Crossing the Colour Line
August 27, 2020
By Grant McCagg
I first started writing this article when protests were heating up all across North America following the senseless death of George Floyd.
I ultimately decided not to finish and publish the article at the time as I was hesitant to interview minority hockey players concerning their treatment over the years, in part because of the awkwardness for both me and them, but also because I convinced myself that nothing I would be told if they decided to open up would have been revelatory.
If we have been listening to them, we already know that their journeys to the NHL were all littered with embarrassing moments that revealed just how far we still have to come as a society when it comes to racial equality.
I was also hesitant to be too critical of the industry and profession I make my living at, as I did not see many other journalists attempting to write an article that dealt with this subject, and I convinced myself that I shouldn’t finish the article because by then it was becoming old news.
After last night’s NHL debacle, however, I feel disappointed that I didn’t go ahead with it, quotes or no quotes. The MLB, WNBA, MLS and NBA all chose to postpone games last night after the latest unthinkable gunning down of a black American by a policeman. The NHL chose to do nothing.
The past few weeks have been an eye opener for many of us regarding systemic racism. It has inspired many of us who were “fortunate” enough to be born with white skin to look in the mirror, and ask ourselves if we haven’t contributed to this unfortunate reality.
As someone who has followed the NHL draft since childhood, and was lucky enough to get the opportunity to get into scouting 15 years ago, I have seen enough things during that time frame that, upon reflection, have made me realize that systemic racism is still a part of hockey world, and more specifically, scouting.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never heard an NHL scout say anything blatantly racist to my face, and I’ve sat with several through the years during some prodigious drinking sessions where lots of subjects were touched upon that got very frank in nature. I have not witnessed blatant verbal racism in the industry at any point during those 15 years.
That doesn’t let us all off the hook. Racism doesn’t have to be direct or blatant to be present. And some of my friends in the scouting world have heard comments from fellow scouts over the past 20 years that didn’t rub them the right way because they were clearly discriminatory, and more often than not it came from older scouts who grew up in an industry that once upon a time accepted such remarks.
As I noted on Twitter in a thread a couple of months ago, I do recall instances where, when asking about minority players in the year that they were draft eligible, hockey sense and character were pointed out as flaws more often than not.
Subban Sinks in the Draft
It started in 2007 with PK Subban in my second year of scouting with McKeen’s. You would watch him play for Belleville, and marvel at his skill level and skating ability. He was one of the few defence prospects I’d seen in junior hockey through my then three decades of watching with the ability to go end-to-end. He had a terrific slapshot, he was aggressive in his defending and kept great gap control; you wondered why many scouts didn’t consider him to be a first rounder based on his skill level even if he was a work in progress because of his risk taking.
While Subban was still in junior I got into a debate with an NHL scout about the strength of Montreal’s prospect pool. His response was in part due to his natural tendency to criticize all things Canadiens related, but he told me that he’d never scouted a prospect with less hockey sense. PK may be a number of things, but the lowest hockey IQ he had ever seen? That was a ridiculous statement perhaps levied in part to egg me on, but also because PK just so happens to be black.
Subban is not the most popular player in the NHL, and perhaps he is at least partially to blame for that. He is too flamboyant for many who see their “Aw gee, shucks” humble attitudes as a badge of honour having been taught that this was the way to act by legendary white Canadian superstars like Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Jean Beliveau and Wayne Gretzky.
A decade ago, Flyers’ forward Mike Richards said out loud what a lot of NHLers thought of Subban’s flamboyant behaviour in a radio interview with Norman Marshall.
“He’s a guy that’s come in the league and hasn’t earned respect,” Richards told the radio station. “It’s just frustrating to see a young guy like that come in here and so much as think that he’s better than a lot of people. You have to earn respect in this league. It takes a lot. You can’t just come in here as a rookie and play like that. It’s not the way to get respect from other players around the league. Hopefully someone on their team addresses it, because, uh, I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but something might happen to him if he continues to be that cocky.”
When young white players like Jeremy Roenick and Brett Hull broke into the league and displayed cockiness, they were largely embraced for being honest and outgoing, and were media darlings. When Subban did it and received similar media attention, he was told by envious fellow NHLers to “know his place”.
My introduction to racial favouritism in sports was in the late 70’s in both foootball and hockey. Growing up in the Ottawa Valley, I was a big fan of the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Ottawa 67’s.
I only had to watch Warren Moon spank my Rough Riders once to know that I was looking at a special CFL player; one that by all rights should have been playing in the NFL. Being young and naive, and from a part of North America where my interaction with blacks had been essentially non-existent given that very few lived in my area, the thought of him not being in the NFL because of the colour of his skin was honestly not something that ever crossed my mind at that time. I figured NFL teams and scouts must know something that I don’t.
You have to ask yourself what he might have accomplished if given the opportunity to play in the NFL right out of college…he may hold NFL passing records that still haven’t been touched. It was quite obvious to Canadians when he played that he was an NFL-calibre quarterback.
Today, I know all too well why Moon didn’t start his professional football career in the NFL – there was a widespread belief that black quarterbacks weren’t smart enough to process the NFL game no matter how physically gifted they may be, or how much they accomplished at the college level.
