The guy was holding a megaphone.
From his seat in the stands of the Marcel-Bédard Arena in Beauport, Que., he was on my case and he was unloading on me. His insults were not about my hockey skills or my style of play. His screams were only about the colour of my skin, from the beginning to the end of the game — non-stop.
“Hey, monkey! … Africa sucks! ... Coach, you have 19 yellows and one negro on your bench!”
Sitting on the bench with my team — les Olympiques de Hull in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — I drew upon all my strength to remain completely impassive. None of my pain, my frustration or my anger would appear on my face.
I wanted to honour what my parents had always taught me at our home in Pierrefonds, Que. — never give oxygen to a coward. Do not allow him to breathe. If you act as he wants you to, you justify his purpose. Be proud of who you are. Do not let anyone walk over you. Do not let a weak person weaken you. Even as I was counting the steps separating me from the guy, and the time it would take me to get to him.
I’m not going to lie — I was close to tears. And the insults kept raining down. I was just 17 years old in the spring of 1995, still a child. It was my first season in junior hockey. That night, in our first game of the semifinal series, I had only one shift on the ice. So I was not a factor in the game.
I played hockey all my life — minor hockey in the West Island, junior hockey in Hull, and seven seasons in the NHL. But by the age of 10 or 12, my teammate Jason Doig — who is also a black man — and I had already heard whispers, uncool comments and questions, like “why don’t you play football or basketball instead of hockey?” You can also imagine that I heard all sorts of ignorant comments during my years in the NHL.
Playing on opposing rinks has always been difficult. Playing in Val-d'Or was difficult. Playing in Chicoutimi was difficult. Playing in Laval was difficult. Over the years, people have shouted racist insults at me. Thrown bananas at me during a game. But that evening in Beauport, I will never forget.
That was the night that I endured the most pain. It was probably my most difficult moment ever emotionally. Other incidents were usually the work of a single idiot. Someone would put a stop to it and we all moved on quickly. But this time was different. It felt like the 1950s. While I was motionless on the bench, thoughts jostled in my head. I could not understand, first of all, why no security guard was doing anything.
Why did many other spectators, instead of condemning the behaviour of this oddball, choose to laugh and encourage him Why did they side with him? Most of all, I wondered what the captain of the opposing team, Ian McIntyre, was thinking on the bench across from ours. He could hear the racist cries of the Harfangs’ fans.
Ian is black.
How did I overcome that evening? The answer is crystal clear in my head: it was thanks to the people around me. On the bench, I felt that my teammates were as insulted as I was. When the spectators shouted at me, they shouted at us. I felt it. I remember feeling the encouraging pats on the back from our head coach, Robert Mongrain, who told me I would come out of it stronger. I remember after the bitter defeat, on the bus back home, the guys were not just sorry to have lost. They were outraged, stung by what they had heard.
I remember the moment on the rink at practice the next day, when Claude Julien, who was an assistant coach, took me aside. He asked me how I was doing, how I felt after all that. He also told me how much it had affected him. To his credit, he didn’t serve up the old “I know how you feel.” He knew he could not really know how I felt. But he also knew that his player was hurting. So he allowed me to say what I had to say, and gave me some tips to help me channel my emotions.
They were all extraordinary. Without Colin White, without Gordie Dwyer, without Harold Hersch, without Jean-Guy Trudel, without Jamie Bird and all the others, I do not know if I would have gone through it. Without them, without Robert, without Claude, without our general manager Charlie Henry, I do not know what trajectory I might have taken.
I had experienced this kind of unity years before, in minor hockey, with the North Shore Pirates. Our backup goalie was a girl named Charlotte. It was clear in everyone's minds: we were family, with all the squabbling and tussling. We supported each other. Always. We did not allow anyone to belittle one of ours.
I will always be grateful to our coach at the time, Ron Stevenson. He was a former police officer who had coached Mario Lemieux and Pierre Turgeon before moving to the West Island. For him, it made no difference if you were black, white, Jewish, or female. We were all playing the best sport in the world, and that was all that mattered.
Years later, my Hull teammates and coaches understood how badly I had been hurt in Beauport, and although that incident distracted us during the game, it was also a turning point, a unifying, galvanizing force.
We won the next four games and eliminated the Harfangs.
I think it was my third game in the NHL with the Florida Panthers; there was this incident with Washington Capitals forward Craig Berube, who called me “monkey.” The story made a stir at the time.
