I took my son to the Flyers-Islanders game on Tuesday, 18 January. As luck, or perhaps rescheduling for Covid cancellations would have it, the game landed on the same day that the Boston Bruins retired Willie O’Ree’s sweater.
My son is of African American descent; technically he is racially “mixed”. I hate that word, “mixed”, with the passion I generally reserve for shoot outs, the Rangers and Gary Bettman, who may or may not be the devil incarnate. From the moment he was a tiny blip on an ultrasound, I have loved my son with a ferocity that is frightening. I have fought to allow him to become anything his heart desires, so to be at a hockey game that honored Willie O’Ree, the first African American to play in the NHL seemed fitting.
I have been in love with the game of hockey for as long as I can remember, and specifically the Philadelphia Flyers. I grew up extremely poor in an equally affluent section of Southern New Jersey, and children are cruel. I could not compete with those children when it came to clothes, shoes or my home. I found outlets; books, music and hockey. Flyers games were televised free until the advent of a cable channel known as Prism; my grandmother would pay for that luxury with my help. Games were very inexpensive at the time, and we went as often as we could. I have wanted to share my love of what I consider the most exciting sport on the planet with my son, and he indulges his mother as often as he can.
My son did not choose to play hockey. While I joked that I was upset at his decision, I was secretly happy that he chose swimming, a far less violent sport. I would, as mommas will, go without so that he could have the opportunities to move forward in whatever he did choose. He would have the right clothes, the right shoes, the video games. We might not live in a grand house, but the electricity has never been turned off for non payment nor have we ever been evicted from a crappy rental home. My goal as a mother was to give my son a better childhood than the one that I endured. I feel I have done a decent job there.
One of the hardest parts of being a parent is the things that you cannot control; one of those is racism. As a child of a blended heritage, my son has faced the sting of racism from both side. As his mother, both are horrific. My son cut his hair, down to the skin because he was called “nappy head’ by his white classmates. In KINDERGARTEN. He has also been told he is not black enough to be black. As a parent, all I could do in those situations was comfort my son, and work to raise awareness. I have white friends who like to think racism is dead, and that the race card is “played” too often. I explain, as calmly as I can, that racism is not a game, that my son is not a game. I often feel as if I am banging my head against a very high, very unyielding wall.
When Gary Bettman assumed his role as commissioner of the NHL in 1993, his main goal was to make the game of hockey accessible to more fans. While his goal had little to do with more people enjoying the game, I applauded the idea of more fans loving the game that I have adored since I was too small to even see over the boards during the pregame skate. Bettman expanded the League, changed rules that were, in his eyes, confusing, and implemented a hard salary cap meant to allow all teams to be competitive. While many of these initiatives claimed to be well intended, I stopped applauding. He seemed desperate to change the actual game, the traditions of hockey. Two line offside passes? Gone. The divisions, named after legends? Gone. Ties during the regular season, where two teams battled shot for shot and goal for goal? Gone, replaced by the carnival game known as the shoot out.
What has not changed in the near two decades of the Bettman Regime? Despite the tag line of “Hockey Is For Everyone”, hockey is still a white man’s game. As a female hockey fan, I regularly face men who feel they know more about hockey simply because they posses a penis. It is still played, on a professional level, predominantly by white men, and straight white men at that.
While I can’t speak to how it must feel to be a queer hockey player, or part of the LGBTQ community, it is my belief that every person has the same rights; no one person should be made to feel less than because of the color of their skin or who they love. I faced a great deal of judgement as a white woman, an Italian white woman married to an African American man. If you don’t understand, watch an episode of The Sopranos titled “Proshai, Livushka”. Believe me, nothing has changed.
As I stood next to my son during the tribute to Willie O’Ree, I peeked at the crowd around me. The first thing I noticed was that most seemed only politely interested. I looked at my son, who is indeed the best looking kid on the planet, and it suddenly overwhelmed me that he was the darkest skinned person in our section. After the first period, I made my way onto the concourse, which was packed. As I looked for a friend, I scanned the crowd, again a wave of white.
The only persons of color at Tuesday’s game were the ladies room attendant and the servers at the over priced food establishments. I watched as all were treated mostly with disdain, and at best with indifference. I have instilled, in my life, and in the life of my son, respect for every person, no matter their station. My pride as he politely said “No thank you ma’am” when asked if he wanted anything else was the pride only a mother knows.
As the Flyers struggle to find their mojo and winning ways, many fans have abandoned this team. I have not, but my heart hurts. Not because this team is not winning, not because Claude Giroux may be playing his last games in Orange and Black. As with most of my epiphanies, this realization comes because of my most important job, the greatest privilege of my life; being Alexander Jordan’s mother. My heart is breaking because I have realized that despite Mr. Bettman insisting otherwise, hockey is NOT for everyone.
By: Phyllis Ceci (@flyerafan1129)
Photo Credit: Author’s collection, photo from Philadelphia Flyers tribute to Willie O’Ree 18JAN2022