I wasn't going to write anything about the "Wayne Simmonds incident" when I first heard about it. I didn't want to give the perpetrator any more fame than that for which he originally bargained. However, the idea that it should be called the "Wayne Simmonds incident" made me angry. Wayne Simmonds was nothing but the vehicle for a hateful message.
For those of you who are uninitiated into the ugly side of hockey and its fans, a person in the stands in a preseason game in London, Ontario, hurled a banana peel into the path of Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, who's black, as he advanced in a shootout. The reaction in the face of such a blatant insult has been predictable. Fans, analysts and players have mostly all been shouting down the intention of such a gesture. Black players are good, they're strong and they're accepted on hockey teams the same as any player who's white, native or Asian. To the players, that is.
Fans, however, don't live up to such high standards. If there's any recent example in the NHL, it's that of P.K.Subban. Subban broke into the league with a bang last year. He was brash, bold, outspoken, and, above all, supremely talented. Yet, many people failed to recognize his skill in the face of behaviour some decried. Under the microscope, Subban's behaviour was nothing out of the ordinary. Subban loves celebrating goals. So did Teemu Selanne, Theo Fleury, Alex Ovechkin and countless others. Yet, when Subban did it, players suddenly found fault. Subban was "disrespectful." If he didn't stop, "something would happen to him."
The righteous among us, who would love to believe racism is a thing of the past, sneer at such a comparison of experience. Yet, fans throw bananas, and players look askance at a star of a different colour who faces them across the ice, while opposing fans jeer him.
We'd like to think sports are as well-adjusted as the rest of society, but we forget that we make these guys who they are. Fans set the standards of what they'll pay to see. Kids who don't measure up in skills learn how to fight, to entertain fans. We like brawls.
We're not sure about gay guys. Sure, it was nice that Brian Burke's kid broke some ground toward acceptance, but we're not sure we'd really want that guy on our team. We're equally unsure about black guys. They don't play hockey. They run, they jump, they race, they win Super Bowls and Olympic gold medals. They don't skate. At least in some fans' minimal world experience. So, when a guy who's black turns out to be a hell of a hockey player, some of us look at it as an exception. We...them...the separation continues in the closed-circuit world of hockey.
That's got to end. Hockey is a universal sport, with universal players. All fans need to learn to appreciate skill, regardless of colour, religion or sexual orientation. The sad part is, most of us do that already. We just love the game and we're in awe of those who can play it at a level to which we could never aspire. Still, the cretins, the one in a hundred who sees the world the way it used to be, find something to ridicule.
I admire Wayne Simmonds. Last night, having seen the banana peel on the ice, he kept going and still scored in the shootout. Today, when pressed for a response to the incident, he replied, "I'm above that stuff."
P.K. Subban tweeted that he supports Simmonds for being so strong through all of this. Yet, you wonder, how many young black players weren't so strong? How many heard the taunts and saw the banana peels and decided hockey wasn't worth it?
This isn't something the NHL or any other league can fix. This is society. This is a decision made by one guy who wanted to hurt someone, but nobody else who witnessed it stopped him. Somebody has to be the guy who stops that racist guy. Hockey depends on it.