As the Winnipeg Jets’ season wound down, a controversy involving one of their players flared up. Interim coach Paul Maurice made star winger Evander Kane a healthy scratch for a game in Toronto – and just like that, harsh words were hauled out to criticize the 22-year-old: he had an attitude; he was arrogant; he wasn’t a good fit with the Jets; he needed to be traded post-haste. If it sounded familiar, that’s because it was. Ever since the franchise relocated to Manitoba from Atlanta, Kane has been a target for critics.
Some of that, he’s earned. When he posed during the 2012-13 lockout in front of the lights of Las Vegas pretending a giant stack of money was his cell phone, fans and media rightfully ripped him for not understanding how it would be perceived.
But put aside the specifics of that situation for a second and answer these questions: Were you ever 21? Did you ever make a mistake at that age? Do you think that, if you were making millions of dollars and existed in a massive public fishbowl at that age, you might make the odd error in judgment?
The answer should be “yes.” That’s why there’s something about the relentless negativity surrounding Kane that doesn’t sit right. I’m not pointing to anyone specific when I say this, but I have to say it: some of the criticism hurled at Kane – as well as teammate Dustin Byfuglien and Canadiens star P.K. Subban – is about his race more than his character. It’s what Kane referred to last year when he told THN’s Ken Campbell “a good portion” of the criticism is racially motivated.
It’s symptomatic of an element of hockey that is protectionist, fearful and small-minded. It comes from people who use the term “our game” as a method of shooing away people unfamiliar to them. And it happens more than we think – if not in terms of race, then in terms of background. How often are we told Europeans or Americans don’t love the sport as Canadians do? Even once is too often.
Yet Subban celebrates a winning goal by tugging on the front of his jersey and somehow doesn’t play the game “the right way.” Byfuglien is lazy because he isn’t on the Rod Brind’Amour training regimen. Ray Emery is a thug for being as aggressive a fighter as any goalie in recent memory. There’s a pattern here.
There are valid criticisms of all NHLers. But imagining none of this is driven by deplorable ignorance is delusional. Former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes also isn’t accusing anyone in particular of being a bigot, but he recognizes there’s a part of hockey that wants to erect barriers, that needs to tear down others to maintain their own fragile egos.
For example, as an elite player from Toronto, he saw the way some evaluators effusively praised small-town kids – and valued them more than prospects from big cities.
“Some will rave about certain players and say, ‘He’s a great guy, he comes from a small town out west, his parents have a farm.’ Really?” Weekes said. “We all have our biases and sometimes we’re biased towards what we’re familiar with. But there are lots of open-minded hockey people who evaluate players as individuals, and that group is growing.”
The nonsense players from non-traditional hockey cultures are subject to represents one of hockey’s major challenges: how to keep up with a world that no longer is as white and Anglo-Saxon as it was in their heyday. The way you react to this says more about you than it ever did about Kane.
“Sports by their nature are inclusionary,” Weekes said. “It’s in the interest of the game to recognize the face of North America and the world is changing. We want as many people as possible to love this game as we do.”
This feature originally appeared in the forthcoming May 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.