07/03/2020 13:26 EDT | Updated 07/20/2020 09:12 EDT

Hockey Culture Wants 'Good Canadian Boys,' Just None That Look Like Me

As a half-Thai player, I was part of the team — until I wasn't.

Anyone who grew up playing hockey in Canada could probably tell you about their first goal. Mine happened in a house league game at a local rink in Ajax, Ont. when I was five or six years old — one of my earliest memories. I don’t remember that goal as much as I do the euphoria of scoring it. But I knew I wanted to chase that feeling for the rest of my life.

Reflecting on all those years I was defined by the game, it’s not the championships, the scouting tournaments or the places I was lucky enough to travel to that stand out. It isn’t the pride I felt when I got drafted to a Junior A team at 15, nor the disillusionment I felt when I wasn’t picked in the OHL Draft the following year. All the clutch goals, big hits and pivotal moments have sort of blurred together over time.

Tyler Griffin
One of the first competitive teams I played for was the Barrie Jr. Colts.

What stands out the most is the time I scored on my own net during a spring league game when I was 13. We were down a few goals in the third period, playing sloppily. I tried to clear the puck from the front of our net and instead shot it neatly into the back of it — a cardinal sin to the hockey gods.

“Way to go, Griff,” a teammate muttered, gliding by. The final buzzer sounded, I got off the ice and headed to the dressing room with my head down and skates dragging behind me. I slumped down on the wooden bench, waiting for my scolding. Our goalie came in, seething.

“You blew the game! Go back to China, you fucking ch*nk!” he screamed at me in front of my teammates.

I sunk further into my shoulder pads. Apart from the China thing (I’m half-Thai), my teammate wasn’t wrong. I did cost us that game, and I had let my team down. I deserved it.

When you lose in hockey, you’re expected to carry yourself with a stoicism disguised as sportsmanship. Legendary Black NHL player P.K. Subban’s mother described it as “kind of like the military and partly like being the Queen.” Former NHL Hockey Night commentator Don Cherry, less eloquently, distinguished it as the mark of a “GOOD CANADIAN BOY!”

So, like the good Canadian boy I aspired to be, I said and did nothing. The other good Canadian boys in the room did the same.

Tyler Griffin
After winning gold at the 2008 CAN/AM Challenge Cup in Lake Placid, NY.

From the moment I was old enough to lace up my skates, I was a hockey player by design. I learned to skate backward before learning how to ride a bike. I played on the most competitive team every winter, a travelling team in the spring, and attended skating camps and rigorous dryland training in the summer. I shot pucks for hours in my garage, like the greats did. I scarfed down Big Macs and creatine to bring my weight up. I watched Jay and Dan on TSN and went to see my hometown Ottawa Senators play regularly. 

I played the part, too. I wore Sperry shoes with khaki pants, tucked my “flow” under a baseball cap and said things like “for the boys” regularly — the spitting image of an all-Canadian boy.

Except, I wasn’t. I was a scrawny, mixed-Asian, often feminine kid trying my best not to stand out more than I already did in a culture made up almost entirely of white boys. My half-white status granted me acceptance, but rarely did they pass on an opportunity to remind me I wasn’t like them. 

If we’re using hockey to teach our kids Canadian values, we’re teaching them that Canada values the white and the hyper-masculine.

Stepping into a rink meant subjecting myself to unending microaggressions from opponents and teammates alike: taunts about my eyesight, the way my mother talks, disgusting stereotypes about Asian women, being addressed only by “Asian” instead of my name. Every non-white player can tell you similar, or worse, stories.

Hockey is ubiquitous with our people, culture and values. Our national winter sport is one of the few globally recognized facets of Canadian culture we can point to.

In fact, Canadians’ affinity for hockey was born out of a desire for a unique pastime distinct from our American neighbours or British counterparts overseas. After the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, more than 90 per cent of Canadians said the performance of our athletes at the games had a positive impact on their national pride. Put simply, hockey is Canadian pride — and the foundation for it starts at the youth level.  

But if we’re using hockey to teach our kids Canadian values, we’re teaching them that Canada values the white and the hyper-masculine — and all deviation should be punished.

Tyler Griffin
The writer was selected by the Smiths Falls Bears in the 2013 CCHL Draft.

Minor hockey in Canada has come to represent much more than just a training ground for our future star athletes. With 643,958 registered players across 3,500 minor hockey associations from coast to coast, it’s also where a large cohort of our children develop an understanding of what it means to be “Canadian.” That is, who belongs and who doesn’t.

In his 2018 thesis, Western University masters of sociology grad Andrew English utilized his “insider status” as a former player to establish trust and open communication in interviews with 10 former youth hockey players. The result was an uncensored look into how middle-to-upper class white males internalize hockey culture, understanding it as a way to gain status over other men, women, and racial and sexual minorities.  

One participant said playing hockey “hardened [him] at a young age not to be a little pussy.” Another referred to the non-hockey community as “fucking losers” worthy of shame for not being invested in Canadian hockey, which gave them “a sense of pride and identity.”

“The issue of racism remains a significant barrier preventing individuals from participation in merited opportunities and the sense of belongingness said to be drawn from the sport,” writes English.

I was raised by this culture, but never let it define me.

I’ve been on the outside as much as I’ve been in. Being on the outskirts of traditional racial categories means existing in a little grey area that allows you to both benefit and suffer from white supremacy, but also better understand how it informs every aspect of racialized lives. Inherently, I’m on both sides of the problem.

I was privileged to be able to blend in enough to direct harassment elsewhere — not to mention the immense financial privilege I had to play at all, given its costs, particularly at the higher levels. I won’t absolve myself of responsibility for this behaviour, as if I didn’t also speak the language of the locker room. I tolerated, and sometimes engaged in, degrading rhetoric aimed at women, and racial and sexual minorities.

I did what I had to do to survive in a group of boys who were generally bigger, stronger and whiter than me. I was raised by this culture, but never let it define me.

Tyler Griffin
The writer played AAA for the Eastern Ontario Wild for four years before quitting minor hockey.

It was around the time my agent started looking at options for me to play at a U.S. college that I realized I couldn’t keep pretending, not for the four most formative years of my life. I quit at 17, much to the dismay of my father, agent and prospective teams. I decided to pursue interests that never had an opportunity to flourish in that culture, like writing and the arts. I haven’t looked back since.

I’ll always love hockey. It‘s brought me lifelong friends, taken me to beautiful places and instilled in me intangible qualities I carry with me everywhere I go. I miss aspects of it dearly, like being among players who would take a puck to the face for their teammate.

But I’ll never be able to reconcile the damage it caused to my sense of self and belonging, and to others who endured far worse. Hockey was the only thing I had known my whole life up until the moment I hung up my skates. If I wasn’t a hockey player, who was I?

I chose to exist in this country on my own terms. I found my sense of purpose in fighting for our marginalized youth, in uplifting their voices and experiences, so they won’t have to erase themselves to feel like they belong here, like I did. 

How’s that for Canadian values?

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