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Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

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Malcolm Jaques, a Black 16-year-old forward with the Greater Toronto Hockey League AA Toronto Royals, was pushing and shoving with a Vaughan Rangers forward.

Jaques felt the Rangers player had delivered a hit from behind to another Royals player and Jaques wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t acceptable. It was four minutes into the second period of a GTHL game on Dec. 2, 2017, and tempers had been rising as the game progressed.

“The guy just turns around and says to me, what are you going to do, [n-word],” Jaques recounted.

The gloves were dropped. A fight ensued. When it was over, Jaques made his case to a nearby linesman and then to the referee. 

“I was extremely fired up, the guys on my team on the ice all heard what was said,” he said.

But the game officials said they had not heard the slur.

The Royals’ team manager subsequently filed a complaint with the GTHL on Jaques’ behalf, setting the stage for a Jan. 9, 2018, hearing at the league’s head office. 

The details of how that hearing unfolded open a window into how one of the world’s largest and richest amateur hockey leagues has dealt with racial intolerance on the ice.

With more than 40,000 players and at least $10 million in annual revenue, the GTHL has come under scrutiny since 16-year-old Triple-A player Myles Douglas alleged in a May 23 interview with TSN that he was the target of racial slurs in at least half of his games this season.

Following Douglas’s comments and after growing pressure from a number of NHL players of colour, the GTHL agreed to disclose the number of penalties for discriminatory slurs that have been issued in each of the past three seasons. The league also agreed to appoint an independent board to examine the issue of racism in the GTHL.

Since the GTHL’s promise to appoint a board, more than 20 families have contacted TSN to share stories of how their children have been victims of racism in minor hockey – both within the GTHL and in other amateur leagues.

Their stories underscore that having policies to deal with racism isn’t enough if those policies aren’t followed, if proper records aren’t maintained, or if families are not advised of their rights in advance of hearings into allegations of racism. Their stories also highlight how difficult it will be for minor-hockey leagues to address the gaps that exist in a system that relies heavily on low-paid game officials and volunteer parents.

“The manner in which the GTHL handled Malcolm’s case still enrages me three years later,” Cindy Jaques, Malcolm’s mother, said in an interview with TSN.

Neither the referee nor the linesman from the game showed up for Jaques’s hearing, she said.

The Jaques family wasn’t provided with an incident report, if the referee actually wrote one. Jaques and her son also recall that GTHL official Keven Wilson remarked throughout the hour-long hearing that his son Tom played in the NHL and that the Jaques family should understand, “chirping is a part of the game at every level.”

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“The manner in which the GTHL handled Malcolm’s case still enrages me three years later."

But the worst moment, Malcolm Jaques remembered, occurred at the end of the hearing, after the Rangers player denied making the racial slur, after a group of Jaques’s teammates told the hearing they heard the slur, followed by several Rangers players who read prepared statements saying they hadn’t heard any slur, and after the accused player’s mother showed a photo of a family relative who was Black. She said the family ties proved that was impossible her son would have said anything so offensive.

As the hearing wound down, the Rangers player accused of the slur walked over to Jaques, raised his arms, and embraced him. “Look, two men hugging it out. No hard feelings,” one of the GTHL executives said, according to Cindy Jaques.

“It made my blood boil,” she said.

“The last thing I wanted right then was a hug from that guy,” Malcolm said. “I was just in such shock I didn’t know what to do.”

The GTHL’s official summary of the hearing, provided to TSN by Jaques, indicated the game officials said they didn’t hear the slur and that the league couldn’t determine “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a discriminatory slur had been uttered.

“Since the teams seem to bring out the worst in the other, the committee ruled that both teams are to be on probation for the remainder of the season, including playoffs and/or the Clancy tournament,” the summary said.

On Jan. 25, 2018, in an email she provided to TSN, Cindy Jaques emailed the GTHL requesting information about appealing the finding, pointing out that Malcolm’s written statement about the incident had never been provided to the committee as it ought to have been under the league’s official harassment policy. While she also sought an assurance that the incident would be reported to the Ontario Hockey Federation to be included in its annual reporting of complaints about discriminatory incidents, she never received a response to that question.

“The GTHL was arrogant and dismissive,” Cindy Jaques said. “It was just deplorable. The paperwork they gave us didn’t have the names of the officials who were in charge of the hearing. There was no incident report from the referee, who wasn’t even required to show up.”

“I remember the GTHL had everyone sit across from each other in this room, with no prep, no telling people in advance what’s going to happen or the structure for the hearing,” she said. “And then these three old white guys tell the Rangers player to go hug and make up and it’s seen as an act of remorse? It’s disgusting that they thought that was appropriate. And then finally, they put both teams on probation because we had filed a complaint against a kid for what he said on the ice. How does probation for both teams make sense?”

