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How the black experience in hockey is empowering, despite adversity
She was beaming with excitement. Her team had just won the game and as she sped down the ice of a community arena in Brampton, Ont., to congratulate her goalie, she couldn’t contain her happiness.
As her team prepared to shake hands with their opponents, 11-year-old Kryshanda Green stepped forward, first in the handshake line, ready to embrace her victory. But when Green started to shake hands with the girls on the other team, everything changed. Her face dropped as her ears picked up a foul sound.
“The first three players on the opposing team, they each called me the N-word.”
Green was appalled. She immediately pulled out of the line and stormed off the ice, shocking all the parents in the crowd.
This was the experience of the current Ryerson Rams women’s hockey team captain. Green, now 26, says the issues she faced were nothing short of traumatic.
“It rocked my world,” Green said. “I haven’t completely moved on from it because it’s still a possibility that happens.”
Green’s experience is just one instance of the type of adversity that makes the black experience in hockey unique. Hockey is a dominantly white sport, with 97 per cent of NHL players identifying as white. Of the hundreds of players that make up the league, just over 30 of them are black.
This season, a number of racial discrimination cases rocked the hockey world. In November, former NHL player Akim Aliu came out about his experiences with former Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters, who hurled racial slurs toward him while playing in the American Hockey League (AHL). In January, AHL player Brandon Manning was suspended after using a racial slur against his opponent, Bokondji Imama.
While hockey continues to try to become more diverse, instances like these hold the sport back from truly being a safe space for black athletes.
Nicole Neverson, a Ryerson sociology of sport professor, says hockey has always struggled with diversity.
“Hockey has this reputation in Canada as being a sport that’s for all, but we have to be cautious about that myth,” Neverson said. “The organization of it has a lot of work to do with regards to being truly inclusive.”
Despite the adversity black hockey players must face, the black experience in hockey is a unique experience full of empowerment that will only continue to improve.
Green first fell in love with hockey at a young age, given the fact that she comes from hockey royalty. Her grandfather is Bill Riley, the third black hockey player to ever play in the NHL. Green credits him for her appreciation of the sport and her pride in being a black athlete.
“I got to grow up listening to somebody tell stories about breaking ceilings,” Green said. “He paved the way for a lot of guys and I wanted to pave the way as well on the women’s side of things.”
Before she knew it, Green was playing hockey at just three years old. She looked up to many black hockey players as role models: Jarome Iginla, Kevin Weekes and Angela James, who gave her someone to identify with. Growing up, Green says race was never a problem in other sports, but on that day when she was 11, she learned hockey was different.
“It really changed everything,” Green said. “You become skeptical and wonder why you receive a certain treatment that you don’t see anybody else getting.”
Although her opponent apologized afterwards, it didn’t fix the new feeling of isolation that would follow Green through her life.
“I developed some form of PTSD because I was scared of going into hockey games. I wasn’t focused on winning, now all I was focused on was…is somebody going to say something to me?”
Luckily for Green, her family was there to comfort her. But most of all, Green says it was her grandfather’s advice that helped her move forward.
“He let me know that it was a reflection of the other players and not me. He told me that it’s my mental game that’s going to be the best part of me and as long as I know why I’m playing, that I shouldn’t let these things deter me from continuing it.”
Green kept this advice close as her career progressed. She now feels more comfortable than ever at Ryerson, getting to lead a diverse team without having to worry about feeling targeted.
Jacob Kamps remembers receiving his fair share of racial discrimination in hockey growing up. He was 13 years old playing in a roller hockey game during the summer. His team had a sizable lead and he had even netted a few goals himself. Kamps was used to opponents throwing insults at him in the heat of the moment, but one insult in particular caught him by surprise.
“Why don’t you stick to the basketball court instead of playing hockey?” one of the opposing team’s forwards shouted at him.
Kamps, who’s black-white biracial, was furious, immediately lashing out and trying to confront the player who insulted him.
“That was my first experience (with racism),” Kamps said. “I remember just kind of flipping out on the bench and my coaches had to calm me down.”
Kamps says once he was calmed down, he realized keeping his emotions in check was the most empowering thing to do.
“You have to go through a lot of adversity and this was probably not going to be the first time or the last,” Kamps said. “If I react big, then the person who made that comment wins.”
Kamps, who now plays hockey for the Ryerson Rams, says this epiphany ultimately strengthened him.
“Now, whether it’s in school, hockey, friendships or anything in life, it’s important to be able to control your emotions. Going through hockey and dealing with that adversity taught me more than most experiences I’ve ever had.”
While it’s hopeful that discrimination wouldn’t be an issue in 2020, racism in hockey hasn’t completely been eliminated. Kamps says that, if anything, recent events of racism prove there’s still work to be done.
“It’s like you’re just taking a whole step back,” Kamps said.
“Hopefully these events make us start a discussion on getting that completely out of the game.”
Green says she feels empathy for victims of new discriminatory incidents because she knows how they feel.
“It’s a heartbreaking experience for the victim and they may never regain that confidence in the game again,” Green said.
Just like the NHL, Ontario University Athletics (OUA) has its own code of conduct and ethics to prevent and prohibit racist comments or actions. Breaching this leads to punishment, which often includes a multi-game suspension.
“The U Sports season already isn’t very long, so having a suspension would…hopefully stop players from ever doing that,” Kamps said.
Despite the adversity they tend to face, the optimism for the future of black hockey players remains high. Kamps hopes that change will come through education.
“Just educate (hockey players) on racism and (be) open to accepting black hockey players,” Kamps said. “Then black players can really be safe and young kids won’t be afraid to play.”
Neverson says white players educating themselves is crucial in making hockey culture a safer space for minorities.
“Usually when issues of racism come up in predominantly white space, people in those spaces don’t really know how to address those concerns because they do not have the same experiences with racism,” Neverson said.
But increasing the number of black hockey players also proves to be difficult, especially with how resource-expensive hockey is.
“Many of the white bodies involved in hockey cultures are also found on the middle to higher ends of class strata,” Neverson said.
“The amount of money and resource investment that’s necessary…to play puts it out of the reach of many families.”
However, Neverson says she believes change will come as hockey culture continues to progress.
“What will fix this problem is an overall cultural shift in the idea of who the ideal hockey player is, what the meanings are around playing hockey and who decides those definitions and meanings.”
Fortunately, a new generation of diverse hockey is approaching, which includes a rising number of black hockey players, such as Quinton Byfield of the Sudbury Wolves. Byfield is poised to be the highest drafted black player in NHL history, this year. With this promising future, it’s only right to feel that the black experience in hockey is special. And above it all, being a black hockey player is empowering — that’s something Green and Kamps will always embrace.
“Overcoming issues like racism and challenging those oppressions can be a very empowering thing,” Neverson said. “It allows you to understand not just what your worth is, but what your potential is.”
“Hopefully my legacy gives people the unconscious permission to be themselves,” Green said. “To be proud of their skin colour and know that being black is a beautiful thing and it doesn’t need to deter you from any sport.”
Today, Green has proudly come to terms with her identity.
“It’s really powerful to be given this responsibility of being a role model and a black person in the game of hockey, so I just embrace it,” Green said.
Jarome Iginla, Kevin Weekes, Angela James — and now Kryshanda Green. Whenever she hits the ice, she remembers the children that are out there watching her, specifically the younger girls.
“When I’m out there on the ice I try to be confident and be sportsmanlike…I try to just lead by example, so hopefully they can see that and see themselves in me as well.”