As much as we want to believe racial taunts are not apart of sports and there's no racism in sports, we've seen multiple incidents this year alone that prove that's not the case.
Earlier this year, for example, fans were ejected for chanting racial taunts at Devante Smith Pelly. One of the players that spoke up in response to the taunts was Wayne Simmonds.
These taunts are nothing new for Simmonds, as he explained in a recent article for The Players' Tribune:
But you can’t protect your kids from ignorance forever. I’ll never forget the first time another kid called me the n-word on the ice. It’s a feeling that probably every single black player in the NHL can relate to. And as sad is it is to say, it’s a feeling that probably every black kid who grew up playing hockey can relate to. Ignorance is as old as time.
It’s going to be impossible for me to totally explain the feeling to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but it’s like someone is trying to take away your spirit. The awesome thing about playing hockey is that you get so wrapped up in the fun of it that it’s like nothing else in the world exists. When you’re playing baseball, there’s so much down time that you kind of know you’re playing baseball, you know what I mean? You might notice that the sun is out, or that it’s about to rain, or you start thinking about your homework or something.
But hockey is different. You’re in your own world. You could be having the worst day ever, but when you’re chasing the puck around, everything else kind of disappears. Nothing matters but the puck. You could be short, tall, fast, slow, white, black, brown, purple, pink … it doesn’t matter. You’re in this bubble. It’s the best.
When somebody calls you a racial slur, it pierces that bubble. The world becomes very real again. It can be a lonely and infuriating feeling.
The first time it happened, I think I was just confused and a little bit stunned.
The second or third time it happened, I lost it. I tried to fight the kids who said it.
I remember after one of the fights, my mom was driving me home after the game, and she asked me what I was thinking.
I told her what had happened.
And then she said something that I still, unfortunately, have to remind myself about from time to time. She said, “Well, that’s really unfortunate. You have every right to be mad. But what did you do the rest of the game?”
I didn’t score. I didn’t get any points. My team lost. I had to sit in the penalty box, which is where the other team wanted me.
She said, “Some people are going to say those things to try to make you upset. The best way to get back at them is to put the puck in the net and walk away with the two points. That’s how we’ll get even, O.K.?”
I wish I could say that I never heard those words again, or that I never let them get to me. But I’m only human. There were many times when somebody told me to “stick to basketball,” or used racial epithets, and I snapped. I couldn’t help myself. I tried to beat the crap out of them.
In his Players' Tribune article, Simmonds then went on to explain the impact Willie O'Ree had on him and every black hockey player chasing the dream of making it to the NHL:
And honestly, none of it ever would’ve happened without Mr. O’Ree opening the door — not just for me, but for every black hockey player with a dream. That’s why I’m sharing my story with you today. It’s not the easiest thing for me to talk about, for obvious reasons. But my dream simply does not become a reality without Willie O’Ree.
Mr. O’Ree should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame yesterday.
I can’t think of anyone who has done more to broaden the appeal of our great sport to new audiences. He’s a living hero to so many of us, and he deserves to be honored as a legend of the game.
O'Ree's impact was transcended the sports world and based on what's still happening in the world, he's not only a hero to players, but a mentor as well.
In 2011, a banana was thrown onto the ice while I was playing an exhibition game in London, Ontario.
In 2012, while I was playing in the Czech Republic during the NHL lockout, some of the fans started yelling something at me. They were chanting “opice, opice.” It means “monkey” in Czech.
Just this season, Devante Smith-Pelly had to endure racist chants during a game in Chicago.
Every player of color can probably tell you a similar story. It’s not fun to talk about. It’s not something I like to dwell on. But it still exists. It’s not ancient history.
It’s always a small minority of idiots. But for players of color who experience that kind of ignorance, it hurts the same as it did when you were 10 years old. It’s a reminder that we’re still striving for true equality for the next generation of kids coming up in the game, just like Willie probably hoped he would see for the next generation after him.
Willie’s quiet determination and class continue to be an inspiration for players of color in today’s game. Sixty years after he broke the color barrier, we’re still chipping away at intolerance.
Simmonds also explained why he thinks O'Ree deserves to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame in his Players' Tribune piece:
What’s unbelievable to me is that Willie went through it all by himself. There wasn’t another black player in the NHL until 1974. Imagine that.
Now, whenever something happens that makes me question my faith in humanity, there’s always someone in the league I can reach out to who understands, who went through it himself.
But Willie was out there all alone, competing in the best league in the world with only one good eye. He never lost his cool. He never lost his dignity. He never lost his love for the game. He was a true pioneer.
I got the chance to meet Willie for the first time during my rookie year with the Kings, and I was exactly like the little kids who come up to us for autographs after games. I was totally speechless. I was meeting my hero. For every single kid who was ever told to “stick to basketball,” Willie was like the first man on the moon. He wasn’t just a hockey player. He was an astronaut.
He was, and continues to be, an inspiration for everyone who loves the game.
Even now, at 82 years old, he’s still going around the world, spreading a very powerful message to kids who need to hear it: No matter what anybody tells you, hockey is a game for everyone.
Mr. O’Ree deserves his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Let’s make it happen.
Make sure to read the entire powerful piece from Simmonds in The Players' Tribune here.
(H/T: The Players' Tribune)