By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Hockey, race and the ghosts of Boston’s past

Joel Ward in 2011

No rational person thinks the racist tweets that followed the Bruins’ loss at the hands of Joel Ward on Wednesday represented any more than a tiny, ignorant minority of hockey fans (see this, this and this).

But there’s still something uncomfortable about hockey and race, especially in a city whose racial history is as troubled as ours. (And no, we don’t know how many of those offensive tweets came from Boston.)

The fact is that there has always been a certain subset — subspecies? — of hockey fan who likes the sport in part because nearly all the players are white. I grew up here, and I heard plenty to that effect when I was a teenager, and even in my 20s.

It’s no accident that the Bruins of Bobby Orr (two championships) were far more popular than the Celtics of Bill Russell (11). Or that the Celtics finally became the toast of the town after the face of the franchise turned white, first with Dave Cowens and later with Larry Bird.

Of course, Boston is not the same city today that it was in the 1970s and ’80s. The Celtics of recent years, led by three star African-American players and a black coach, have been as loved as any team in Boston. Even the Red Sox have put their ugly past behind them.

But there’s a context for hockey that doesn’t exist in other, more integrated sports. Among other things, Boston Herald writer Ron Borges couldn’t have made his non-racist but stupid observation about Tim Thomas with any other sport because getting beat by a black player would have been entirely unremarkable.

And the mouth-breathing racist fans who tweeted the “N”-word would have long since come to terms with minority athletes (or stopped watching) if we were talking about any sport other than hockey.

It’s not the NHL’s fault that there are so few black hockey players — it’s a function of geography and culture. Indeed, Major League Baseball itself has very few African-American players today, a demise that has been masked in part by the rise of Latino players of color.

Nor does this have anything to do with the vast majority of hockey fans. I don’t like hockey, but I know plenty of people who do. And they are good, decent people who follow the Celtics, the Patriots and the Red Sox just as avidly as they do the Bruins.

But race is an issue in hockey in ways that it just isn’t in other sports. And when you combine that volatility with Boston’s reputation, what happened this week was perhaps inevitable.

Photo (cc) by clydeorama and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Jack Sullivan

    The lack of color is also about income. It’s thousands of dollars for equipment, team membership and ice time, not to mention early morning travel to rinks for practice which is tough if you rely on public transportation. At least in Canada, there’s plenty of frozen ponds you can play pick-up games on, which is why there’s less of a color barrier up north. Most of the successful African-Americans you see in the game, like Mike Greer, come from middle-class suburban families because of cost and where the rinks are. Bobby Greer could afford it because of his salary as GM of the Patriots. With basketball, all you need is a hoop and a ball. Baseball and football get more subsidies, especially in the city. Until there’s an effort to bring hockey to the inner cities and make it more affordable, you’ll continue to see the numbers of blacks in the single percentages. And that’s why it will continue to draw the ignorant non-fan as well as those who love and appreciate the game for the game.

  2. Steve Owens

    The fact that you can find racist jerks on twitter is hardly front-page above the fold news. Take for example the Hunger Games Tweets, where racist idiots complained that characters who were described as “dark skinned” in the books were portrayed by black actors in the movie. I feel like you could find just as many racist tweets for anything just by searching for the N-Word and anything. Cherry-picking tweets from idiot kids is becoming somewhat of a subgenre of blogging.

    I understand that this incident is an appropriate jumping off point for a discussion of race in Hockey in general and in Boston in particular, but it seems to me that it’s more being used as a way for people to feel superior to Bruins fans.

    • Dan Kennedy

      In CommonWealth, Michael Jonas has a very wise take on all this, arguing that it’s unfair to blame the city for the racist tweets of a few. My only disagreement with Jonas is that I have no problem with the national media referring to Boston’s suburbs, even the far suburbs, as “Boston.”

  3. L.K. Collins

    Watching Bobby Orr kill penalties all by himself was a pleasure to watch. He was a 1-man hockey team.

    I am sure that if Orr were black, Bruins fans would have been watching and cheering in the same way.

    The universal condemnation of the racist tweets is well earned.

    One has to wonder why, though, Dan felt it appropriate to broaden the discussion to the past.

    I wonder if it is a subtle attempt on his part to revive the “racist” demagoguery that he practiced a couple of years ago?

