Racial Slurs Still Happen in Beer League Hockey

Posted January 13, 2019

A team plays at The Gardens Ice House in Laurel, Md.

Once in a while we hear about incidents of racism in hockey, usually on the largest stage: Joel Ward getting called racist names on Twitter after he scored the series-clinching playoff goal in Boston, Devante Smith-Pelly having ‘basketball’ shouted at him in Chicago, and a banana peel thrown onto the ice at Wayne Simmonds in Ontario. While these were relatively recent fan-on-player incidents, the story of 13-year-old Divyne Apollon II showed that players still taunt other players with this garbage, even in youth hockey.

Incidents like these, after making headlines, have also had relatively productive endings as of late, such as charitable donations by the Chicago fans, and the Caps reaching out to Apollon.

Racist incidents in the adult rec leagues don’t end up like the ones mentioned above. Several adult players and referees of different races told me about their experiences, most of whom wished to remain anonymous. Also, many folks I spoke with, fortunately, never had any issues.

First, it’s important to understand what players already deal with. The aggressive, heated nature of hockey means that games can easily get ugly. Tough and dirty play leads to profanity-laced tirades. Players develop thick skin for bad language, as do the referees who have to decide what should or shouldn’t be penalized. Remember: Agitating and baiting people into taking penalties is part of the game. So when basic profanity – or calling someone a white trash redneck (you know who you are) – doesn’t draw a reaction, talk gets tougher. That leads to…

Casual homophobia is, by far, the most common form of line-crossing language in hockey. A longtime referee told me that few players take these insults personally, as everyone knows that they’re said to agitate and bait.

Racist remarks during games are usually made for the same reasons, the difference being only certain folks are targeted.

“As far as hockey goes, it’s better than it was,” said Ben Cole, 44, a bi-racial player and coach who has played many levels of hockey, including Juniors, prep school, and NCAA. He said he experienced countless incidents of players calling him the N-word, and said about half the fights he got into included a racial taunt. “It used to be almost tolerated. Now, you can be suspended, or kicked out of the league.”

“I never reported any of the incidents mainly because I am not easily offended,” said a local beer league player who has Asian ancestry, while telling me of four racist incidents he experienced, one time in high school and three times in the Hockey North America league. “It doesn’t bother me that people throw racial slurs at me because I’ve heard all growing up, whether jokingly or in a mean-spirited fashion.”

A black player I spoke with said his problems happened entirely at the York rink in Pennsylvania“Virtually every game I dealt with being called the N-word, mainly by the older teams in the league. At first I would feel a little weird about it but I got so used to it up there, I thought it was the norm which is why I was shocked when I came down to the Reisterstown/Laurel rinks that it isn’t like that at all.”

Apologies happen. This past summer, an Asian teammate of mine took a hard penalty that left our opponents angry with him. After we killed the penalty and took the lead, someone – clearly irate – skated past our bench and called my teammate a slur (only I heard it clearly). We told the refs, who couldn’t call anything because they didn’t hear it. After we won – the championship, by the way – we celebrated, and the guy came into our locker room to apologize.

Another player I spoke with – also of Asian decent – said he thought he heard an opposing player use a slur once, so he confronted the team’s bench, asking who said it. “After the game, I didn’t shake their hands, and one of the guys came over said he didn’t think he heard what I heard and apologized anyway.”

Folks still joke around using slurs. One player I spoke with, of Colombian origin, said the only racist language he encountered was in good fun with teammates. “On the ice we would call each other racial slurs instead of our names. i.e. ‘Pass the puck you Guineas!’ Or I would get, ‘Do the spic-o-rama!'”

Referees are not only expected to police this language – on top of their other duties – but sometimes experience it themselves. One black official I know said that, during a minor league game, someone told him to go ref basketball. A Hispanic ref told me he’s experienced three incidents of slurs, once as a player. Female players and referees in men’s leagues sometimes hear sexist remarks.

So, when the referees hear a player use this language against another player, what do they do?

The USA Hockey rulebook states:

Rule 601(E): A game misconduct penalty shall be assessed to any player or team official who is guilty of the following actions: (3) Uses language that is offensive, hateful or discriminatory in nature anywhere in the rink before, during or after the game.

What constitutes a ‘Game Misconduct’ in these leagues?

Rule 404: A “Game Misconduct” penalty involves the suspension of a player or Team Official for the balance of the game with immediate substitution taking place on ice. A player or Team Official incurring a game misconduct penalty shall also be suspended for his team’s next game (the game already appearing on the schedule of that team at the time of the infraction).

(Note) In all cases where a game misconduct penalty is assessed, the incident shall be reported to the proper authorities who shall have full power to impose further suspensions.

So, at minimum, if a slur is used, and the referees hear it and take action, the player gets a 10-minute misconduct (not necessarily a power play for the other team, though refs often tack on an additional minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct), they’re kicked out of the game, and can’t play the next game. The commissioner gets the report, and has the authority to take further action, including kicking the player out of the league.

Knowing the consequences of using slurs – racial, sexist or homophobic – the players are more likely to do it out of earshot of the referees, and therefore, Rule 601 E(3) isn’t invoked.

Though I’m sure there are plenty of cases where players decide to settle matters by fighting, or filing a formal complaint to the league, I’ve found that most rec league players these days don’t care to let these words affect what they’re trying to do – play hockey.

“Sadly, not much you can do when it’s going on,” said a longtime teammate of mine.