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BHM – Members share their stories – It’s Tough Playing Canada’s Game

Submitted by Debora Grant-Barkun,
Hockey mom, proud CMG member, Ottawa

I celebrated ‘Hockey Day in Canada’ like a true hockey mom: starting my day at the first of five arenas with my two children at 6:30 a.m. and ending at 8:00 p.m. Throughout that long day I encountered approximately 500 other people for whom hockey is a way of life. I am a fan of the sport. I participate, offering my time as a team trainer and a goalie coach. I am also a black woman and mother. However, my reason for volunteering isn’t altruistic. It’s preservation. Over the course of our nearly 13-hour day, in five arenas with about 500 people, I counted less than five other people of colour. 

I am a first generation woman of Trinidadian descent, born and raised in Montreal. I did track and  field, and played a bit of high school basketball, with nary a care about hockey. As an adult, my interests leaned toward more artistic pursuits–theatre, writing and directing. I moved to Ottawa with my daughter, got married and had three more children. It was only after our son expressed interest in trying out for hockey did I get involved with the sport. 

On registration day, I stood in the line with other parents eager to support my son’s burgeoning athletic interests but my excitement quickly turned to anxiety as I realized that out of about 200 people, I was the only black person there. My concerns were not alleviated when I got to the front of the registration line and the volunteer at the table gave me the ‘look’. It’s the look that most people of colour have experienced, especially when they are one of the few or “onlies” in a predominantly white space. The look that tacitly lets you know you don’t belong. The look that, over the years, you stop making excuses for or ignoring.  ‘They’re having a bad day’ or ‘they just don’t like me as a person’ no longer passes muster because although no one ever wants to believe their skin colour is the reason why they’ve been subjected to poor treatment, as a black person, you are acutely aware that you are being treated poorly precisely because of your skin colour. 

My three youngest children (one boy, two girls) play hockey and the lack of diversity is painfully glaring. I hated going to the arenas. I despised being the sole black person in large crowds. As our son’s play improved and he moved up in the divisions, my anxiety grew. Will he be judged fairly? Will he be held to the same standards as the other children? Will the other children be kind to him? I asked other black players and the few black hockey parents I would see on occasion about their experiences. Responses were varied, save for the common and constant feeling of being different. One worker at a hockey store had a generally positive playing experience with some “small issues” arising as he got older, but was sympathetic. “I’m from Toronto; some years I was the only one in our association. You are always aware of that.” 

I was fortunate enough to chat briefly with former NHL player Fred Braithwaite. He said that most of the problems arose when he played as an adult. I also reached out to Hockey Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr who explained via email that most of the time, it’s actually the parents that need to be controlled, not the players.

My then- 10-year old daughter mentioned after a practice that she didn’t like being the only black girl on the team. I explained that so long as she was having fun, she shouldn’t worry about it.  One mother from another association was quite blunt, cautioning, “Worry about it.” She found that as the children got older, microaggressions became more prevalent. She became the team’s manager so she could be present to buffer comments and turn fraught situations into teachable moments. She strongly believed volunteering and being a visible presence was the best way to protect them.

I was told the story of an 11-year old player who was called n***** by the opposition. He refused to play and wanted to quit on the spot. During a recent game, a player from the opposing team tauntingly asked my son if he knew Kobe Bryant, who had perished in a helicopter crash only days before.  My son wasn’t sure why this boy would ask such a thing, though it was clear the player was trying to piece together some type of insult. Given a bit more time and cognitive development, he may well succeed with his racial jabs in the future. My son has dealt with racial issues such insults about things from his goalie jock to his skill level of play, but was told his opinion doesn’t count because he’s black. Why do I continue to do what I do? Preservation. 

A friend recently asked how I feel when I step into our multiplex arena.  I told her the anxiety is still there, but I push past it. I am blessed to have made friends who are kind and accepting. I don’t think they realize they’re my lifeline when I step into these buildings. My children also have hockey buddies and coaches that support them. 

There are racist hockey parents and coaches as racists exist everywhere. However, bigots are a different but equally ugly beast. Bigots hold fast to ignorant, preconceived notions and treat others badly based on those ideas. With so few ethnically diverse kids involved in hockey, it’s very hard to break through the prejudices that lead to bigotry and racism.

I’ve taken hockey development classes for adults. I have my trainer’s certification as well as two hockey goalie certifications. I play pick-up games when there’s time. I’m terrible at it but I go anyway. Not only am I usually the only woman on the ice, I’m also the black woman who is taking her space amongst men who have played at a competitive level since they were children.  I will not stop; it’s imperative that my children have representation. If there aren’t any black hockey players in our neighborhood, then I will be that person. While most people are welcoming, I am not blind to those ‘looks’ by coaches who try to pretend I’m invisible or imperious people who silently question my presence in what they ignorantly perceive to be their space. I got the certifications because I dare you to tell me I’m not qualified. I’ve watched the instructional videos and studied the sport. I know the proper positioning for goalie butterflies as well as I know Hamlet. And, trust me, I. Know. Hamlet

I’m now fielding questions from my youngest about why she and another little girl are the only black players in their division. I could delve into an age-appropriate lecture about the socio-economic history of hockey. I could remind her about the extensive time commitment that hockey entails for parents and players. Or, I can tell her that it’s scary being one of the only ones, not only for the parents but for the kids. Diversity is the easy part.  Hire the right people with the right ethnicity. Give them a specially appointed position and boom, diversity. In hockey, add players of colour to the roster and you have a diverse team. However, no one prepares them for the isolation and random, negative comments. Even as a parent, I can’t prepare them for that. I’ll be honest, I don’t want to. I want them to go into hockey with everything they have and love the sport. For now, I’ll deal with the background noise and make sure inclusion is front and foremost for them and anyone else who should be included.



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