McKegney Dominates the OHL
Ottawa’s biggest OHL rival from 1976-78 was the nearby Kingston Canadians. and apart from Kenny Linseman in that first year, no one impacted games against my beloved 67’s like Tony McKegney; he was a force. McKegney had 101 goals 227 points in his final two years of junior.
Mike Gillis, another 6-1 winger on Kingston, on the other hand, had 65 points in those two seasons. Granted; he missed the majority of the 1976-77 season with injury, but would that not have been a negative instead of a positive? I barely remember Gillis from those teams – it was McKegney who killed the 67’s. Big, strong, fast, great shot, strong along the boards….he had above-average NHLer written all over him.
The 1977 OHL eastern final series between Kingston and Ottawa was one of the all-time great junior playoff series. Ottawa finally prevailed in eight games – 4-3-1, but McKegney was absolutely dominant in that series, and on the playoffs. He scored 13 goals in 14 playoff games that year, the highest goals-per-game of anyone, and finished a fraction behind Bobby Smith in overall points-per-game. He was almost unstoppable on a line with Linseman that season, and Ottawa was lucky to win that series.
Ten OHL forwards got selected ahead of McKegney in the 1978 NHL draft, and only one of them, first overall pick Bobby Smith, ended up having a better NHL career. Gillis, Dan Lucas, Tim Coulis and Mike Meeker? They had no business being selected ahead of McKegney…none of them had his production, smarts or skill. Gillis was chosen fifth overall, and McKegney inexplicably fell to Buffalo in the second round at 32nd overall.
So you ask yourself…why? Why wasn’t McKegney a top-ten pick? It was pretty obvious to me when I watched him, and I was no NHL scout; I was barely a teenager.
The easy answer is because there had never been a black player who succeeded at the NHL level. McKegney in 1978 became just the fourth black player in the league’s 61-year history. If there had never been a successful black NHL player, how could he be good? Would his teammates accept him…would the fans accept him? Fossilized and discriminatory thinking – ask older Buffalo Sabres fans what they thought of McKegney.
By the mid 1970’s there had been more than 2000 Canadians that had played at least one NHL game. Mike Marson was only the second black player after Willie O’Ree when he suited up for the Washington Capitals in October of 1974.
You have to ask yourself why a country that had two blacks for every 100 population in the mid 1970’s only had two blacks for every 1000+ players that had ever been allowed to suit up in the NHL.
One can attempt to defend this by saying there weren’t many black kids that played hockey growing up, but is that a good defence? Might it be that their parents didn’t want to subject their children to the blatant discrimination they had to endure? And how many black Canadians boys from 1917 until today grew up dreaming of playing in the NHL, but were driven from the sport by discrimination? I don’t think we want to know those figures.
Hockey in a lot of way represents a microcosm of North American society in general. There weren’t many black players in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s because discrimination was more prevalent in minor hockey, junior and at the professional levels. As one scout pointed out to me today when he read the first draft of this article, younger scouts do not often make remarks that might make you cringe – older scouts are more apt to say things that reflect negative views on minorities, and it was a lot worse 20 years ago. There has been progress, but that needs to continue.
I have mentioned Subban and McKegney as players who dropped in their draft years, but they weren’t the only ones. A couple of months ago when the George Floyd protests were at their peak, I started thinking about black prospects in their draft years, and it was obvious to me that few had ever been picked higher than was expected. In most cases, the opposite was true.
Anson Carter was a tenth-round pick in 1992 who would go on to score 200 goals in the NHL. Only five players from that draft would score more.>br>
Iginla Stars at the Memorial Cup
I clearly recall watching Jarome Iginla put on a dominating performance for Kamloops in the Memorial Cup in 1995. He was unstoppable along the boards, had great strength and speed, a terrific shot and high hockey IQ. Iginla would tie for second in tournament goal scoring as a 17-year-old. He looked like a top-five pick to me for the upcoming draft, and when he was available at eighth overall for the Montreal Canadiens, it was my sincere hope that his name would be called. It was not.
Aki Berg, Chad Kilger, Steve Kelly, Daymond Langkow, Terry Ryan, Kyle McLaren and Radek Dvorak would all be picked ahead of him. Iginla would score 600+ points more than all of them. With the exception of Langkow, he would end up with more than twice as many career points than the other half dozen.
Surely NHL scouts, when doing their due dilgence on Iginla, didn’t find any character issues. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more affable and classy NHL player in my 50 years of watching the sport. Iginla would go on to win both the King Clancy and Mark Messier Leadership Award, and that alone is a testament to his character.
Dustin Byfuglien was an eighth-round pick by Chicago in 2003. Seventy defencemen were selected ahead of Byfuglien – only three of them have more career points.
Wayne Simmonds was selected 61st overall by Los Angeles in the 2007 NHL draft. Three players from that draft class have scored more goals, and no players that went on to NHL careers were tougher.
Anthony Duclair was selected 80th overall in the 2013 draft because of often-cited “character issues” that gets attached to black prospects. Nine players in the entire draft have scored more goals than Duclair.
