TORONTO — The troubling incident rocketed around the hockey world: Givani Smith, a black player in a top junior league, needed a police escort to a recent playoff game after online threats and racist taunts from fans.
Smith, 20, a forward with the Kitchener Rangers and a Detroit Red Wings prospect, is one of only about a dozen black players among the roughly 500 players in the Ontario Hockey League.
For decades, black hockey players at all levels have experienced incidents of racial abuse. “A lot of players of colour go through this,” Smith’s agent, G.P. Daniele of TPG Hockey, lamented. “It’s almost par for the course. It’s unfortunate.”
But the level of abuse directed at Smith so concerned the OHL commissioner, David Branch, that he requested the police escort, a move he had not felt obligated to take before.
And in the aftermath, some members of the hockey community are calling for more to be done about racial harassment.
“I’ve lived in his shoes before,” said Kevin Weekes, 43, a black former NHL goaltender and now a lead analyst at NHL Network who played in the OHL in the 1990s. “It’s uncomfortable. It’s confusing.”
Smith received threats after he made an obscene gesture toward the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds’ bench after the Rangers’ overtime win in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on April 29.
“There were definitely physical threats,” Rangers general manager Mike McKenzie said. “I saw some of the stuff that was being sent in, and it was threatening in nature, and you could perceive it as death threats if you wanted to, and obviously the racial stuff as well.”
He added that no players or coaches were involved in the abuse. Branch ordered a police escort for Smith for Game 7 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., after consulting with McKenzie and Greyhounds general manager Kyle Raftis.
The threats were first reported Saturday by The Waterloo Region Record, which also said Smith had been subject to racist and derogatory comments during the series and earlier in the playoffs.
McKenzie said Monday that there had been “a few incidents throughout the year” of Smith receiving racist comments.
The OHL suspended Smith for two games for the obscene gesture. He had to watch Game 7 on April 30 from the press box.
Two police officers met Smith in the lobby of his hotel. They drove him in a squad car to the game, even though it is about a five-minute walk.
“We didn’t want him walking to the rink on his own,” McKenzie said. “Once inside the rink, he was in our care in the dressing room area.
“There was security with him at all times. It may seem overboard, but there were physical threats. We wanted to make sure he was in a safe environment.”
The Rangers lost the game, ending their season and Smith’s junior hockey career.
Daniele said Smith, who is from Toronto, did not want to talk publicly about the situation in order to concentrate on his off-ice conditioning. “His goal is to play in the NHL,” he said.
Daniele has known his client since Smith was 11.
“It’s something he’s had to live with as part of being a black athlete,” said Daniele, who also represents Smith’s brother, Gemel, a Dallas Stars forward. “The Smiths are a quiet, reserved family. They would rather not deal with it and move on.”
Daniele released a statement on behalf of Smith’s family, saying: “At this time, Givani respectfully asks for privacy, as he and his family wish to move on from the incident. His focus is now on being a Detroit Red Wing.”
Smith was a second-round draft pick by Detroit in 2016. Acquired by Kitchener midway through this season, Smith was a key playoff performer, scoring 11 goals and contributing seven assists in 18 games.
“Obviously, it’s disgusting that people do that to another human being,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “We support Givani. He’s a tremendous young man. We think he’s a really good prospect for us. He had a tremendous playoff. It’s about what you do on the ice. He’s a committed athlete, and we’re thrilled to have him in our organization. We’ve talked to him since the incident and made sure he understands we’re there to support him.”
Shawn Horcoff, the Red Wings’ director of player development, had contacted Smith after his obscene gesture to talk to him about controlling his emotions better on the ice. When Horcoff learned a couple of days later about the threats and the racial slurs that Smith had been subjected to, Horcoff called him again.
He said he told Smith he wished he had known more about what he was dealing with. Horcoff said Smith told him: “Listen, I didn’t want to make it a bigger deal than it was. I didn’t want more distractions for my teammates.”
Branch said this was the first time since he became commissioner in 1979 that a player needed a police escort to a game.
Racial slurs from player to player have occurred in the past, but those incidents are few in number, Branch said, though the league doesn’t keep track.
“Have there been indiscretions among players? Yes,” he said.
In 2003, John Vanbiesbrouck stepped down as coach and general manager of the Greyhounds after using a racial slur to describe the team captain Trevor Daley, who is black.
The next season, the league implemented a diversity program to try to eliminate all forms of harassment and abuse. A player who utters a racial slur against another player can be subject to a minimum five-game suspension.
But the OHL does not “legislate fans,” Branch said, also noting that the league and teams cannot control fan behaviour on social media.
Fan incidents involving black players have also been a problem in the NHL. During a pre-season game in London, Ont,, in 2011, a fan threw a banana toward Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds. The following season, after scoring an overtime goal that eliminated the Boston Bruins from the playoffs, Joel Ward, then of the Washington Capitals, received a flurry of racist messages on Twitter. In February, a group of fans at United Center in Chicago were ejected for yelling racially-charged taunts at Devante Smith-Pelly of the Capitals during a game against the Blackhawks.
Weekes said the hockey community needed to “hold people to task” and fans had to hold themselves to account.
He would like to see a joint effort by the various leagues and law enforcement to root out racially-charged fan behavior. He also wants longer player suspensions for racial abuse and lifetime bans for fans who make threats to players.
McKenzie said the incident involving Smith opened his eyes to what some players have to go through to play hockey.
“Hopefully, we don’t have to see this again,” he said, “but I think everyone needs to take a step back and realize it’s a sport and a game and there are people under those helmets and gear and that we need to try to treat each other with a bit more respect and care.”