We are living through a strange and unique time, not only because of the global pandemic but also because of all that is going on in the world when it comes to racism and police brutality, particularly in the US and Canada. As hockey fans, It’s hard not to think about how this intersects with the world of sports. On July 13th, day one of Phase Three of the Return to Play plan, the entirety of the Maple Leafs roster came to practice in Black Lives Matter t-shirts. When asked about it captain John Tavares said, “On a day when everyone wants to talk about hockey and was excited to get back to playing, it’s important to have the Black Lives Matter movement be prevalent, and we want to make sure that’s not lost in all of this.”
“On a day when everyone wants to talk about hockey and was excited to get back to playing, it’s important to have that #BlackLivesMatter movement be prevalent, and we want to make sure that’s not lost in all of this.” pic.twitter.com/y9w1yxjzV2
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) July 14, 2020
In my eyes, this was an amazing response and shows that this is one small step in making sure that hockey really is for everyone. Now while this was an extremely powerful player-led gesture, the elephant in the room is still the lack of diversity and representation in the Maple Leafs organization.
The Leafs have come a long way when it comes to race relations in hockey, but is it enough?
In a city like Toronto, with the Raptors excelling on the diversity front and making folks of all cultures feel like they are at home within their organization, what can the Leafs do to get on their level?
I have a few thoughts. To start with they need to analyze their past and really think about how they can be better and what can be done differently. Take Nazem Kadri as an example. A young man of Lebanese descent who is also Muslim, new to the NHL, “different” in the eyes of then-GM Brian Burke. A troublemaker, undisciplined even, someone that they say needs to conform to their system.
wow, the sport that put nazem kadri, a muslim man of color, in rooming with a cop to “give him a role model”, employing praising and tolerating racists ? i’m so surprised.
— catboy willy | 1312 (@hoenylander) November 26, 2019
WTF?! This didn’t raise any red flags for anyone?
Not only did it not raise red flags, but they exploited Kadri’s fear of his father to their own benefit
This whole piece rubs me the wrong way, esp. the fact that Kadri’s own voice appears nowherehttps://t.co/MxHcXz8saC pic.twitter.com/BxumKXjuD3
— Dan Harbridge (@danharbridge) June 20, 2019
I couldn’t be more uncomfortable reading this article lmao pic.twitter.com/Kb7Bzz06D0
— mad (@comradetierney) June 18, 2019
So what did they do? They stuck him with a cop as a billet. They also stripped him of his high school friends, beat him up a little, and forced him to the end of a metaphorical cliff. Not to mention they used his not-so-amazing relationship with his dad against him
Looking back on this in 2020, that was a whole disaster that could have been avoided had there been a person of colour to say, “what is going through your heads? Why do you think this is okay?” This is one instance where representation could have made a large difference in a player’s upbringing in this organization and the league as a whole. Your personnel need to feel welcome, heard, and supported. This isn’t something that should only be coming from peers on the team. You should be able to look to upper management, for the physical representation. To this day, that’s still not an option on this team.
Looking at the Leafs organization, it’s very easy to see that it’s extremely white. This has been the case for as long as I can remember. The list includes former GM Lou Lamoriello, former Assistant GM Mark Hunter, former GM Brian Burke, former President Ken Dryden, former VP Hockey Ops Dave Poulin, current MLSE Chair Larry Tanenbaum, current President Brendan Shanahan, current GM Kyle Dubas, I can go on and on. If the team wants to continue to preach about inclusion and diversity things need to change for the Leafs, and by extension the league. It’s not going to be easy, and will not be something that happens overnight. That being said you have to start somewhere.
Generally speaking, those at the forefront of major sports are always looking to grow the game. With the sport of hockey that’s not the easiest thing to do considering how expensive it is. Along with this, the hockey community hasn’t done the best job of creating that safer space for BIPOC, if they even manage to break that first financial barrier. There are instances of racism entwined in the daily processes of the sport: Anything from coaches and fans saying the N-word, Black players like PK Subban being traded for being different and having an ounce of personality, to not standing down when your character is put under scrutiny simply because of who you are.
With the Leafs being one of the Original Six, I’d argue that it’s very easy for them to stick to the status quo. Thankfully, being in this city and under the same brand as the Raptors has kept them accountable, at least a little bit. They have an organization to look towards when it comes to putting their foot forward and being one of the first to address something such as racism, that has long been considered taboo in the hockey world.
As I mentioned before, the Black Lives Matter shirts are a large push in the right direction, but it’s not nearly enough. When will the Leafs say, “we are going to give opportunity to BIPOC.” When will their money be put where their mouths are. There are many Black-led organizations in Toronto and the Leafs showing them public support would work wonders for promoting their allyship and leading by example, especially for young BIPOC children seeing that such a great team cares about them and their interest in the sport.
Do you know what would be even better though? Putting some BIPOC on their payroll! They could take it a step further to add more women and nonbinary folks as well, which is extremely important when focusing on diversity in sport. We live in a world where there are so many talented Black people, Indigenous people, and other folks of colour and the vast majority don’t get the opportunity to showcase their skills simply because of the colour of their skin. The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a position to change that. With anything from content creators, to analysts like Namita Nandakumar (@nnstats on Twitter) who works with the Kraken, to scouts and coaches, as well as senior management. The possibilities are endless. As a Black Leafs fan, I expect more from my team, and I look forward to what they may have in store.