Toronto hockey league regrets 'communication breakdown' with family of player subjected to racial slur

The head of the world's largest youth hockey organization says the league needs to do a much better job making the league's racialized players truly feel a part of Canada's game.

Head of GTHL says organization must do better job at making racialized players feel included

Family says they were never told of offender's suspension after Yonas Nicola-Lalonde, now 16, was subjected to racial slurs during a game in September. (Submitted by Nicola-Lalonde family)

The head of the world's largest youth hockey organization says the league needs to do a much better job making the league's racialized players truly feel a part of Canada's game.

"We are not perfect. We're trying to get better every day," said Scott Oakman, executive director of the Greater Toronto Hockey League. "And we are committed to making our organization a place where every player, every family feels safe."

Oakman's comments come after the family of a young player who was the victim on-ice racial abuse say they were left in the dark for months about the league's handling of the incident.

Yonas Nicola-Lalonde, the only Black player on his Humber Valley team, claims he was called the N-word by an opposing player during a game last September. The league said it would look into the incident and after three calls with the investigator in early October, Nicola-Lalonde's family said they never heard from the league again.

"The league never gave us the conclusion on the investigation and they've never emailed us or let us know anything about anything to do with the investigation," 16 year-old Yonas Nicola Lalonde told CBC Sports.

'Radio silence'

"It's been complete radio silence since then," Nicola-Lalonde's father, Paul, said. "The league may have taken steps, but they haven't informed us in any way of anything happening." 

"This has been festering for months," his mother, Magda, said. "[Yonas] has felt like it was swept under the rug, that nobody has his back."

Oakman regrets the "communication breakdown" and said the offending player was eventually suspended. He said the league did inform Nicola-Lalonde's local organization but acknowledged the league never directly reached out to the family to inform them about the results of the investigation. Oakman added the GTHL has since changed its policy so that players and families affected during such incidents are contacted directly by the league.

WATCH | Racism, discrimination found in Toronto-area hockey league: committee:

Racism, discrimination found in Toronto-area hockey league: committee

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
An independent committee found that racism and discrimination ‘exist significantly’ within the Greater Toronto Hockey League — the largest minor hockey league in the world.

Oakman said the league needs to do a better job directly informing victims and their families about the process and results of its investigations into allegations of racial abuse and discrimination. 

"Anybody that feels like we don't care, I want to understand what we're doing to make them feel that way," Oakman said. "Personally, I would love to speak to their parents and families that feel that way."

He said the league is also working hard to eliminate incidents like the one that happened to Nicola-Lalonde.

"We are providing educational outlets so that players and families have a better understanding of the conduct that's expected in the arenas," Oakman said. "It's one thing to tell a player that they can't say or do things in a particular way but I think it's more important for them to understand why. It's going to take some time to change attitudes and culture."

The GTHL, which has more than 40,000 registered players, has acknowledged issues of racism and discrimination persist.

In recent years, it has trumpeted its efforts to promote a culture of inclusivity including the formation of an independent committee that spent months examining the league's culture.

Last March, that committee made 44 recommendations to the league aimed at addressing racism and discrimination. Some of those have been implemented.

'Major disconnect'

Nicola-Lalonde said all of these efforts may sound positive but they aren't reaching players like him, who continue to deal with on-ice abuse and a sense that nobody is listening.

"They can tell you that they're invested and they take it very seriously, but there's definitely a major disconnect between what I've been told and what I've heard and what happened," he said.

Nicola-Lalonde has done his best to move forward from what happened. His team is getting ready for the playoffs and with the support of family, friends and his teammates, he enjoys going to the rink again.

He regrets how the league handled what happened but has no regrets about pushing for action.

"I got a lot of positive feedback from a lot of people, a lot of people I haven't spoken to in a while. And honestly people I've never spoken to before," he said. " I think that for people my own age they saw that it was an issue and reassured me that they support me, that they had my back."


Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now