Federal government honours 5 NHL players for overcoming racial barriers

Larry Kwong was one of five former NHLers honoured at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday.  (Photo by New York Rangers/NHLI via Getty Images)
Larry Kwong was one of five former NHLers honoured at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday. (Photo by New York Rangers/NHLI via Getty Images)

TORONTO — During a ceremony at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday, the Government of Canada honoured five players who overcame racial barriers during their journeys to the NHL. It was a specific recognition from the federal government, which they titled Breaking Racial Barriers in the National Hockey League, a small but important step in reconciling our national disgrace of subjecting Black, Indigenous and other minorities to embedded, systemic racism.

Paul Jacobs, Henry “Elmer” Maracle, Larry Kwong, Fred Sasakamoose and Willie O’Ree were all honoured for their contributions to hockey but more pointedly, recognized for the racism and prejudice they all faced during their professional careers. Family members for each player took turns at the lectern — with the exception of Jacobs, who broke into the NHL for the Toronto Arenas as a defenseman during the 1918-19 season — and were visibly moved by the distinction.

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The ceremony culminated in the unveiling of a plaque from the federal government, with the families of the five players honoured taking photos with various government officials. The plaque reads as follows:

Since the establishment of the National Hockey League in 1917, non-white athletes faced racial barriers, preventing them from playing in the league. In the early decades of the NHL, men such as Paul Jacobs, Henry “Elmer” Maracle, Larry Kwong, Fred Sasakamoose, and Willie O’Ree confronted widespread racism and prejudice on and off the ice. These players broke through racial barriers at each stage of their careers, ultimately reaching hockey’s premier league. Representing greater diversity and inclusion in professional hockey, these trailblazers were recognized for both their skill and perseverance, inspiring future generations of players.

Kwong broke the NHL’s colour barrier but this distinction is often a sore subject for his family. He played just one shift for the New York Rangers during the third period of a March 13, 1948 game against the Montreal Canadiens. Wednesday’s ceremony was a proper recognition of the racism he endured throughout his career and his family contended strongly that his career would’ve certainly played out differently if he were white.

Dale Lee Kwong is a writer and poet from Calgary. She is Kwong’s niece and proudly wore his Rangers jersey to the Hall of Fame.

“This is sort of just redemption, this event,” Kwong told Yahoo Sports. “We all knew in our family that he was a hero. Our culture is very humble, you don't boast about things like that.

"I did find it frustrating that people don't know the story of my uncle and the amazing things he did. Breaking the colour barrier and that he wasn't given a fair shot in the NHL, it was kind of like a publicity stunt. And they only played him for one shift late in the third period — I mean, if you play hockey, you know you're sitting on the bench just getting colder and colder and that's no way to make an impact on the game.

“He always regretted that he wasn't given a fair chance and this is acknowledgment that he was correct. He was right in leaving the NHL because he went on to have a good career elsewhere, without the NHL.”

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During her speech at the podium, Dale Lee Kwong revealed that her uncle rarely spoke about the racism he endured during his career, trying to uphold gentlemanly values while spending time with his various nephews, nieces and grandchildren. I asked her about if there’s anything she wants hockey historians to uncover about her uncle’s legacy that hasn’t been previously told. Kwong told me her uncle had been discriminated against by his own teammates, and encountered issues at the Canada-U.S. border while travelling with his team.

“I don't think people realize how bad things were for people of colour in the sport of hockey," she said. "The stories we heard today just barely scratches the surface. Those players, they just sucked it up. They didn't dwell on it, they didn't talk about it.”

In full candor, I was deeply skeptical of the federal government’s motive and timing of the event. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s opening remarks at the 2022 Montreal Biodiversity Conference were interrupted by Indigenous land back supporters, who labeled him as a colonizer. Trudeau didn’t attend Wednesday’s event in Toronto as he was still at the conference.

The federal government is also responsible for overseeing national sport governing bodies such as Hockey Canada, whose public trust has eroded entirely due to the concurrent sexual assault scandals that occurred under its watch. The national hockey governing body also was scrutinized this summer due to the arrogant testimonies of disgraced CEO Scott Smith and interim board chair Andrea Skinner, the latter arguing to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage that arenas across the country could shut down without the existing leadership board intact.

