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.

Sox talk

Mrs. Media Nation and I were in a bar along with two other couples on Saturday, pleased to be parked near a screen that had the Red Sox-Yankees game on rather than the Bruins. Once it got to 9-0, I figured even the Sox’ bullpen couldn’t blow it.

By the time we left, it was 9-8. I caught the rest of the disaster after we walked home.

I don’t have much to say about the Red Sox’ start except for a few obvious observations. It’s not Bobby Valentine’s fault. I’d like to see Daniel Bard make it as a starter, but the bullpen implosion might negate that. The injuries have been devastating, but there’s more than enough high-priced talent on the field that they should be playing a lot better. As for the small sample size, I’m inclined to combine their miserable start this year with their miserable finish in 2011. That’s not a small sample.

Anyway — have at it. And I hope the Celtics go on a run.