By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – The National Hockey League (NHL) has been rocked by two high-profile racism scandals in recent weeks, and while it has condemned both incidents, experts agree it needs to take a dynamic approach and tackle the issue head on.
A head coach is under investigation by his team and the NHL over comments directed toward a black player 10 years ago, while a popular hockey commentator was fired for remarks that were widely viewed as a racist attack on the patriotism of Canadian immigrants.
To avoid the issue turning into a full-blown crisis, experts suggest the NHL must take a stand and that the greatest danger for the league would be to think it will all go away on its own.
Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, a co-founder of Respect Group which empowers people to recognize and prevent bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination in sport, schools and the workplace, said better educating players and coaches on key issues is one way to help nip any problems in the bud.
“There’s been some negative things that are forefront and center with the NHL and I think this is an opportunity for them to take the leadership role and to really make a difference,” Kennedy told Reuters.
“When it comes to these issues, posters and buttons and nice language just doesn’t cut it. This has to be embedded in our organizations. The efforts that we make have to become a priority in the way that we teach.”
On Monday, Nigerian-born former NHL player Akim Aliu said on Twitter that Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters repeatedly used racial slurs while criticizing his choice of music 10 years ago when he played under him in the American Hockey League.
Peters, in an apology letter to the Flames organization late on Wednesday, acknowledged that he used offensive language when dealing with Aliu and called it both an isolated and immediately regrettable incident.
When asked to comment the Flames said they had nothing further to add at this moment while the NHL referred back to its statement on Tuesday, where it called the alleged behavior “repugnant and unacceptable”.
Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, said because of social media, outrage over some incidents multiplies quickly and the NHL would do best to act swiftly.
“You may have to over-react, you may even have to fire people that may not necessarily need to be fired,” said Dorfman.
“Either way I think you have to take maybe a little more of an extreme viewpoint or extreme action in these kinds of cases just to set an example and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
It has been far from an ideal month for the NHL.
Two weeks ago Don Cherry, who since the early 1980s had been a fixture on “Hockey Night in Canada”, was fired by a Canadian broadcaster for on-air comments that many believed disparaged Canadian immigrants.
During his “Coach’s Corner” segment, Cherry complained about people not wearing poppies – an emblem of remembrance – ahead of the country’s Nov. 11 commemoration of war veterans – in comments that singled out immigrants.
The headlines surrounding the Peters and Cherry sagas could not have been further from what the NHL envisioned when it launched its “Hockey Is For Everyone” initiative in 2017, a campaign rooted in making the sport more inclusive.
“If you think about crisis management there is a specific set of steps you always undertake,” said Ken Wong, a marketing professor at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
“The first is you recognize that there is a problem and you own the problem… Second, you want to suggest you are doing everything you can to understand the roots of that problem and the third step is you are taking the appropriate actions to minimize the likelihood that it happens again.
“And if you can’t do those three stages then the NHL and anybody else facing a crisis frankly, they deserve whatever they get.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Toby Davis)