‘They bury it as deep under the ice as it can go’: on belonging to a minority in a sport that hates troublemakers, by Jashvina Shah
Barely a month after I was sexually assaulted, I stood in the ice hockey rink at a small prep school in New England. The holiday tournaments were taking place and I’d foolishly agreed to go. It was too soon for me to be there, that much I knew.
I hadn’t wanted to go because I knew hockey was the last place I would be welcome.
It’s funny, in a sad way, because the welcoming culture around hockey was the reason why I fell in love with the sport in the first place. When I was a 15-year-old sneaking five minutes of a New Jersey Devils game, the speed drew me in, but the community is what kept me. Especially when I became a freshman at Boston University and began following the hockey team there. From my first day at Agganis Arena – the school’s rink – I knew it was home. Everyone loved the team. Everyone was so kind and helpful. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged somewhere. So I stayed. By junior year I was a beat reporter. I’ve been covering college hockey for eight years.
In that time the sport – especially BU hockey – became the most grounding part of my life. BU hockey taught me I could be happy again after coming out of a long, vicious battle with depression. Princeton hockey is what got me out of bed every morning after my friend passed away. Hockey rinks were the places I went when I felt truly broken, and the only place where I was sure I could find happiness.
Hockey has the tightest community among all major North American sports. It’s the smallest of the main four, the little brother, with tiny teams and incredibly passionate fans. Hockey claims many virtues: leadership, being coachable, following the rules, adhering to a complex code of honor, putting the good of the team above oneself and, in general, being nice: smiling at fans, attending Pride Week, playing in charity hockey games to support cures for diseases like ALS.
The National Hockey League likes to claim that ‘hockey is for everyone’ and for a while, it was easy to believe. For a while, I felt I belonged.
I’m not sure when exactly that changed. Maybe it was my own experiences: the racist microagressions. The white reporter who told me people are too sensitive about racism. The white male reporter – a friend, or supposed friend – who blocked me when I asked him to examine his privilege. Maybe it was the first time I was sexually harassed at the rink while trying to do my job. Or maybe it was the 100th time. Maybe it was all the times I saw players use homophobic slurs. Or maybe it was the way I watched, and even talked about, how hockey treated victims of sexual assault: from the players who commit acts of violence to the general managers and coaches who continue to let them play, down to the fans who blindly support and defend them.
There are so many instances that I can’t remember all of them anymore. They flit through my brain, occupying temporary space until the latest disappointment takes hold. There are the players who have been accused of sexual misdemeanors, harassment, assault, or domestic violence – Joe Corvo in Boston, Seymon Varlamov in Colorado, Mike Ribeiro in Nashville, Garrett Ross in Chicago – who were re-signed by teams despite their record.
And of course there’s Patrick Kane, the face of the NHL and the face of American hockey, accused of rape in 2016. When Kane was accused, his teammates and the Chicago Blackhawks stood by him. His fans supported him while chasing after the victim. When the NHL finally did its own ‘investigation’, they decided Kane would not face any disciplinary action. Who cares if he hurts people, as long as he can score, right? The people in power – general managers, coaches, the commissioner of the league – don’t believe that Kane, or players like him, can do any wrong. To hockey, victims of sexual assault are liars and gold-diggers. There’s no understanding or empathy.
Fines and punishments, when they have been handed out, have been sparse at best. And no matter what, there will always be fans, teammates and team members who will defend the players who’ve done wrong. Or they ignore it. They bury it as deep under the ice as it can go.
As all of these experiences piled up, I realized I wasn’t happy around the rink anymore. I realized that it wasn’t just me – it was hockey. It’s the way hockey is structured. All those virtues, that community – it only applies to a very specific group of people. It’s a sport that consists mostly of straight, white men. And I’m not one of them. I’m a brown woman. So I’ll never belong in hockey.
For a long time, I had tried to bury what I saw. I never spoke about that time I was sexually harassed. Or about the time a player I covered said something racist. Or that time a player’s father tried to kiss me on the cheek.
I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be pushed out. As a brown woman, I’m only welcome if I can deal with the racist and sexist jokes, laugh along and pretend that there’s nothing wrong with saying people should only speak English in the locker room, that there’s nothing wrong with objectifying women. The fear of being unwelcome is real; it turns us into people we don’t want to be. It makes us complicit in the culture that hockey cultivates. Never, ever rock the boat here. Because if you do, you will be ostracized.
I reached breaking point the day the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 2017 National Hockey League champions, decided they would visit the White House and Donald Trump. The team said they wanted to respect ‘tradition’ and not pick a side. Sidney Crosby, the captain, a Canadian hockey superstar, called it an honor. The media praised the Penguins for doing what hockey players are supposed to do – not cause trouble. Once again hockey, the whitest of all major North American sports, was also the one trying hardest to appear non-political. That day all my anger came out. So I said things. Man things. And the next day I cried because I knew it would hurt my chances of getting a job covering hockey.
By the time I got to that prep rink in New England, I felt alone. As I cried and texted a friend at BU, I took a deep breath. I walked around the metal railing and down to ice level. I faked a smile and interviewed a coach. And then I did the same thing the next day. And the day after that.
A while ago, the NHL issued a ‘Declaration of Principles’: nothing more than a bland PR statement claiming that hockey is dedicated to inclusion, that hockey really is for everyone. Several other hockey institutions signed on, including the National Women’s Hockey League, college hockey and USA Hockey. Recently the NHL issued a press release declaring that the initiative is working.
Working? Within the past year, USA hockey hired a new general manager: a man who had called one of his former players the n-word. The head coach of the gold-medal winning women’s USA Olympic team spoke at a pro-Trump rally. The reality is that hockey is not for everyone. It has harmed many people who’ve loved the sport. It has made them leave. But I also know that if we leave it will never change.
Jashvina Shah is a freelance journalist who currently covers Big Ten hockey for College Hockey News and talks extensively about the intersection of sports and politics through her podcast, Stick to Sports. She’s been covering the conference since its inception and has covered the CWHL, Princeton hockey and Boston University hockey. The 2013 BU graduate’s work has appeared in a variety of outlets, including espnW. Born in Boston, Shah has been following sports since she was a child — especially football and Formula 1 — but has been engrossed by hockey since 2006.