New book offers critical look at hockey culture and its societal barriers

December 2, 2021
New book offers critical look at hockey culture and its societal barriers


A new book that offers a critical look at hockey culture and the societal barriers that come with it will launch at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax on Thursday. 

The launch comes just a day after a 16-year-old Black hockey player with the Halifax Hawks said he was called the N-word at a tournament in Prince Edward Island.

The same thing happened to him at a game three years ago, and this most recent incident is again raising questions about the pace of change in hockey culture, from minor hockey to the NHL.

Three years ago, Cheryl MacDonald organized an international academic conference on the topic, one that brought together scholars and community members with an interest in hockey.

MacDonald, a sports sociologist at Saint Mary’s University, is one of the editors of a new book of essays that came out of that conference. It’s called Overcoming the Neutral Zone Trap: Hockey’s Agents of Change.

Portia Clark, host of CBC Radio’s Information Morning Halifax, spoke with MacDonald about the new book on Thursday.

14:15How do we change the slow pace of change in hockey culture?

A young Black hockey player from Halifax faced racial slurs during a recent hockey tournament. We hear from the player, plus take a closer look at how hockey culture needs to change to support people who run into hurdles, even hatred, when they’re trying to play the game. 14:15

This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

You use the neutral zone trap as a metaphor for this book. Why does that work in the context of looking at hockey culture?

On the ice, the neutral zone trap is understood as a defensive tactic where the players create a barrier between the two blue lines to stop the offensive team and the puck carrier from getting through. My co-editor, John, and I decided to take that and turn it into a metaphor for the barriers that folks face within the hockey community, whether that be to participating or also to succeeding. 

This incident certainly suggests that the barriers are still there and that things are either moving backwards or status quo. How is progress moving and regressing from what you heard in the course of putting this book together, Cheryl?

What I experienced through putting this book together was very consistent with what I’ve experienced in both my research and my personal life. 

And I use the concept of one-step forward and two-steps back so I’m always sure to celebrate the progress that we make in the hockey community because it’s certainly there. 

I think that with this example of the young man in Halifax, the fact that the Halifax Hawks have decided not to return to P.E.I. constitutes a step forward. But at the same time, we do still have usually two other incidents that I call steps back. The fact that that language still exists, that that young man had to hear, for me is a step back.

How does education and training around diversity and inclusion work most effectively? 

While my go-to is usually instituting workshops and ongoing training sessions with experts, I try to encourage the idea of a daily practice. 

This type of buy-in to true inclusion and acceptance for me is something that you have to work into all of your interactions, all of your activities. It’s something that you have to be mindful of every single day and I don’t think we get folks to that point where they fully buy in until we do that kind of education. 

So it’s a bit of a symbiotic relationship where you have to put in the time to learn, but also the time to truly believe and act on it.

Overcoming the Neutral Zone Trap: Hockey’s Agents of Change, published by University of Alberta Press, will launch at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax on Thursday evening. (Dr. Cheryl A. MacDonald/Twitter)

What’s the best way to support someone who’s going through what this Black player endured, being called the N-word throughout his time in minor hockey?

I think this is a two-part process. It’s important to make sure that that individual feels loved and appreciated. Having an immediate support system is so crucial for any young person and any adult as well, so being able to instill that self-confidence and that personal value is the first step for me — making sure that that person understands that, that they do have value regardless of what they hear. 

But the second part of that is changing that environment too, that the child is in. Making sure that for them, folks are not using that kind of language and do not have those kinds of attitudes. So I think it’s something that we really need to address from two different sides in order to create true change. 

Do you think we’ll ever get to a place where a player doesn’t have to worry about being called a racist name in hockey? 

To be perfectly honest, no. Unfortunately, I think there will always be ignorance, but I do believe that there can be a lot less of it in and I think that the more that these are isolated and uncommon incidents, the more we’re able to instill self-confidence in the folks who are victims of it because I think everyone will be victimized on some level at some point. 

Certainly, certain marginalized communities face that more than others. So I think the goal is to decrease it as much as possible, but understand that there’s a chance that we may never get rid of it entirely.

How can people who are involved in the hockey community but haven’t personally heard anything like this be part of this change when they aren’t confronted by it?

First, I want to say that I think it’s great that this isn’t something that happens often. I think that does show change over a long period of time, despite it being slow change. To me, that means it’s important to focus on those isolated incidents and hold the person accountable and make sure that there are penalties in place that are adequate. 

That way, it is made clear that if they’re handled the same way across the board despite being infrequent, it’s clear that it’s a zero-tolerance case and it sets a tone early on.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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