Icing racism in hockey: Players speak out

From junior teams to the NHL, aboriginal hockey players say they've encountered racism on and off the ice.

'I need to speak out, and for them to understand how hurtful it is,' NHLer Jordin Tootoo says

Icing racism in hockey: Players speak out. CBC's Gosia Sawicka reports.

8 years ago
Duration 2:18
For years, Tyler Woodhouse has heard the remarks, and every time he does, it hurts.

For years, Tyler Woodhouse has heard the remarks, and every time he does, it hurts.

"We get a lot of comments like, 'You don't belong here, dirty Indians.' A lot of things like that. It leads to more and more," he said.

Woodhouse, 19, plays centre for the Peguis Junior B hockey team, an aboriginal team based on the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, but he's also played on a lot of non-aboriginal teams through the years.

Woodhouse has played on both First Nations and non-aboriginal hockey teams over the years, but he says he hears racial slurs no matter what team he's with. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)
No matter what the team, when the stakes and emotions are high, he hears racial slurs.

"It gets to them. It takes them off their game, which is what they want," he said. "I guess they consider that a strategy, and it's not only from the players. Also we get it from a lot of spectators, parents, from the other teams."

His face tightens and he chokes up as he talks about a hard-fought semifinal game in Brandon, Man.

"They won the game. At the time, the arena we were in, we had to walk out the same hallway, and there was a staircase above," he recalled.

"As we were walking out there, there were a lot of parents, spectators. We got some comments like, 'Go back to where you belong, you dirty Indians' and 'You don't belong here, go back to India,' and a lot of things like that."

'I experienced it last year'

It doesn't just happen at community rinks.

Jordin Tootoo, who is the first Inuk to play in the NHL, started playing hockey in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, and encountered racism early in his career.

Jordin Tootoo started playing hockey in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. He went on to become the first Inuk to play in the NHL. (Courtesy Jordin Tootoo)
"The first time I ever faced racism was when we went down south to play in a couple of native tournaments. The fans and the people away from the rink were calling us names," he recalled.

"I left home when I was 14 for good and I think that's when I really experienced racism. It wasn't easy being the only Inuk kid in the area and having a lot of other individuals being jealous of my success."

Tootoo played Bantam AA hockey in Alberta and Manitoba. He currently plays for the New Jersey Devils.

"I experienced it last year," he said about the season he was sent back to the American Hockey League.

"For me, having to play in the NHL for eight years and then having to go to the AHL, obviously every kid is going to want to challenge me, and they're going to do whatever it takes to fight Jordin Tootoo or get him off his game. And that's what it was."

Tootoo won't repeat what was said to him at the time, but he's finally speaking out on the issue. He's also included it in his recently published autobiography, All the Way: My Life on Ice, which was written with sports journalist Stephen Brunt.

"I'm not going to hold things in anymore. I can't. I need to speak out, and for them to understand how hurtful it is, especially at the professional level," he said.

Tootoo, right, with his wife. He's currently with the NHL's New Jersey Devils and has released an autobiography, All the Way: My Life on Ice, with sports journalist Stephen Brunt. (Marie Morrissey/CBC)
"After the third incident, the guy came to apologize to me and I told him right in his face, 'I don't need to hear this. I don't need no apology. Just go on your merry way. Just beat it.' And he turned around, buried his head and walked away. He felt shame. Which for me was,… 'now you know how it feels.' "

NHL players like Evander Kane of the Winnipeg Jets, Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers, Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals and P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens have all been the target of both overt and subtle racism.

Tootoo has spoken to the NHL about taking a zero-tolerance position on racist comments. He wants players to feel more comfortable about reporting them, and when they do, Tootoo says everyone has to take it seriously.

"It's got to be dealt with extremely high because if it slips once, it's going to happen again. You do it once, maybe you get a suspension," he said.

Tootoo hopes that approach filters down to the younger levels.

"It doesn't matter what skin colour you are. The game of hockey is a game that everyone should enjoy."

'Hockey is society'

Winnipeg author Don Marks has written two books about aboriginal athletes and the challenges they face.

In They Call Me Chief, he tells stories about native players like Fred Sasakamoose, the first Canadian aboriginal player in the NHL. He overcame the abuse of Canada's residential school system.

Don Marks, who has written two books about aboriginal athletes and the challenges they face, says he has seen and experienced discrimination when he played hockey. (Karen Pauls/CBC)
A hockey player himself, Marks said he has seen and experienced discrimination on the ice.

"Why are they [the other players] holding their sticks a little higher? Why is the referee calling the game a little tighter? All things equal, you got a white team and a native team [and they're] calling it against a native team. So is it racism or stereotyping? I don't know, but it causes problems."

Marks doesn't think things will change on the ice if they're not changing in society.

"In Canada hockey is society," he said.

Respect in sport

For its part, Hockey Canada says it is working hard to make hockey rinks more inclusive.

It's encouraging provinces to make it mandatory for parents to take its online Respect in Sport course before their children can enrol. Coaches already have to take it.

And although they're not common, referees can give a two-minute unsportsmanlike penalty or even suspensions for gross misconduct if they hear a racial slur or derogatory comment, said Paul Carson, Hockey Canada's vice-president.

"As the game becomes more and more diverse in terms of ethnic backgrounds coming to the sport of hockey, [it's] no different than coming into the school system that there needs to be an understanding of a broader range of acceptance. There's no question that's an important teaching point in society and in terms of sport," he said.

"It starts with parents and the role the parent plays in encouraging their child to play a fair and positive game. Then it goes to the coach, and the coach is responsible for that team environment."

Back on the Peguis First Nation, Tyler Woodhouse agrees.

"Nobody is born racist," he said. "It starts at home and it could be prevented from happening."