Even before the dust settled, Craig made an effort: he called me. He just realized that, shit, he did something disrespectful and wrong, and he had to apologize. So in my eyes, that file was closed on the spot. We are human. We make mistakes. I will not pretend that in my interactions with other players on the ice I have made only nice and positive comments to them.
We have all said things we regretted afterwards. It's normal. It's human.
But a good person, an honourable person, will admit his mistakes and try to correct them. Craig did it the next day. To me, the whole thing even became a positive life lesson for me, for him or for anyone. So I always had the greatest respect for him when we faced each other afterwards.
I have made mistakes and I have faced the music. I did it, I apologized to my teammates and relatives, I served my sentence and I tried harder to be an exemplary citizen.
Taking a stand
Not so long ago, professional athletes were scolded for their lack of involvement in social causes. “Millionaires who think only about their market value,” was a common complaint when I was playing.
Then came Colin Kaepernick.
I fully understand that some people may have been offended the first time the San Francisco quarterback took a knee during the U.S. national anthem. Even I wondered what was happening. What I find disappointing is how many are still not listening to what the movement has been trying to say. Or they are willfully ignoring it.
All Kaepernick and his supporters are saying is that there is a problem. It’s a racial problem, which black and Hispanic communities have endured for too long. They have been denouncing the racism for decades in various ways, through cinema or music or pop culture, and now through sports too. The message is that people of colour are overrepresented in American jails. They serve longer sentences than whites who have committed similar crimes. Policies need to be put in place to tackle the problems.
Things must change.
So, far from acting like selfish millionaires, Kaepernick and others who follow his approach take us back to the days of Muhammad Ali, to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. These athletes stood up for a cause greater than themselves. They were willing to pay the price.
It took courage for Kaepernick to do what he did. I probably would not have done it myself. But I respect his decision, his gesture. He did not start a riot. He did not plant a bomb. He protested peacefully against what he considers to be an injustice.
Despite the controversy it has provoked, I believe this new wave of protest has opened many eyes in the United States, where I have been living for the last 20 years.
The world is changing. Slowly. Minimally. But it is changing in the right direction. Of course, there was Charlottesville, Va., — a slap in the face.
But in the last 12 years, I've been a high school hockey coach here in the U.S. And I can say that this generation, said to be less tough than the ones before, is in many respects much better than us. Their way of talking to each other, how they treat one another, how they live together. So many things that were not done in my youth aren’t taboo anymore.
I know nothing is perfect. There is still a lot of work to do. I do not see the world through rose-coloured glasses. But every day, this generation does something that gives me hope, and tells me that we are on the right track. Women and #MeToo and #TimesUp. The rights of the LGBTQ2 community. These are powerful movements. Young people understand that.
There will always be division. It's human nature. We still see, every day, things that shock us. But we also see people, ordinary and real, rising to denounce and protest. I'm looking at Hayley Wickenheiser, recently hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and I find that extraordinary. We recognize today that she was a great hockey player, period.
A few years ago, many would have questioned a female coach in the NBA. Today, the San Antonio Spurs’ players do not hesitate to say how much Becky Hammon, an assistant coach since 2014, makes them better. Yes, things are changing.
My house in Florida is located two minutes from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a mass shooting took place last February. Seventeen people died. I trained there in the summers during my years as a player. The school team was our main opponent when I became a high school coach.
To see how their football, baseball and hockey teams have recovered from the tragedy; to see those young people get up and add their voices to the political discourse; to see them encourage young Americans to vote; this generation is motivated, passionate and concerned about the fate of others.
They will make the world a better place. That's what I believe. That's what I hope for.
The hurt remains
More than 20 years after the Beauport incident, it still hurts me to think about it. I was so proud to be a member of the Hull Olympiques. At 17 years old, we were just a bundle of emotions. I was trying to find my place, to identify my role. You can be a player in the QMJHL one day and out of the league the next. All this is so fragile.
When I was in high school, I took a course in black history. Reading about Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali made a deep impression. They were in my mind that night, on the players’ bench.
But thanks to my teammates, I realized that I could not let that incident spoil my love of hockey. I could not. So I stashed the experience. I have never forgotten it, but I have tried to move on, to become a better person, and to remind myself that the vast majority of people are not like the megaphone man.
And indeed, the majority of human beings I have encountered so far in my life have been good to me and treated me with respect.
The others, I firmly believe, are on the brink of extinction.
(Editor's note: This POV was written for Radio-Canada and has been translated from the original French)
(All large photos by Getty Images)