The staff at MTS Centre in Winnipeg will be on the lookout for fake headdresses as they let fans in for the hockey game tonight between the Winnipeg Jets and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Headdresses are not banned, but if someone arrives wearing one, "We would have a conversation with them and we would make them fully aware of the ramifications of wearing that and the cultural ramifications of it," said Scott Brown, senior director of corporate communications for True North Sports and Entertainment, the Jets owner.
This past spring when the Jets last faced the Chicago team in Winnipeg, a Blackhawks fan sported a fake headdress in the stands. Jordan Wheeler, a longtime Winnipeg Jets fan and season ticket holder, filed a complaint with the Jets owner, True North Sports and Entertainment. He wanted the team to ban headdresses at hockey games.
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Brown said that after much research, True North has decided not to ban headdresses to sporting events at the MTS Centre. Instead, staff will deal with the situation "on a case by case basis … rather than come down with one blanket policy."
"Once you make a policy or whatever it could have far reaching effects which you may not be aware of at the time you make the policy," Brown said.
'Disappointing,' says Wheeler
Wheeler isn't impressed with the way True North has decided to handle the issue.
"It's disappointing. But I suppose, even if they don't want to get into the controversial subject of mascots and co-opting indigenous symbols, at the very least they should respect the people that sit behind the guy," Wheeler said.
True North does have a policy restricting certain helmets and headgear that could obstruct the view of patrons. But Wheeler wants to know where arena staff draw the line.
"Are they going to have a ruler? A tape measure? Is there some sort of height limit to it?" he said.
Wheeler will be at the MTS Centre watching the Jets take on the Blackhawks for the first time since the headdress incident.
"It was a huge distraction last year, and so I will do whatever I can to not make it a distraction this time. But I do really hope that somebody else picks up the torch and makes a statement about it," Wheeler said.
A headdress is sacred to First Nations, worn by chiefs or those who have earned the right to do so.
Wheeler, who's Cree from the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, says no one — whether First Nations or not — should be allowed to wear a headdress to a hockey game, especially while carrying beer.
The fan wearing the headdress at the game was also First Nations.
"One of our own could be involved in perpetuating stereotypes and doing some harm," Wheeler said.
"I think that sends the wrong message to the general public, saying that this kind of behaviour is OK."
He understands not everyone will have the same views as him. In the last seven months, Wheeler has been accused of perpetuating lateral violence against his own people.
"I suppose on some level it is … but I think he did that himself [by] holding a beer and wearing a headdress on national TV," said Wheeler.
"So if he is prepared to put himself out there in that regard, then he's got to accept that target that he inflicts upon himself."
No NHL precedent
The Jets say the decision not to ban fake headdresses at the MTS Centre was made after consulting other teams.
"It's something that we've had conversations about since then and had conversations with other arenas," Brown said.
"After that night we've discovered that no other arena in the National Hockey League has a policy which would ban something like the headdress," Brown said.
Spokespersons for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames confirmed they have no policy around the issue, nor have any similar incidents been reported at the Air Canada Centre or the Saddledome when the Blackhawks were in town.
The Chicago Blackhawks have not yet responded to CBC requests for comment.
In the past year, three established Canadian music festivals have banned headdresses from their events, including the Osheaga music festival in Montreal, the Edmonton Folk Festival and B.C.'s Bass Coast festival.