GTHL executive director Scott Oakman declined to discuss the Jaques case in detail.

“The GTHL does not publicly comment on individual hearing results or investigations,” Oakman wrote in an emailed statement to TSN. “Therefore, we will not be responding to any questions specific to participants involved in any particular hearing or investigation.”

“All participants at hearings,” Oakman wrote, “are provided with all information submitted by the parties involved in the hearing as well as any other information that has been obtained by the GTHL.If there is a referee’s report connected to any incident, it is made available to the complainant, respondent and GTHL special committee conducting the hearing.

“If there are other witnesses to an incident, they are invited to attend. The GTHL does not have legal authority to require a witness to attend. It can require attendance of registered participants, but not parents and spectators unless such witness has some official capacity with a club or the league. If on-ice officials are witness to an incident, they are required to attend the hearing.”

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“The GTHL does not publicly comment on individual hearing results or investigations,” GTHL executive director Scott Oakman wrote in an emailed statement to TSN.

Oakman wrote that Wilson denied making a comment that downplayed racist or discriminatory language.

“Although hearings are conducted within accepted standards of due process, they are also an opportunity for an open dialogue with players and families,” Oakman wrote. “This exchange sometimes involves Board members (many of whom are also hockey parents) conveying their personal experiences… Mr. Wilson has indicated that the comment that has been attributed to him was not made in the context of ‘chirping’ involving racist or discriminatory language.”

While Malcolm Jaques and his mother said they were shocked the linesman and referee denied hearing the slur, it didn’t come as a surprise to former GTHL referee Keith Kitchen, who officiated games in the league from 1988-2007.

Kitchen said in an interview with TSN that while working as a linesman in the GTHL, he repeatedly told referees during games that he heard racial slurs, but most declined to call penalties.

“There were plenty of times I was working as a linesman and I would tell the ref that I had heard a racial slur,” Kitchen said. “Often the ref would not call the penalty. He’d either go over to the bench and tell the coach, or he’d just say he’d listen for it to see if it happened again. Many refs don’t want to be the bad guys, they don’t want to throw the kids under the bus, and they don’t want the compounded issue of the paperwork, writing up an incident report and then having to go to the discipline hearing. Many times, I’ve heard referees say to linesmen, ‘If you want me to call a penalty for a racial slur then you’ll have to do the paperwork.’ ”

Kitchen said referees sometimes told him that they didn’t call such penalties because they were worried about their safety and the possibility of angry parents confronting them later.

“You get paid $50 a game,” he said. “People are not taking risks for that money. And the GTHL is not in a position to be too hard on a referee because they have a hard time recruiting game officials.”

Kitchen said he heard racial slurs at least once or twice every week throughout his refereeing career in the GTHL. He said he would always call the penalties when he was working games as a ref.

Oakman said that since Kitchen last officiated in the GTHL, “the league has made several changes in its education material for officials, including providing them with strict instructions on the need to enforce penalties under the discriminatory slur/taunt rule as well as specific direction on reporting in instances in which an allegation is brought to their attention that was unheard by any of the on-ice officials. Any official who is found not to be enforcing these rules is removed from officiating in our league.”

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Jaden Dye was nine years old when he says he was called the N-word for the first time in connection with a GTHL game.

Dye was playing with the GTHL Atom AA Capitals in a Sept. 26, 2015, game against the Duffield Devils when a group of players began to push and shove one another as the buzzer sounded to end the game, a 3-2 Capitals win.

The referees broke up the scuffle and sent the players off the ice. As Dye walked off, the mother of a Devils player confronted him. She held a young child in one arm and an iPad in the other, Dye’s grandmother Kelly Dye said.

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Jaden Dye was nine years old when he says he was called the N-word for the first time in connection with a GTHL game.

“All of a sudden, she calls Jaden ‘a dirty little [N-word] and hits him in the head with the iPad,” she said. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

Capitals coach George Stavro confirmed the incident in a Sept. 27, 2015, email to the Capitals team manager.

“A Duffield player… was vocal swearing at our players as he passed by,” Stavro wrote in an email, a copy of which was provided to TSN by Kelly Dye.  “Our player returned a comment when all of the sudden the player’s mother pushed Jaden Dye and called him an ‘n-word’. As she pushed him she also threw her iPad at him and struck him in the neck. Our assistant Coach…  witnessed it all and intervened. Jaden was shaken up and was crying searching for his grandparents who had left for the hallway."

Toronto police agreed to press criminal charges of assault with a weapon against the hockey mother and in a series of emails to Alan and Kelly Dye, Jaden’s grandparents and primary caregivers, Oakman wrote that the GTHL would not do anything to impede the criminal case.

“We just spoke with PC Stewart at 31 Division,” Oakman wrote in a Dec. 7, 2015, email to Alan Dye, which Dye provided to TSN. “She has brought us up to speed and indicated we can proceed with whatever action we deem appropriate.”

