Playing the White Way: Whiteness and hockey

Nazem Kadri. Photo from OnIslam.net.

Don Cherry has stated outright that “Racism is not in the NHL. Of all the sports in the world, it’s the one that doesn’t have racism.”  Whether true or false his statement is worthy of examination.  If it is true then we have to figure out what it is about hockey that naturally eliminates racism.  Is it the coldness? If that were true then all winter sports would look like the General Assembly at the United Nations.  Is it the condoned fighting? No, that doesn’t seem right.  If Cherry’s statement is false then it his this denial of racism that is in need of critique.  Frankly, I wish that it were the former because then not only would hockey be the greatest game on earth it would also be the key to peace and harmonious international relations. Sadly, I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.

In 2009, the Globe and Mail (one of Canada’s national newspapers) published a lengthy article on Nazem Kadri titled, Nazem Kadri: Canada’s new game face.  In it we glimpse the Canadian dream – immigrants who move to Canada and their son makes it to the NHL.

The extended Kadri family – typically 60 aunts, uncles and cousins at each game – is scattered around the John Labatt Centre.  Sam’s [Nazem's father] own, elderly parents – his mother easily spotted in a white hijab among clumps of hockey jerseys – are across the ice, two rows up.

They don’t speak much English – Sam’s father refers to the penalty box as habis, Arabic for jail – but having arrived almost empty-handed 40 years ago from Lebanon, where they’d never heard of hockey, they understand the feat their grandson has achieved.  They don’t miss a game.

…He has a fairy-tale story that hockey, more than ever, wants to tell.  Nazem Kadri is not the first Muslim to be drafted into the National Hockey League – perhaps his most prominent predecessor was Montreal’s Ramzi Abid, a left-winger who played several seasons before heading to Europe in 2007.  But none has faced such expectations of stardom.

And why does the NHL want so badly to tell his story? Because as the article says, Kadri “comes at a time when both minor and professional hockey are intent on drawing ethnic communities into the game.”  Surely, this desire stems from an economic standpoint because the more people who play hockey the more money hockey makes, but also in a time where globalization is the norm having a sport that is overwhelmingly white speaks loudly about who has been welcomed into the game and who has not.  Hockey needs a Venus or Serena Williams or a Tiger Woods.  Someone that the NHL can point to and say – what racism?  It needs an alibi.  If non-Whites can not only make it to the pros but dominate a league you can essentially throw the racism card away, right?

“Hockey has been pigeonholed as an upper-middle-class, white sport to a large degree,” says Glen McCurdie, a spokesman for Hockey Canada. “But it has a very important role to play in bringing newer Canadians into the country and welcoming them.”  Even Prime Minister Harper has stated “One of the first things you see [is] immigrants start to belong to Canadian society when their kids start to come to the hockey rink.  Then the parents start to integrate with the other parents.  It crosses social class lines. So it’s a great common denominator.”  But as Kevin Weekes, former goaltender and current CBC hockey commentator explains

“I don’t think our sport truly reflects Canadian society” whose parents came from Barbados and eventually gave in to their son’s pleas to play a game he first learned on the street.  “From my own experience, your parents immigrate here and they turn the television on, and they don’t hear a name that sounds familiar, or a face that looks familiar.  In that case, you are losing kids right off the bat.”

If the lack of familiarity doesn’t keep them from the game then the racial slurs within the game may do the trick.  Wayne Simmonds recently had to deal with a Czech audience calling him a monkey in his European debut for Liberec.  And don’t forget the racist tweets aimed at Joel Ward during last year’s playoffs.  A number of posts have been written on this and many other sites highlighting how easily racism can be directed at the aberrations within the white game.  Despite what some may believe, it is not “normal for a Muslim to play hockey and to play it well,” it is an exception to the rule.  Jarome Iginla, Evander Kane, and Paul Kariya are exceptions.

