No Place for Racism in Sports Arenas or Boardrooms

Feb 16, 2021 12:00 PM ET
Article

Hockey continues to be one of the defining characteristics of our country. Consider that 2.8 million viewers tuned in to CBC to watch Canada’s 5-0 win over Russia in the semi-finals of the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton last month, the largest TV audience for a World Juniors semi-final since 2015, the broadcaster noted. It’s also many a child’s dream to be a professional hockey player, one kept alive by parents cheering them on in arenas across the county.

But for some children, that dream isn’t attainable. Hockey should be accessible and safe for all Canadian children regardless of race or colour or circumstance, says Chris George, Senior Wealth Advisor and Portfolio Manager at Scotia Wealth Management.

George was the only Black player on most teams he played on — whether with the Greater Toronto Hockey League or the Sarnia Sting and Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League or with the Western Mustangs — and faced multiple instances of racism both on and off the ice with players and fans. He was picked by the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche in the 1995 NHL Draft and suited up for an exhibition in 1996, pictured above, scoring his first goal as a pro. After that, he spent the remainder of his professional career in the U.S. and Europe.

One incident stands out from when he was 20 years old and studying at Western University in London, Ontario, through a scholarship program and playing for the Mustangs. Arriving home one evening, he says he was jumped by a biker gang and assaulted by a member wearing brass knuckles and was kicked and punched while he was unconscious. His head wound took eight stitches to fix and he had bruised ribs. “He called me the N word and jumped me and knocked me out,” George says.

At the time he was concerned about missing a hockey game, but also about being perceived as “that Black troublemaker on the team,” so he never reported the incident. “Reflecting on it now, I would never want my children to be exposed to stuff like that or feel that guilt,” George says.

Today, George focuses much of his wealth management practice on helping equip hockey players, and other professional athletes, with the tools and financial wherewithal they need to transition from playing professional sports to business life.

Last year, as several current and retired NHL players from minority backgrounds began talking about racism in the game, they got the idea to form a group to push for change. The Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA), led by former Calgary Flames right winger Akim Aliu, was formed in June 2020 with hopes to eradicate systemic racism and intolerance in hockey from the grassroots up and create sustainable change at all levels of hockey.

Advising the alliance are five prominent businessmen and lawyers from Canada and the U.S., including George. On the grassroots side, George says the HDA is passionate about reaching into different neighbourhoods to offer structure and mentorship for children to learn a new sport. The other important step is to ensure the environment youths play in has accountability, and policies to punish things like racial slurs.

George hopes the Hockey Diversity Alliance will become a “brotherhood of resources” that wasn’t available for him and fellow players growing up. He is already seeing youth from across North America talking and texting with the NHL players in the Alliance. “That kind of community support has never been there before,” he says.

He was also proud to have been a part of a virtual call this past summer that came about after players in the NHL bubble reached out to the HDA to better understand the National Basketball Association walkout. As George explains it, the NHL has a different demographic than either the NBA or National Football League, in that it’s largely white and non-American, which means the issues that directly affect a lot of Black professional basketball and football players don’t directly impact most hockey players. 

Some of the hockey players in the HDA shared their stories during the call: Stories such as Joel Ward’s, who as a forward with the Washington Capitals received racial and threatening backlash on social media after he scored the overtime goal in Game 7 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoff to eliminate the Boston Bruins; or Wayne Simmonds’s, who now plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had a banana thrown at him from the stands during an exhibition game when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers. “There was a moment during that conference call when a lot of players who aren’t directly impacted by this literally leaned in and asked, ‘what can we do to help?’” George says.

There are similarities with what is happening in corporate Canada, George says, noting he is usually the only Black person in the Bay Street boardrooms he is invited into. He hopes that is all about to change with the BlackNorth Initiative, which is led by The Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism. George is on the Sports & Entertainment Committee of BlackNorth.

The initiative set out to remove some of the systemic barriers that exist in business by holding corporate Canada accountable to help find solutions. George says they have seen a lot of empathy and support as corporations become more aware of the systemic hurdles. Within six months, more than 400 Canadian corporations had signed the BlackNorth CEO pledge, to make quantifiable commitments to create opportunities for all of those in the underrepresented Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities.

“A lot of corporate Canada is doing something similar to the players in the bubble and asking what they can do to help,” George says. “It makes me proud to be Canadian, and with Brian Porter, President and Chief Executive of Scotiabank, on the board of BlackNorth, it makes me proud to be working for Scotiabank.”

Last month, the Bank announced ScotiaRISE, a 10-year, $500-million commitment aimed at fostering economic inclusion and resiliency among disadvantaged groups by helping improve their education and employment prospects, adapt to changing circumstances, and increase the likelihood of financial success.

Today, Scotiabank announced a sponsorship agreement with the Hockey Diversity Alliance to further its collective mission of eradicating systemic racism in the game of hockey. The sponsorship will help the Alliance deliver grassroots programming and move the mission beyond hockey as a force for change. This sponsorship is just one of several ways Scotiabank has demonstrated its commitment to diversity in the game of hockey.

“Black hockey players are a small club and Black Bay Street is a small world, too. It’s been rewarding to be a part of that intersection,” says George. “I think we’re in Year 1 of a 10- to 20-year story that has a really positive ending.”