  4. Mike Benedict

    I’m with Steve Owens. Race is a big enough problem in Boston without taking advantage of a few nutjob hockey fans to hype it. We lived in West Roxbury for five years, and often came face to face with some of the more subtle forms of racism, for example, the older neighbors who confided to us that Mass General was so much better “before they hired the coloreds” (who even uses that term anymore?), or the epithets tossed toward the TV screen at the Corrib Pub when an Hispanic ballplayer booted a ball. Once I asked about the lack of Mexican restaurants in the area, and was told, “We don’t like Mexicans, so why would we eat their food?” It was something to behold. (Coincidentally, the Corrib was a hotspot for Irish illegals — those would be the illegal immigrants who don’t sneak in over the Arizona border. Yes, illegal aliens come in white, too. You just don’t hear about them.). And there’s no need to recount all the blatant and disgusting behaviors of the residents of Southie, as those have been public for years.

    Boston’s problem isn’t that it’s any more racist than any other city. Boston’s problem is that the rest of the country doesn’t realize that this “liberal bastion” is in many ways as backwards as Birmingham, AL, in the 1960s, and thus the external pressure to change is nil.

  5. Christian Avard

    I think a lot of people are confirming what I feel about this. I had a strong reaction to it all when I read Dave Zirin’s piece in The Nation, who went out of his way to connect Boston’s racist past with these knucklehead tweeters. It was a stretch as it was inaccurate. I agreed with Emily Rooney and Jon Keller’s analysis last night on BTP (and yours, Dan).

    Dennis & Callahan, yes I said just them, did some research on where the tweets were coming from and a lot were from Canada. I’m sure there were some from Boston and New England, but they said a lot of the timelines from the people who made racist tweets weren’t really following the Bruins but were NHL fans in general or racist sympathizers. Maybe it’s just D & C being D & C, but I trust they were tying to make a genuine attempt to get to the bottom of this.

    Joel Ward also responded to what transpired after the game via Deadspin.

    “I don’t hate the city of Boston or the team or anything – it’s just a couple bad apples that ruined it. The more upsetting part for me is the fact that it took away the spotlight of the other players, like our goalie, who played unbelievable all series and deserves all the recognition possible. Now it just so happens everyone wants to talk about the few racial comments,”

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Christian: I did some checking on this last night, and what I found was Boston, Revere, Marlborough, Agawam and the like. We’ve got a wild one going in Danvers. And there are other local examples as well. I think all Dennis and Callahan are doing is singing a chorus of “Blame Canada.”

  6. Christian Avard

    Right, Dan! Callahan also criticized NU’s Center for Sport and Society for wanting to “promote diversity and tolerance” in sports, eluding to Bob Hohler’s article. That’s when I turned it off. Center for Sport in Society is a group I admire greatly. Apparently Callahan hasn’t learned since the Franklin Park Zoo gorilla comment eight years ago.

    I think what I really want to get at is where are the majority of tweets coming from? Is it 75 percent out of Boston or non-Bruins fans and 25 percent the latter? Most of all, isn’t it a stretch to tie these tweets to Boston’s racist past? I think that’s why my flags went up.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Christian: I think it’s a very fine line. Yes, it’s a stretch to tie the racist tweets to Boston’s past. On the other hand, as I tried to point out in this item, I don’t think we can overlook what made hockey so popular in Boston in the first place. As for the 75 percent/25 percent ratio, my guess would be that most of the racist tweets are from Bruins fans living in the Boston area. Why wouldn’t they be? Who else was even watching? Hockey’s not exactly the national pastime.

  7. Christian Avard

    I think there are hardcore hockey fans elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada that were watching Wednesday’s game. I’m sure they wanted to see who won because their team would be playing Boston or Washington. There may also have been fans that didn’t rely on the game’s outcomes but were still watching it because they like hockey.

    Many of them may well have been racists or just plain socially ignorant. I’m sure some exist and they would take it out on Twitter. How many were there, I don’t know. But I would think they also exist, probably a small group of people is my guess.

  8. Tim Bresnahan

    To L.K. Collins: Watch the HBO documentary about Larry Bird and Magic Johnson — specifically the news footage of fairly young Boston fans from the mid-’80s talking about how they liked the Celtics because they had so many white stars. Check out the Celtics’ meager attendance figures through Russell’s decade of dominance in the ’60s. And then come back and try to make the case that Boston would have embraced a black Bobby Orr just as much as a white one. You won’t succeed.

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