Cherry’s denial of racism is evidence of the strength of Canada’s multicultural identity.  We believe so strongly that we are a multicultural country that not even proof of racism will cause our devotion to waver.  In Joseph, Darnell (and yes that is fellow HIS contributor Simon Darnell), and Nakamura’s (2012) book, Race and Sport in Canada: Intersecting inequalities, they explain

In multicultural Canada, sport stories are used to recall the halcyon days of Jackie Robinson’s time in Montreal as the fiction of Canada’s anti-racist past and to reveal this nation as radically different from the U.S.  Yet, to use the Jackie Robinson story as a fiction simultaneously denies how Black-Canadian boxers, runners, and Black Canadians in general in Montreal, in Quebec, and across the country remained effectively non-citizens during Robinson’s sojourn… (xi.)

Kadri has stated that he has never been confronted about his Lebanese ethnicity and Muslim religion (Globe and Mail, 2010). It is reasonable to assert that hockey has offered Kadri entree into Canadian national belonging, but in ways that obscure broader forms of racism, position Canadian sport as “race-less,” and perpetuate myths of Canada’s egalitarian racial past and present. (p.3)

In the Kadri article, a fellow Muslim Canadian mentions that Canada’s obsession with the game has positioned the nation as its protector.  The fact of the matter is that hockey is still largely marketed to a white demographic which means that those who play the game had better be marketable to that white demographic.  You can be a Muslim but you have to be the Kadri type of Muslim, which in the article is explained as faith with a “Western flexibility”.  The quiet Muslim who doesn’t fast during hockey season because hockey comes before religion.  You can be black but you have to be Jarome Iginla black, not Ray Emery black.  In other words, you must be the polite black guy who plays by the white Canadian rules outlined for you.  You can be black, you just can’t act black.  In Lorenz and Murray’s piece, The Dennis Rodman of hockey: Ray Emery and the policing of blackness in the Great White North they write

Ray Emery’s blackness also came to be seen as a “pollutant” within the NHL, and the Ottawa Senators did their best to keep their “gangsta” goalie’s behaviour in check…like many other black male athletes, Emery was perceived as a “bad boy whose behaviour and style of dress and adornement pushes at the boundaries” (Whannel, 2002, p.179).  Perhaps the way that Ray Emery played the game was not white enough – or “Canadian enough” (Pitter, 2006, p.137) – to earn full acceptance within the culture of hockey.

Photo from Hockey Independent

Whiteness can be explained as an unearned set of privileges (Long & Hylton, 2002).  It makes whites appear natural to the particular environment, in this case the NHL.  Whiteness means that whites are never subordinate, marginalized or disadvantaged and are fundamentally positioned as dominant (Frankenburg, 1993).  Therefore, when we see someone like Iginla excel in hockey we must understand that his “acceptance” is contingent upon his ability to fit into the institutional norms that were decided without his input and that his membership always has the ability to be questioned if his behaviour or actions ever make him seem more black than white.  This is why despite Venus and Serena’s success in tennis every outburst, hair style, and fashion choice is scrutinized in a manner that rarely, if ever happens, to someone like Bethanie Mattek-Sands or John McEnroe.  As an athlete of colour one’s acceptance is always subject to being revoked, whereas as a white athlete behavioural aberrations become individual idiosyncrasies.  Sean Avery doesn’t represent all white hockey players, he as an individual marked as a jerk. But Ray Emery’s tattoos mark him (literally and) figuratively as a black man in a white game.  How does this North American denial of racism positively contribute to hockey?   If Kadri and Simmonds never encountered racism during their hockey youths then that is great but those sounds bites are what make the sports pages.  They are the sound bites that make us feel good about ourselves, our sport and our nation.  As they say, ignorance is bliss but every time a player of colour says that they experienced no racism too quickly do we ignore the plight of the young black boys and girls fighting their way through the system being called monkeys or the young Muslims dealing with “flying carpet” taunts.  It’s not so much what we see and read that is the issue, it’s what we don’t see that is the issue.

Works Cited:

Frankenburg, R.  (1993).  The social construction of whiteness: White women race matters.  London: Routledge.

Joseph, J., Darnell, S., & Nakamura, Y.  (2012).  Race and sport in Canada: Intersecting inequalities.  Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholar’s Press Inc.

Long, J. & Hylton, K.  (2002).  Shades of white: An examination of whiteness in sport.  Leisure Studies, 21, 87-103.

