The Current

Confront racism when you see it in hockey, says Karl Subban

Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters faces allegations he used racial slurs against a player. As players speak out, we talk to three people close to hockey in Canada, who take us inside the locker room.

Subban glad that another parent intervened when P.K. Subban encountered racism

Karl Subban, centre, with his sons P.K. Subban, right, Malcolm Subban, left, at an NHL game in Nashville, Tenn. in 2017. (John Russell / NHLI via Getty Images)

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Karl Subban says he was hurt by allegations that Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters had used racial slurs against a player in the locker room.

"What a coach says to his or her players matters," said Subban, whose sons P.K. and Malcolm are in the NHL, while his son Jordan plays for a team in Europe.

Subban told The Current's Laura Lynch that "whether they're in the classroom or in the dressing room, we want our children to be safe ... not only about their physical safety, but also that they're mentally safe." 

On Monday, NHL player Akim Aliu tweeted that Peters directed racial slurs towards him in a locker room 10 years ago in the minors. Aliu alleged the coach "dropped the N bomb several times ... because he didn't like my choice of music."

The accusation was backed up by other players, and followed by allegations from other players that Peters was physically abusive towards them when he was coach of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Bill Peters, who was not behind the bench when the Calgary Flames faced the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night, has released a statement in which he apologizes to the Flames' organization for 'offensive language.' (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Peters issued an apology Wednesday, saying the remarks were "made in a moment of frustration."

"Although it was an isolated and immediately regrettable incident, I take responsibility for what I said," the statement read.

However, the apology did not address or mention Aliu, who tweeted Thursday that he found Peters's statement to be "misleading, insincere and concerning." He said he would meet with NHL bosses to discuss the issue.

Subban said the incident reminded him of an experience faced by his own son, hockey superstar P.K. Subban.

"It was a situation involving P.K. in another city around Toronto," said Subban, the co-author of How We Did It: The Subban Plan for Success in Hockey, School and Life.

Subban didn't hear what was said, but the father of another player did, and intervened.

"To this day I ask him every time I see him, and he will not share it — what was said. But the important thing is that he did something," he told Lynch.

"When we hear something, we need to do something or tell someone. And we need to work at erasing that fear, because that fear is a powerful, powerful thing."

'We're trying to change a culture'

Fear is what stops people from speaking out against abuse they might witness, said former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy. 

"That's really what we're trying to change, we're trying to change a culture," he told Lynch.

In the late 1990s, Kennedy was the first to go public about sexual abuse he suffered from coach Graham James, who has been convicted of abusing multiple victims.

Sheldon Kennedy said efforts to make hockey more inclusive 'cannot be just the words and fancy posters.' (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Kennedy said some initiatives are doing good work, such as the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone campaign, which aims to drive social change and foster more inclusive communities.

But he said "this cannot be just the words and fancy posters and buttons and websites that says hockey is for everyone."

"We have to be prepared to make sure that we're walking the walk, every step of the way."

We have not done the hard work to make the space inclusive.- Courtney Szto

Courtney Szto, assistant editor of the blog Hockey In Society, says more work needs to be done to ensure black, Indigenous, and people of colour are supported in hockey. 

"We have not done the hard work to make the space inclusive," said Szto, who is also an assistant professor of kinesiology and health at Queen's University.

"What we end up doing is kind of patching holes where we can, but what we need to be shifting into is anti-racism work, to prevent these kinds of incidents from happening."

The Current requested a comment from the NHL, but has not received a response.

Is hockey having a moment of reckoning?

4 years ago
Duration 11:00
More former NHL players are coming forward with stories of abuse and racism from coaches. Our panel looks at whether hockey is having a moment of reckoning.

Szto said the sport could take a cue from recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which as part of its mandate looked at how sport was used in the colonization of Indigenous people.

"One of those bullet points is to institute anti-racism, education and training across the sporting landscape," she said.

"If hockey worked to institute that one minor bullet point from that call to action, that would go a long way in creating a safer space for all racialized people in and around the game." 

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler, Joana Draghici and Ines Colabrese.