Defenseman for the Nashville Predators, Pernell-Karl Sylvester, also known as P.K. Subban, voiced his separation from the #TakeAKnee movement while performing at a fundraiser in Nashville’s Zanies Comedy Club. As reported by Yahoo Sports, based on statements from two eyewitnesses, the Canadian pro hockey player made clear his “respect” for the American flag, even going as far as to lend a shout out to a law enforcement officer friend of his in the crowd. For Subban, being well accustomed to the lengths and brevity of racism in the NHL, his statements ring true of the silent killer that is survival in a white structural society.
Born in Toronto, Subban got a taste for the rink at the young age of four, playing in the Bert Robinson Hockey League. That love for hockey would continue to foster for Subban, resulting in the Montreal Canadiens drafting him in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. This would lead Subban to win a gold medal, playing with Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Subban would go on to highlight his dedication to charity off the ice in 2015, donating $10 million dollars to the Montreal Children’s Hospital. A hospital he would frequently visit, maintaining key relationships with the children. A man on the move, Subban was then traded by the Montreal Canadiens to the Nashville Predators on June of last year, bringing the full circle to his statements made early last week.
Subban was likeable by most publicly, hated through the murmurs and whispers of racially laced tantrums. Known on the rink as the “showboat,” for each time he scored he would get on one knee (oh the irony), acting out firing an arrow. He had that star quality, dancing in front of cameras, with the talent and skill to back it up. In 2013, Subban won the coveted James Norris Memorial Trophy as best defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens. The same Montreal Canadiens that would later on offer no explanation, rhyme, nor reason, for trading one of their most favorable players. The lack of explanation led to rumors such as that highlighted by The Globe and Mail. “Even after a backlash from fans, Montreal owner Geoff Molson stubbornly stood by the deal. There were whisperings Subban didn’t fit in in the Habs’ dressing room.” Subban himself had some comments on the trade, as reported by The Globe and Mail. “Until the Canadiens give an explanation, there will always be speculation for why it happened,” said Subban. The Canadian player ensures he has “moved on, settling in with a team that he believes “values” what he has to offer. Says Subban, “I am not somewhere where management doesn’t want me.” As vocal and charitable as Subban is, one might wonder why he chose to not side with those protesting the killings of black individuals, taking a knee during the American anthem. The answer simply would lie in the historical treatment of black people by the NHL.
Though there are many debates and pieces of evidence presented on who invented hockey, there lies one theory that harrows over the league in situations like these. Situations where Subban is one of the few black individuals in the NHL. The theory is presented as hockey, more formerly the Colored Hockey League (CHL), being invented by the sons and grandsons of runaway American slaves; four Black Canadian families in Nova Scotia. ESPN would uncover this based on historians George and Darril Fosty’s book, “Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925.” As explained by Darril, the members of the CHL, “Saw [hockey] as an opportunity to move up socially and climb up social ladder and gain equal footing with the larger white community.” The CHL aimed to gain equality within the white community using sports, as Darril puts it, as the “catalyst.” As reported by ESPN, there are no black contributions to hockey other than that beginning in 1958 when left-wing player, Willie O’Ree, became the first black individual to play in the NHL.
The overwhelming presence of whiteness and the belief of hockey to be a white man’s sport, leads to instances where Wayne Simmonds, with the Philadelphia Flyers, can get a banana thrown at him while playing. It allows for instances where Sean Avery, of the Los Angeles Kings, allegedly called Georges Laraque of the Edmonton Oilers, a monkey during a game. A remark Avery would go on to deny. It equally allows for instances like where Subban becomes subject to a racist string of tweets after scoring the winning goal in 2014 against Boston Bruins. As reported by CBC News, “On Twitter, unhappy Bruins fans tweeted comments like ‘That stupid n—-r doesn’t belong in hockey #whitesonly.’” Lest we forget when in 2012 the Florida Panthers forward Krys Barch, was heard to have made racial comments towards Subban. As a resident in Ottawa, Ontario, the racism on the ice lies at home as well. After hearing of the string of racist tweets directed at Subban, Nick Ngwafusi, an Ottawa hockey player, was far from surprised. “Ngwafusi says he’s been called the “N” word on the ice before,” reports CTV News. Due to this pattern of racism, it cannot be hard to understand why Subban would rather stand than kneel.
Comedian Katt Williams during his “It’s Pimpin’ Pimpin’” comedy skit in 2008 (minute 34:18 for those so inclined), once uttered a statement that rings true every waking minute of every day. As put by Williams, “White people understand this. If you cannot understand what it’s like to be a tiger in a zoo, I don’t know how you ever gonna understand what it’s like to be a nigga in America.” Williams was referencing the San Francisco Zoo tiger attack. This relates to the state of black individuals within the institutional structure of society that centers and caters to whiteness. Subban’s job is, to serve to the best of his ability, his team. A job he has done well again, and again. Despite this, he gets pigeon holed, taunted, and ridiculed, like the tiger in the zoo Williams was referencing. If Subban should be caged even when doing what he was told to do – being traded to another team as a result – I can only imagine the response should he, dare I say, take a knee.
Though we wish for all our faves, whether in hockey, music, entertainment, or other, to take a stand publicly, for some there can be ways for allowance. Colin Kaepernick took a stand as a lone soldier last year when he knelt during the anthem, resulting in the NFL shunning him out. It would take a year, for many others, including his own team, to kneel with him. The NFL that lacks on the issue of diversity in their teams, took one year to gain momentum in simply taking a knee to protest the killings of black lives. Subban is outnumbered in the NHL. Would it take a year or would it take his career? Would others kneel with him? You can certainly ask Sidney Crosby who had this to say after his team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, accepted their White House invitation: “‘I support it… It’s a great honour for us to be invited there.’”
Subban should take a knee, but I sure will not crucify him for choosing to stand.