Lorenz, S. & Murray, R.  (2011). The Dennis Rodman of hockey: Ray Emery and the policing of Blackness in the Great White North.  In D.J. Leonard & C.R. King (Eds.), Commodified and Criminalized: New racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports (pp.183-202). Plymouth, UK:Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

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About courtneyszto
Public sociologist and tempered radical in training. Sports is my life. I recently graduated from the University of Toronto with my Masters in Exercise Science. My Master's thesis focused on corporate social responsibility in professional sports, international development and gender equality. My undergraduate degree is Bachelor of Human Kinetics in Sport Management. I am a Vancouver Canucks fan through and through. I have worked in event management, outdoor education, the golf industry, and coached tennis. Soon to be PhD student.

7 Responses to Playing the White Way: Whiteness and hockey

  1. janeglatt says:

    Tattoos is plural, not possessive or a contraction and so doesn’t have an apostrophe.

    Good article. As an Australian, in a country where hockey is even more marginalised, I would actually say that the prevention of the spread of hockey is actually primarily financial. Hockey, especially in warm climates with no naturally occurring ice, is expensive. The AFL (Australian Football League, Aussie Rules) spends a lot of money scouting at remote indigenous communities simply because AFL requires so little equipment–a football and a couple of sticks stuck in the ground as goals and you’ve got the basic stuff you need to play. No armour or padding.

    The financial barriers do intersect with racial issues–someone from Redfern, which is a Sydney suburb that has a high concentration of indigenous Australians isn’t exactly going to waste time trekking out to Baulkham Hills or Penrith.

    • courtneyszto says:

      Thanks for the comment and typo alert Jane (typo has been fixed). You are correct economics definitely affects participation but as you also said economics and race intersect. We cannot treat race in a vacuum and assume that things will be better. What we see in hockey, or sport, is only symptomatic of larger social issues.

      • janeglatt says:

        Absolutely. If poorer areas continue not to get the infrastructure needed for expansion, and financial/geographic barriers aren’t removed, then how can a statement of “[Ethnic group] aren’t interested in hockey” be true? It leads to a “default white” viewpoint, which simply isn’t correct or anything other than exclusionist–blinkers are a luxury of the privileged.

  2. mattventresca says:

    Solid post, Courtney. I’ve kept pretty close tabs on the representations of Kadri since he became a Leaf draft pick and the contradictions and complexities are virtually endless (he’s actually been the subject of some of my scholarly work in the past – hopefully coming to a publication near you…eventually). Anyway, shameless plugging aside, I’ve been especially interested in how the representations of Kadri’s Lebanese-Muslim-Canadian identities (and the variations/conflations of these ideas) co-exist with the hyper-militarization of hockey, nation and the Leafs franchise. I would argue that this relationship relies on the “good” Kadri that you’ve identified – nice job!

    • courtneyszto says:

      Thanks Matt! Can’t wait to read your publication. Did you ask about the contradictions of Don Cherry during our presentation? I wanted to say that Mark and I had to consciously pull out an entire section concerning the contradictions o’Cherry because as you alluded to they are complex and endless. For Cherry, we found that although they appear to be contradictions to us pinkos they are actually consistent for his persona. He believes in safety within the realm of honour and respect (e.g. you don’t run a guy from behind) but violence to defend that honour is necessary. Anyways, i would suspect that the Kadri contradictions you speak of are similar in that they are consistent within a narrow construction that serves a particular purpose.

  3. aconcernedcanadian says:

    In Canada we MUST increase our ethnic pool participation at the grass root level , or the Americans will sooner or later dominate in Hockey. The Americans have always understood the power of a larger pool to draw from, and a great program to draw athletes from. Just think about this, why do our most talented athletes in ladies hockey still go to the states to play. We just won another goal medal in Hockey, where did the girl who scored 2 goals go to school, Boston. The same goes for allot of male hockey players also, who go to the states to play hockey in the American College Leagues. So someone has to start a marketing campaign to get ethnic kids involved in hockey, its all about protecting our Canadian Heritage, and Dominance in Hockey, period.

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