Columnist image
Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

|Archive

When a player on Switzerland’s national team called Nazem Kadri a racial slur during a game at the 2010 World Juniors, Kadri simply turned and skated back to Team Canada’s bench.

Kadri, who was then 20, didn’t tell anyone what had happened – not the referee, not a teammate, not Canadian head coach Willie Desjardins.

“It was vulgar, it was racial, but you just take the guy’s number and keep playing,” Kadri said in an interview with TSN. “Insults like that have been such an ongoing thing that I’ve learned to ignore them, which is a little embarrassing for me to admit now.”

Kadri is now 31 and a 12-year National Hockey League veteran, but says little has changed since he was first the subject of racial attacks as a 10-year-old player in London, Ont.

The Colorado Avalanche centre says he has been targeted by racial slurs on the ice, by fans in NHL arenas, and repeatedly on social media.

Embedded Image“I was one of the few non-white players out there, being of Middle Eastern background and Muslim faith,” he says. “There was a lot of Islamophobia out there. I heard it from players and players’ parents. I was a young kid and I remember being confused and hurt. And it’s happened multiple times, countless really.”

Kadri is among the current and former NHL players of colour who appear in a jarring two-and-a-half-minute ad posted online Saturday by the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA), a group created by nine current and former NHL players in June 2020 to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey.

The ad, conceived by HDA sponsor Budweiser Canada, highlights the slurs that have been used against the HDA’s members, who include Toronto Maple Leaf Wayne Simmonds, Minnesota Wild Matt Dumba, Florida Panther Anthony Duclair and former NHL players Akim Aliu, Chris Stewart and Trevor Daley.

A censored 60-second version of the ad, in which the slurs are completely clouded out to comply with broadcasting requirements, will air Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada.

“There have been other spots about racism in hockey, but I think this one is the first that hits you right in the face,” said Aliu, one of the HDA’s founding members. “It doesn’t skirt around this. We’ve heard these hateful words forever and still see them in our [social media direct messages.] It’s become so normal for us.

“We all loved the concept of the ad. I remember asking if Budweiser was committed to actually using the words that people used in our DMs and they promised that they'd stay honest with us, that they'd share our lived experiences.”

The ad, which also features hall of famer Angela James and Canadian women’s national team member Sarah Nurse, was filmed over two days in July at the CAA Centre in Brampton, Ont. and Canlan Sports in Scarborough.

Besides showing some of the hate speech players that have received, the ad features HDA members sitting in a circle in a room sharing stories.

“Why would you ever want your kid to experience something like that?” Dumba asks his fellow players. “Would you put them in hockey? ... It's completely different when you're a white player. People still don't understand that.”

“Think about everything we have to tiptoe around,” Kadri says to the group. 

Simmonds shares that he has misgivings about enrolling his young daughter in hockey because of racism. 

“We're only so many within this game,” he says. “We need other people to speak up for us. Silence is not an option.”

In connection with the spot, Budweiser Canada will sell rolls of hockey tape with the statement "Racism has no place in hockey #TapeOutHate" printed on them. One dollar from each roll sold will be given to the HDA. The tape is available for sale starting Saturday at http://www.shopbeergear.ca and at Canadian Tire stores starting Jan. 22.

Budweiser Canada’s rink board ads at NHL arenas in Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg, where the beer maker is a team sponsor, will also feature the HDA ad tag line over the following few weeks, said Budweiser Canada senior brand director Mike D’Agostini.

"We knew this ad is going to be very uncomfortable and we need to be comfortable with that," D’Agostini said. "I'm sure some people will be displeased with it. But these players get this on a daily basis."

Aliu said the NHL repeatedly rejected requests to work with Budweiser Canada and the HDA to create the spot.

“Over a year ago. Budweiser reached out to the NHL and NHLPA and told them about the spot and that it wanted to include current NHL players,” Aliu said. “There were more than a dozen conversations and in every one, the NHL said it didn’t want to work with the HDA. So, we’re not allowed to be in any NHL-branded gear in the spot. The league is saying the current guys like Wayne, ‘You can’t wear the jersey.’ The pettiness and smallness is so sad. It’s another rock bottom for the NHL.”

Instead of NHL jerseys, players in the ad wear black and white uniforms with the HDA’s logo.

“The NHL was advised about this more than a year ago,” D’Agostini said. “The league had a number of opportunities to be involved and chose not to.”

Aliu said he was disappointed with the NHLPA for not lobbying the NHL to be involved with the ad’s creation.

“It’s sad the union that is supposed to support the players decided not to on a topic that is integral to growing the game,” Aliu said.

An NHL spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Embedded Image“This is part of the league's collective use brand guidelines,” said NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon. “This matter falls under league and team guidelines for logo use.”

In London, Nazem's father Sam Kadri said he's proud of his son and looks forward to seeing the public's reaction to the new spot.

“We heard racism from Nazem’s time in minor hockey all the way up to junior when he played in London with the Knights,” Sam said. “Somehow, people with these comments about 9/11 and bin Laden seemed to keep coming up somewhere. I would get furious. But what can you do? I would definitely confront people who talked like that if I knew who it was, but I couldn't put myself in a compromising position.”

Sam said he's proud of Nazem for taking on a role with the HDA. Confronting racism head on is the best way to eradicate it, he said.

“For Naz and these guys to do this, this is not taking the easy way out,” Sam said. “Doing this automatically puts a big target on yourself. And I'm very proud of him for it.”