Columnist image
Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

|Archive

The Greater Toronto Hockey League, the largest minor hockey league in the world with more than 40,000 registered players, refuses to disclose the number of racism-related incidents that occur during its games, despite a call from several current and former NHL players to do so.

The league made its position clear two weeks after 16-year-old player Myles Douglas told TSN In Depth in an interview that he was the target of racist insults in at least half of his team’s games this season.

"I would say in half of the games someone would say something [racial] but no one ever heard," Douglas said. "They always say it when the ref’s back is turned so they know the ref or no one else will hear them. I just skate away. I just know I got the number. I’ll see them in the corner later in the game and I’ll hit them. I’ll just end it right there."

Douglas appeared in 45 games for the North York Rangers’ Triple-A midget team this season. He said that while at least one player was penalized for using a slur during a game, referees routinely told him the rules prevented them from calling a penalty if they didn’t hear the slur.

While other minor hockey organizations disclose these penalties, GTHL executive director Scott Oakman wrote in a series of emailed statements to TSN that the league will not publicize how often penalties are called for discriminatory slurs.

“We regard even one racist comment as too many,” Oakman wrote in a statement emailed on Tuesday. “We track data internally and take actions as necessary, including, in addition to penalties and suspensions, disciplinary hearings in appropriate circumstances. But we don’t publish stats about minors on an anonymized or aggregated basis, since that may damage the reputation of the vast majority of the young players in our league whose good sportsmanship is beyond question.”

Players in the GTHL range in age from six to 18. Oakman wrote that the GTHL has implemented policies to address discrimination, including gender identity training, respect in sport and a “speak out” policy against harassment and misconduct.

The GTHL, like many amateur leagues, documents penalties for racist comments. On GTHL game sheets, "discriminatory slurs" are categorized as ‘GRM21’ penalties. Players face an indefinite suspension of at least two games.

NHL players Evander Kane, Matt Dumba and Blake Wheeler and former NHL players (and GTHL alumnus) Anson Carter and Joel Ward condemned the GTHL’s refusal to be transparent.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Ward said in an interview. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. That’s so disappointing.”

“It’s shameful,” Kane said in an interview. “It’s part of the problem that organizations like this are not fully open about how often racist incidents like this are taking place.”

Kane, who grew up in Vancouver, said he was targeted because of his race since before he was a teenager. During one tournament in Vancouver when he was 10, Kane was given a penalty and made his way to the penalty box.

“There were probably four to five parents banging on the glass behind me screaming, ‘We should cut your f---ing legs off. You monkey. Somebody should kill you,’” Kane said.

Wheeler, the Winnipeg Jets’ captain, said the GTHL should go so far as to publish the names of players who utter racial slurs.

“If you’re silent in this then aren’t you complicit in it as well?” Wheeler said. “Being silent is just as bad as being a part of it. You know the power of hockey in Toronto if the GTHL started to out the people who do this. It’s easy to do now. You can hide behind it. Only a few people will know if it’s being protected.  But if you out people, there’s the embarrassment factor. Spread the message to all the kids that this is wrong and that if this is the path you’re going down, you are going to be publicly embarrassed.”

Former NHLer Anson Carter, who played for the GTHL’s Don Mills Flyers and went on to play for Team Canada in the 2003 world championships, said the GTHL’s refusal is unacceptable.

“It's embarrassing,” Carter said in an interview with TSN. “I always tell people that Toronto is the most diverse city in North America, without a doubt, and by not releasing those numbers, and by not being transparent, they are covering something up. I’m always proud to say I played minor hockey in Toronto, but that makes me want to puke. How are we supposed to move forward without transparency, and if there’s a problem, acknowledging there’s a problem? You’re worried about these kids’ reputations? Really? What about these poor kids [of colour] playing in these leagues?”

While the GTHL has a mandatory two-game suspension for racial slurs, other leagues have stiffer penalties.

Winnipeg Hockey suspends players who make a discriminatory slur for four games for a first offence, said association president Chris Hall. A year ago, the association increased the penalty for a first offence from three games. There are between five and 10 penalties for discriminatory slurs called each season, Hall said.

He said some players have been suspended even after referees did not hear the slur. In such cases, players can be required to appear with their parents in front of a review hearing. During those hearings, some players have admitted to making the slurs, Hall said, and face the league-mandated suspension.

Hockey Calgary referees have called 68 penalties for discriminatory slurs over the past five seasons, an average of about 14 such penalties per season in a league that has 14,500 players, association president Kevin Kobelka said in an interview.

He said suspensions for first-time offenders can range from four to 10 games. Kobelka has been association president for five years and said he is not aware of any cases of repeat offenders.

“Overall, the reported and suspended numbers are very low, but this does not mean that there aren’t more occurrences out there which go unreported,” Kobelka said.

The Saskatoon Minor Hockey Association suspended six players this season for making verbal taunts on discriminatory grounds, said association president Kelly Boes. All of those suspensions were for slurs related to sexual orientation.

Since the 2015-16 season, the SMHA has suspended three players for racial slurs. The most serious suspension occurred during the 2018-19 season, when one player was suspended for eight games for making a racial insult towards an official.

“Our racist slurs are almost always directed at First Nations players,” Boes said.

The SMHA issues a minimum of a five-game suspension for these infractions, he said.

The GTHL says its corporate partners include Scotiabank, Dairy Farmers of Ontario, Canadian Tire, TRUE Hockey, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Under Armour and the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Several of those companies did not respond to emails requesting comment. Some who did reply refused to say whether they support the GTHL’s stance regarding the disclosure of information about race-related penalties.

“We recognize that the GTHL is at a critical juncture of its organizational transformation focused on improving its culture as it relates to diversity and inclusiveness and they have identified strategies to improve and be part of much needed change,” Scotiabank spokesman Doug Johnson wrote in an emailed statement.

“We understand their policy on sharing the data of minors, but also believe there is a need for ongoing improvement at every level to ensure true inclusion,” wrote Heather MacGregor, a spokeswoman for the Dairy Farmers of Ontario.

“Youth sports are so important to our children’s lives and their communities,” Maple Leafs spokesman Steve Keogh wrote in an email. “They can promote the values of teamwork, friendship, competition, commitment and more. They also help create and shape many of life’s lessons and memories. Participation, though, has to be a safe and inclusive environment for all.”

Neither Johnson, MacGregor, nor Keogh responded to subsequent emails asking again whether the GTHL’s refusal was in line with their companies’ corporate policies.

Kelly Masse, a spokeswoman for the Hockey Hall of Fame, wrote that the hall receives logo recognition on the GTHL’s website but does not sponsor or endorse any GTHL events or programs.

“However, it is our practice to review these types of arrangements on at least an annual basis and since we were not previously aware of the [GTHL’s] statements, we will follow this story as it unfolds,” Masse wrote in an email.