’s more, Szto writes, “there has never been a racialized general manager or team owner in the history of the NHL.”
Coaches and scouts hold a lot of power in hockey. Coaches choose how much ice time a player gets, which dictates their opportunities to shine. Scouts can choose which players get to advance through the hockey system.
“The vast majority of coaches and scouts are former players, meaning that the role of gate keeping is noticeably more racially similar than the player pool,” Szto’s study says.
Ravi Kahlon, Delta North MLA and parliamentary secretary for sport and multiculturalism, is concerned but not surprised by the study’s findings.
Kahlon, who is of South Asian descent and a two-time Olympian with Canada’s men’s field hockey team, grew up wanting to play ice hockey, though his parents, like many immigrant families, couldn’t afford the cost of enrollment.
“If you’re a new immigrant and you don’t have those financial supports or family supports, your life as an amateur athlete is much shorter because you’re faced with the reality that you need to get back to work and create a life in this country, and you’re already starting from way behind,” Khalon said.
According to Kahlon, many South Asians gravitate towards hockey, despite coming from countries where hockey is perhaps less well-known. Just last month, for example, the Vancouver Canucks held there first ever South Asian Night, which highlighted contributions the South Asian community has given the game of hockey. The CBC, meanwhile, has broadcast Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi since 2008.
Kahlon added, however, that Hockey Canada needs to work to make the sport more financially accessible and encourage more diversity within the ice hockey community.
“Our diversity is actually our strength, right? So if you’ve got a whole swath of your population not able to participate in high-performance [sport] or being discriminated from participating at a high-performance level, then you’re not as good as you can be in sport and you lose kids,” he said.
Currently, Hockey Canada doesn’t track how many South Asians (or people of any race, for that matter) play hockey in Canada. In the study, Szto recommends the organization start gathering more demographic data and create anti-racism workshops for player, parents and coaches. For the latter, Szto suggests incorporating the workshops into the coaching certification process.
Szto also recommends creating an external human rights agency focused on addressing issues such as racism, sexism, sexual harassment/assault, homophobia, transphobia, and disability injustice within the sport as a way to ensure players, parents and coaches feel safe bringing forward grievances.
Changing on the Fly includes a number of other recommendation to make hockey “an equitable game where everyone is equally respected from the moment they step through the rink doors,” including enhance financial support for ethnic sports media, starting and supporting “do-it-yourself institutions” that celebrate racialized Canadians and their contributions to the sport, and the creation of an “Ice Breakers” section at the Hockey Hall of Fame to “ensure that various forms of diversity are permanently on display as part of hockey’s overall narrative.”
“It’s a conversation we need to start having,” Szto said. “We’ve tried the option of not talking about it and hoping that more diversity in hockey will kind of fix itself.”
“I think we’re at the point where we need to actively start doing something about it, if we want to be that Canada that we promote to the world.”