The parent of the Devils player, Oakman wrote, would be banned indefinitely from GTHL games.“This of course is the most impactful action the league has available to us,” Oakman wrote.

Ten days later, on Dec. 17, 2015, the GTHL convened a hearing into the incident – even though the criminal investigation was still ongoing.

As happened with the Jaques case, Alan Dye said neither the referee nor the linesmen who worked the Sept. 26, 2015, game appeared for the hearing into the Dye complaint. The Dyes say they were never provided with an incident report. Alan Dye said that a lawyer representing the woman accused of assault appeared at the hearing and began questioning Jaden.

“It just wasn’t right,” Alan Dye said. “The GTHL had three people there to oversee the hearing. Why would they let a lawyer for this woman be the one to ask Jaden questions Besides, this is a case of a parent hitting a kid in the head with an iPad in front of multiple witnesses. It was pretty straightforward.” 

Stavro, the Capitals’ coach, declined to comment when contacted by TSN and asked for his version of the events.

Following the hearing, Kelly Dye said a GTHL official followed her to the parking lot.

“He asked if we would consider dropping the criminal charges,” she said. “I’m assuming he and the GTHL just wanted it to go away.”

Oakman wrote in his email that the GTHL official denied Dye’s allegation that any such conversation took place.

In the GTHL’s Dec. 22, 2015, summary report of the hearing, the league determined that the parent who had allegedly thrown the iPad and uttered a racial slur would be allowed to return to games, just not those in which Jaden was playing.

“We still see the mother at games now and she smiles and waves at us, just to let us know she’s able to be in the same rink we’re in,” Alan Dye said. “Just to rub our faces in it.”

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Racial incidents in minor hockey are not exclusive to the GTHL.

In Pickering, just east of Toronto, Syrus Hay Brereton, a 16-year-old forward with the AA Panthers, says he has been called the n-word at least four times during games in the past three years. On each occasion, he says referees have told him they never heard the slur.

During one game on Nov. 29, 2018, between Pickering and the Northumberland Nighthawks, a Northumberland player allegedly said to Syrus: “Who do you think you are, Subban? You shouldn’t be here. You don’t belong. Get out of here.”

Brereton said he didn’t respond.

“I feel pretty bad about myself when guys make comments like this,” he said. “I try to push it away. If the ref doesn’t do anything there’s nothing I can really do.”

The Ontario Minor Hockey Association oversees rep hockey in most regions of the province outside Toronto so Syrus’s mother Camille Hay emailed OMHA regional director Cathy Baker-Bell on Dec. 4, 2018, outlining details of the incident.

Pickering’s team manager emailed Hay two days later, writing that the OMHA had asked what Hay thought the next steps should be.

“I wrote another email saying I wish my son didn’t live in a world where he has to feel like a lesser human being, but I didn’t suggest next steps,” Hay said.

She never heard back from the OMHA. While the league said in an email to TSN that it has a “zero tolerance policy” against racism and discrimination, neither Hay, her son, nor Pickering’s coach Matthew McGeown were ever interviewed by the OMHA.

“They don’t want to deal with issues like this,” McGeown said in an interview. “They’d rather see it swept under the carpet.”

“Confidentiality is of utmost importance to the OMHA as it relates to our members – minors in particular - and the integrity of our code of conduct complaint process,” OMHA Executive Director Ian Taylor wrote in an email to TSN. “As such, we will not be discussing any individuals publicly.”

In a playoff game this season on Jan. 29, 2020, against a team from Clarington, Ont., Hay Brereton pushed a Clarington player away from the Pickering goalie after a whistle and, apparently in the eyes of the referee, kept pushing.

Hay Brereton was ejected.

On the way to the penalty box, Hay Brereton was visibly upset. He didn’t realize the Clarington player was also being penalized and as he skated to the penalty box, Hay Brereton said a coach called him a “monkey” and said, “Go kill yourself.”

On Jan. 29, Hay Brereton’s father filed a complaint with the OMHA.

Over the following days, the OMHA confirmed receipt of the complaint, warned that league officials would be at future game between the two clubs, and then pointed out in a subsequent email to Brereton that he had named the wrong coach in his complaint.

On Feb. 18, Brereton emailed OMHA regional representative Bill Hutton to ask for a meeting to discuss his complaint.

“I am quite baffled that this complaint has not been taken seriously,” Brereton wrote in his email, which he provided to TSN. “Nobody contacted me or my son to find out what transpired during the game, nor were the two teammates that were standing with my son contacted either who also heard the comment being made.  I do not understand how this can be dismissed when an adult who is a member of [the coaching staff] told a 15 year old to go kill himself.”

Five months later, Brereton is still waiting for the OMHA’s response.