Opinions split on future of minorities in junior hockey
by Charles O'Brien/Correspondent
HAWTHORNE, N.J. — The month of February has many meanings to many people. It has Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day, Groundhog Day and World Marriage Day. But since 1926, February also has been the month where we celebrate African-American history.
While figures such as Jackie Robinson, Chuck Cooper, Bill Spiller and the Texas Western basketball team were central figures in their sports for breaking the color barrier, Canadian Willie O’Ree was the first African-American to play in the NHL, when he suited up for the Boston Bruins in 1958. Larry Kwong, a Canadian with Chinese ancestry, suited up for one game for the New York Rangers in 1948.
Of all the professional sports, hockey still has the smallest number of minority players among its ranks. After O’Ree left the Bruins, there was not another player of color in the NHL until 1974. Currently, there are only 43 minority players on the active rosters of the NHL. The NHL knows it needs to start planting the seeds at a much earlier level — hence the hiring of O’Ree as the NHL’s director of youth development and the ambassador for NHL diversity through his “Hockey is for Everyone” program.
But outside of the professional ranks, what’s it like for the minority in hockey? How do today’s minority junior hockey players find life inside of what is widely considered a Canadian sport? Many junior hockey players and coaches (both minority and non-minority) were interviewed for this piece. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, several requested anonymity. Only two players — forward Marcus Ortiz and defenseman Len Caglianone (Matawan, N.J.) — were willing to use their names.
Ortiz, a Dallas native, relocated to New Jersey last season to skate with the Jersey Junior Titans in their first season with the Atlantic Junior Hockey League. He picked up hockey at a young age and developed during the rise of hockey in Texas. As he grew in the hockey ranks, the cost of playing became a factor.
“Hockey is expensive,” said Ortiz. “I came from a very modest upbringing. I always had/needed a sponsor to offset my hockey costs.”
The cost of hockey is very much a prohibitive factor in the growth of the sport.
“You can’t compare hockey to other sports,” said one junior head coach. “It’s not like basketball or soccer, where the towns have free public places to play. The amount of capital to run a rink is insane, and in order to turn a profit, the rink needs players, and players lead to teams and so on. Many typical inner-city areas couldn’t financially support a rink, so why put the effort in?”
“The importance of getting kids involved in hockey at an early age is important,” offered Tony Samms, an assistant coach of the New Jersey Rockets and the only African-American coach in the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League. “You go into the rinks and you’ll see a handful of minority kids skating. But the key is grabbing kids in the learn-to-skate clinics, and rinks are not putting in the effort to do that.”
For Ortiz, moving up the hockey ranks meant coming to terms with the idea that his race would be used against him by opponents. “Sure, you hear the words,” he said. “But you don’t ever want to believe that there’s intent behind them. The words are used to get you off your game … to get under your skin. But I definitely have heard them.”
Caglianone, a first-year player with the Wichita Falls Wildcats of the NAHL, shares Ortiz’ belief. “Everyone has a role on a team and I’m definitely a bit of an instigator,” he said. “Guys say some crazy things on the ice. But I know where to stop and some guys don’t. I’ve had some pretty heated verbal exchanges with guys that I’m incredibly close to off the ice. It’s part of the game.”
Caglianone was involved in an incident last season that led to a major altercation. “A player on the opposing team used a racial slur against me on the ice and I reacted,” the fiery winger said. “In all honesty, the officials were standing right there and I think I was angrier at the official not responding to the situation rather than the player who said what was said. As I said, words are part of the game, and I’d heard those words said to me before, but when the line is crossed and an official hears it, I couldn’t accept it. There’s no place for racism, and tolerance of it, in our sport.”
So who is ultimately responsible for teaching players that level of sensitivity? Corporations spend millions of dollars training their employees about what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace. The NFL instituted a mandatory rookie symposium for their players relating to the league’s player conduct policy.
The NHL does not have such a policy in place, hence incidents like a well-publicized one involving Chris Simon and Mike Grier, and the Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds being taunted by a Detroit Red Wings fan. So if the pro leagues do not promote racial sensitivity, then why should the lower levels?
“There’s an attitude of ‘boys will be boys,’ ” said another Eastern Junior head coach. “We are here to win hockey games. I’m not going to necessarily go out of my way to correct my players on the right and wrong things to say. It’s hypocritical of me to do that and then use profane words towards an official. Not that I should be doing that either, but it’s the job of the parents to teach their kids right from wrong.”
Ortiz disagrees. “Kids represent their teams and the team represents the league and so on,” Ortiz offered. “It is absolutely on the teams’ shoulders to make sure that their players are racially sensitive and tolerant. While we are here to play hockey, juniors is also about developing 15- and 16-year-olds into adults ready for the real world, where that kind of behavior isn’t tolerated.”
But until more minorities are exposed to the sport, the problem is cyclical.
“Kids tend to do what their peers do,” one coach offered. “It wasn’t until baseball spent heavy money on programs like ‘RBI’ where you started to see an increase in minority participation in baseball. Once kids saw other kids playing, then it took off. The same will happen in hockey. As the NHL spends more money on inner-city development, then you should see the number of minorities in the sport increase.”
Ortiz takes it a step further. “Who does the minority child have to look up to as a young hockey player?” he asked. “The NHL needs to do a better job of relating its current minority players to the younger generation. The kids now need to see that Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane came from similar upbringings to star in hockey. They should be the models just like Jackie Robinson was for so many kids who wanted to play baseball.”
“A guy like P.K. Subban would be huge in the city of New York,” said Metro Moose head coach Craig Doremus. “He would be a great role model for the next generation of minority players in this area.”
For a player such as Caglianone, the stereotyping works both ways. As a Jersey native relocating to Texas, the defenseman often gets questioned about MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and if all people from New Jersey act that way.
“It’s the first thing I get asked about all the time,” Caglianone said. “The accent … the look … everyone thinks the entire state is what MTV shows on television. People shouldn’t always believe everything that’s on TV.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of New York Hockey Journal.