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Canadians, Increasingly Diverse, Wonder If Hockey Can Shift To Match

Nov 29, 2019
Originally published on December 2, 2019 8:05 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A pro hockey coach faces a reckoning over racist language. The Calgary Flames of the National Hockey League suspended Bill Peters. A black player says Peters used the N-word about him years ago. Peters has apologized but faces an investigation by the team, which David McGuffin is covering from Canada's capital, Ottawa.

Hey there, David.

DAVID MCGUFFIN, BYLINE: Hey there.

INSKEEP: So what exactly did Peters do?

MCGUFFIN: So he basically - according to this player, Akim Aliu, who played for him in the minor leagues 10 years ago, he dropped - this is a tweet that Aliu put out this week. He said, "he dropped the N-word several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he did not like my choice of music," unquote.

So Peters is - he's a hard-nosed sort of coach. He's sort of - you might call him a disciplinarian, old-school style. Aliu was 20 years old at the time. He said it really impacted him, this moment. Other players on that team have confirmed that this happened, as did an assistant coach.

So an added wrinkle to this, actually, as well is that there's been separate allegations now this week that Peters physically abused other players as well. So yeah. So he's been pulled from his coaching position behind the bench in Calgary. They're investigating the matter. He's not yet been fired, though.

INSKEEP: And how are people responding in Canada, which is a country that I think of as generally welcoming diversity or trying to?

MCGUFFIN: Yeah. I mean, Canada, it's - I think there's been a lot of anger, certainly, among some sectors. There's been a lot of disappointment that things like this are still happening in hockey in this day and age, and this is only 10 years ago. As you say, this is Canada's national sport. This game is really woven into the fiber of what it means to be Canadian. There's a sort of a very outspoken former black NHL player Georges Laraque. He played in the NHL for a dozen years. He says, growing up, he heard the N-word all through his youth playing hockey in Quebec, though not at the NHL level. But he says Peters needs to be made an example of.

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GEORGES LARAQUE: That guy should not be coaching the NHL. I don't care that was 10 years ago. The NHL should not want to have a coach like this in their league. They are working so hard to grow the game to say that hockey is for everyone that something like this happening to me is so wrong.

MCGUFFIN: For its part, the NHL has called Peters' behavior repugnant and unacceptable, but it's held off commenting until there's further investigation. I just want to note that Peters did release an apology through the NHL team - through the Flames in which he apologized to the organization but didn't specifically apologize to Aliu, which really stood out to a lot of people. And Aliu has called that apology insincere.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should note that in that apology - appears to acknowledge he did say what he was accused of saying, although there's some question about the exact circumstances.

How does this fit into broader debates about diversity in Canada right now?

MCGUFFIN: Yeah. So, I mean, you guys down there may have heard earlier this month there was a famous Canadian hockey commentator up here Don Cherry - really one of the most famous people in this country, frankly. He was fired after he went on air during a "Hockey Night In Canada" broadcast and accused immigrants - who he refers to as, quote, "you people," unquote - of not respecting Canadian military veterans during Remembrance Day celebrations up here. So there's just - there's a real debate now going on about whether hockey has - which is an incredibly white sport still - whether that has actually embraced the diversity that this country has embraced itself in the last several decades.

INSKEEP: David, thanks for the update - really appreciate it.

MCGUFFIN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: David McGuffin reporting from Canada's capital, Ottawa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHITA'S "MIZORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.