What Karl Subban and Elijah Roberts say about racism in the Ontario Hockey League

Just a few days after an ugly, racist incident at a semi-pro hockey game in Quebec, Matt Cullen of CBC Sports spoke with Karl Subban, father of NHL players P.K. and Malcolm Subban, as well as Elijah Roberts of the Niagara Ice Dogs about racism in the Ontario Hockey League.

P.K. 'is more than the colour of his skin' - Karl Subban

Karl Subban, the father of two NHL players, and Elijah Roberts of the Niagara IceDogs talk with the CBC's Matt Cullen about racism in hockey. (Photos: Henry Guo/Penguin Random House Canada and Getty Images)

Jonathan Diaby is a 24-year-old hockey player from Blainville, Quebec. When his dad was told at a hockey game, by fellow Quebecers, to go back home, that he has — "no business in this country" — Diaby got angry. 

He said during the game, that he and his family members were called the N-word… and compared to baboons. All this happened Saturday night – hockey night – in St. Jerome Quebec where his team played against the hometown Pétroliers du Nord on the last Saturday in February, Black History Month.

For first time, the NHL celebrated Black History Month as part of its 'Hockey Is for Everyone Campaign.' Cullen, a reporter for CBC Sports who also provides commentary for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads, spoke with the CBC's Conrad Collaco about what racism looks like in the Ontario Hockey League.

You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above.

Matt Cullen, CBC Sports 

Matt Cullen is a reporter for CBC Sports and is also a play-by-play commentator for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads. (CBC Sports)

The Ontario Hockey League did not have a specific celebration for Black History Month. What effect has the decision by the NHL to recognize Black History Month had on the OHL?

All through February the NHL featured milestone accomplishments by black hockey players from the first ever player of colour in the NHL, Willie O'Ree, to P.K. Subban, star defenceman for the Nashville Predators and his brother Malcolm, a goaltender for the Vegas Golden Knights. This has had a big effect on the next generation. Some of that next generation is playing in the OHL. I reached out to Niagara IceDogs defenceman Elijah Roberts. He's 20-years-old. He has a particular connection with P.K. Subban, who used to play in the OHL with the Belleville Bulls. When Elijah was much younger he went to a Bulls game and talked to Subban after the game. The two talked about being players of colour growing up playing minor hockey in Ontario. Roberts says the challenges he talked about with Subban all those years ago are still there.

Just a few days after an ugly, racist incident at a semi-pro hockey game in Quebec, Matt Cullen of CBC Sports spoke with Karl Subban, father of NHL players P.K. and Malcolm Subban, as well as Elijah Roberts of the Niagara Ice Dogs about racism in the Ontario Hockey League. 8:03
 
 A lot of the teams I've been on I've been one of the only black players on the team. Even that, in itself, is a little different. I've kind of grown up learning how to handle that.- Elijah Roberts, Niagara IceDogs
He says there a lot more players of colour now playing hockey in this province. He credits players like Subban for that. He's looking to start a podcast with one of his teammates, Akil Thomas, about what it's like being a black hockey player in the OHL. 
Elijah Roberts of the Niagara Ice Dogs says that while he has faced racism as a hockey player he gets support from his teammates. 0:28

How do players like Roberts and Subban deal with racism like what happened in Quebec?

I asked myself the same question. Who would have the best perspective on this? Who would have seen it all? The answer, in my mind, is Karl Subban, P.K.'s father. In 2017, he co-authored a book about what he and his children experienced. Karl and his parents moved to Sudbury from Jamaica. 

Subban said he got a certain mentality from his parents. He never wanted the colour of his skin to be the reason he didn't find success. Yes, there were some difficult moments for him and his children growing up playing hockey in this country. Even now there aren't many black hockey players in the sport.
Karl Subban, father to two NHL players offers advice to young hockey players on what it takes to make it to the National Hockey League. 0:37
Someone had called P.K. the N-word on the ice — I was in the dressing room — and he came out crying. We had a conversation that, you know what, there's nothing to cry about... He is more than the colour of his skin. - Karl  Subban , hockey dad

He said that through hockey P.K. really discovered who he is particularly in that moment. Karl says that he and his children learned many life lessons through hockey.

There are more players of colour playing minor and junior hockey in Ontario, just like Elijah. What does that say about the way that minor hockey and junior hockey in Ontario is changing?

It means that hockey is opening its doors and is part of that culture change. Karl said that when he came to Canada from Jamaica playing hockey helped him adapt. It really helped him understand this country. It helped people understand him. Karl said he hopes many new Canadians will take up hockey like his children did when they were much younger. 

Maybe people say your skating is not good enough or your shot is not good enough. You have that thing inside of you called potential. It will make you good enough one day. You've just got to continue to do enough work.  - Karl Subban

Elijah is now one of the veterans on the team. He's now looking to take the next step in his hockey career just like P.K. did when he jumped from junior to the Montreal Canadiens. Karl, with two sons in the NHL, has a word of advice for Elijah. 

And that is a message that goes well beyond the boards of a simple hockey rink.

Karl Subban , father of two NHL players, talks about the message he gave his son P.K. about dealing with racism as a young player. 0:43

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