Adam van Koeverden is a decorated former Olympian, who won gold, silver and bronze medals in the K-1 500 and K-1 1000-metre distances spanning three Olympiads from 2004-12. The 40-year-old has seamlessly transitioned into a career in politics, where he is a Member of Parliament for Milton, Ont., and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health and Minister of Sports for the Liberal Party of Canada.

As a result of his unique experience as an elite athlete who is acutely aware of the role of national sport organizations, I asked him what he thought of the federal government’s oversight of Hockey Canada, particularly as it has committed various indiscretions and rarely cared about addressing systemic racism under its umbrella.

“I have an obligation as an athlete and somebody who cares about the future of our country and the situation for current and future athletes to ensure that those environments and that system is a safe one,” van Koeverden told Yahoo Sports. “That requires us to, and has required us to stand up to the Office of the Sport and Integrity Commissioner and make sure they have all the power and resources that they need in order to provide services to sport organizations but also to athletes who are reaching out and need a little bit of help.

We've been working really closely with the Canadian Olympic Committee and various other national sport organizations, primarily to make sure that the Office of the Sport and Integrity Commissioner is a mandatory mechanism that is used by all national sport organizations.

Beyond that, it's really about the culture of sport in Canada. How inclusive it is, how welcoming it is, how safe it is. This has to be a priority of every leader in sport, whether you're coaching at the peewee level at a town or city in Canada, taking your team to the Canada Games for your province or territory or supporting a team as they go to the Olympics or the World Championships.

We need a mutual obligation — an acknowledgment, I should say — that we still have a lot of work to do, standing up for athletes, particularly in the light of the many stories we've heard today. Yes, there has been racism in sport for over 100 years, but we have to acknowledge that it's not over today, there's still work to be done. Sport is not a safe place or a welcoming place for absolutely every person, and that is a work that is ongoing."

There are often times where doing anti-racism, inclusion and diversity work feels like an insurmountable battle, or more pointedly, that the tasks remain undefined while operating in a country where systemic racism is embedded but rarely publicly discussed. But there are tangible measures to keep the government and other actors accountable, too. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report submitted 94 calls to action in its June 2015 report, intended to address the horrors of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.

I asked van Koeverden about his assessment of where the federal government stands on honouring these commitments outlined, with five calls to action (87-91) specifically addressing sport.

“The calls to action, 87-91, I believe, are all focused on sport. I'm really grateful for the leadership of people like Mary Wilson or Chief Littlechild, who is right here and Murray Sinclair,” van Koeverden told Yahoo Sports. “When I was on the Indigenous Northern Affairs Committee, we asked them quite pointedly how we could do a better job of making sure all the calls to actions are upheld and adhered to. The ones on sport in particular, specific to the North American Indigenous Games and specific strategy to ensure that sport, physical activity and recreation are all available to all people in Canada.

“There's a couple of other things there. There's a lot of progress that's been made on all the calls to actions but they're really not about the destination. The calls to action are a journey. It is a mutual obligation to all Canadians to read those calls to action, identify ways we can all be better and keep working towards a more inclusive sports system that's more inviting, safer and offers everybody all of those vital lessons, the health and the physical health and the mental health that sport, physical activity and recreation provide. Those are rights in my view. I think play at a young age and developing physical literacy throughout your young years is a right. It needs to be treated as such and we need to make sure it's universal for all kids in Canada.”

If you can’t reconcile the past, it may lead to a murky future, and the future of hockey is always a primary consideration at anti-racism in hockey events. Wednesday was no different. Representatives from various youth programs under the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s umbrella, along with players from the Little Native Hockey League and Hockey 4 Youth, a program run by Moezine Hasham to make hockey affordable for anyone, were all proudly on hand at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

It’s a small step in the right direction. It’s somewhat dangerous to give the federal government, a body across party lines that has rarely been interested in addressing racism on any level, too much credit. But if acknowledgment is the first step, the government in conjunction with the Hall of Fame inched towards genuine progress. Representation and reconciliation are steps, not end goals. But there’s also no point in breaking the spirits of the delighted kids on hand at the event. Maybe there is a better future for the kids, after all.

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