In 2018. I also heard whispers about K’Andre Miller’s hockey sense even though to me he looked like a bonafide top-15 prospect. Certainly in terms of physical skills, Miller was at the top of the draft. He dropped to 22nd overall on draft day, and it’s quite possible that the New York Rangers will end up with a steal.
When I queried NHL scouts about Jayden Struble last season, there were some that worried about his hockey sense and character. No one questioned his physical skills.
All interviews and reports I’ve heard on Struble since the draft have indicated the exact opposite – he fast tracked his high school courses and was attending Northeastern University before he turned 18 years of age; hardly an indicator that he lacked intelligence. Struble also issued one of the most thought-provoking statements from any hockey player during the height of the Floyd protests; he is clearly an intelligent, and grounded, young man.
These are but a few notable examples. It has been a common theme with minority players through the years. Josh Ho Sang, Akim Aliu, Anthony Stewart, Devante Smith-Pelly, Kenndal McCardle, Madison Bowey, Emerson Etem, Evander Kane, Trevor Daley and Nazem Kadri were all players I heard negative comments about in regards to character and/or hockey sense in their draft years.
More than once I heard how the “dumb” in Matt Dumba’s surname was appropriate, and even if it may have been in jest because of his name, he looks plenty smart to me today, especially off the ice when speaking out against racism in recent weeks.
The most blatant example of a condemnation of a players’ hockey sense was when Shawn Belle was draft eligible. You wondered how he was able to even lace up his skates when you listened to some of the negative descriptions about his smarts.
This is by no means placing the blame for racial discrimination in the NHL all on the shoulders of scouts; they are simply a by-product of the systemic racism that is prevalent in the sport that the NHL has ignored in large part. It’s happened with owners, coaches, GMs and fans – scouts are no more guilty of viewing minorities more unfairly than anyone else in the industry, I just happened to have first-hand experience because I have been involved in scouting.
I don’t consider any of the scouts I’ve dealt with through the years to be racist, and I don’t think that any of them have ever consciously thought a player lacked character or hockey sense strictly because they were black. Yet, history has shown us that many talented minorities players have dropped on draft day, and it’s hard not to think that the colour of their skin ended up hurting their stocks, even if it was never said out loud.
A Time For Personal Reflection
I think that many scouts are sitting back and reflecting on their potential biases in the past right now, and I think that is a positive step in the right direction. I know I am.
I don’t want to make this sound like I have never been guilty of criticizing several of the players listed above in their draft years. Minorities are not the only players yours truly and other scouts ever had issues with in terms of character and hockey sense, and some of the critiques have been justified,. Right now with many of us reflecting on our own previous mindsets and actions, I have acknowledged that I was bothered by several minority prospects being outspoken about their treatment by coaches and teammates; complaining about hazing or being traded when it occurs to players of all races.
It’s clear that I didn’t always put myself in their position. How could I? Statements I have read from Aliu in particular have made me realize that my negative thoughts about his actions in junior were formed in large part due to ignorance. Yes, he had an attitude problem, but was it at least partly justified? Today…it’s hard to say that it wasn’t.
That’s also not to say that at times some of the negative comments weren’t at least partially true. Belle was not the smartest player to ever don an NHL uniform; Ho Sang was frustrating to watch in junior because he was much more apt to go east-west than north south and he definitely had a chip on his shoulder. The same can be said of Aliu, Kane and others.
I think that we need to ask ourselves why they had those chips. Why were/are they defensive and outspoken about what they felt were discriminatory behaviours against them? The answer is likely a simple one – because they were subjected to it their entire lives.
I had a chip on my shoulder when I was 18, and I had it easy compared to all of them. I had white privilege on my side even if I didn’t realize it at the time.
When you put yourself in their skates, can you blame them for being defensive at times? I was never called a “monkey” or “ni**er” during my minor hockey days. I’ve never had a banana tossed in front of me on the ice, which happened to PK Subban in junior. Has anyone ever tossed a package of crackers in front of a white player?
A lot of them have matured through their years as they were treated with more respect and dignity, and the shoulder chips were eventually whittled away. Guys like Duclair, Subban, Byfuglien, Smith-Pelly and Daley all grew on and off the ice, and proved to the masses that they indeed should have been drafted higher.
I’ve always been proud of the character in my sport of choice; right now I am not. Just because there are not many minorities playing in the NHL, doesn’t mean discrimination can be ignored.
We need to be better. I need to be better. We need to understand where THEY are coming from, and we need to stop ignoring the problem. The NHL dropped the puck on this with their lack of action last night. They have attempted to rectify that by cancelling games tonight and Friday, and that’s a step in the right direction for a sport that never thought it was a big problem because so few were affected.
We need to learn from it, and react accordingly in the future. The colour line has been crossed; we just need to make sure we don’t fumble the puck again.
This is an excellent piece! Thank you.
It has particular power because your sincerity and personal honesty makes the discussion of racism meaningful and real.
Very effective to introduce the topic by sharing your early discoveries of racism as a fan, about Moon and McKegney.
Bravo for a really important article.