Recreation and Sport Studies

Studying, Experiencing and Facilitating Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport through Wellness and Physical Activity

Case Study: Racial Stacking and the Role of Enforcer in the NHL

4 Comments

Racial stacking is a phenomenon in sports in which athletes of a certain race are either over- or under-represented in a given position. North Americans are likely most familiar with seeing this in the NFL, where, traditionally, it has been “widely believed that blacks excelled in sports and team positions that demanded power and speed at the same time that inferior intellectual abilities prevented them from assuming leadership positions on the field and in coaching and management positions off the field” (Coakley, 2010).

While rational thought should immediately call this thought process into question, the problem of racial stacking persists and can be observed across various sports and races.

One notable example within Canada is the stacking of Aboriginal hockey players into the role of “enforcer”. While this represents more of an unwritten role within the team rather than a traditional position, it is still very much so an observable phenomenon. John Valentine explores this in a chapter entitled: New Racism and Old Stereotypes in the National Hockey League: The “Stacking” of Aboriginal Players into the Role of Enforcer

In this chapter, Valentine takes into account the number of Aboriginal players in the NHL since 1974, then compares their penalty minutes per game, major penalties per game, and fights per game to the rest of the NHL players during each playing season. What he found is that, during a period of from 1986 to 2004, a period where the role of enforcer was most common in the NHL, Aboriginal players were: penalized almost three and a half times more than non-Aboriginals, assessed major penalties five times more than non-Aboriginals in 1997, and fought between four and seven times more than non Aboriginals during this time period (Valentine, 2012).

Clearly, these numbers indicate that Aboriginal players were expected to fill a certain role within the team, one that was based in aggression and intimidation.

odjick_domi
Well-loved former Canucks player Gino Odjick is an example of an Aboriginal player in the role of enforcer.

Since 2004, these numbers have declined rapidly. However, this does not necessarily mean that the NHL is moving in a more positive direction with regards to how Aboriginal players are represented. In fact, there has been a steady decline of Aboriginal players in the NHL at all since 2000 (Valentine, 2012). In conjunction with this is the fact that the role of the pure enforcer is no longer common. There is little room on a roster for a skater whose primary job is to protect the star player and, as such, we see almost no enforcers in the NHL today. Valentine suggests that “the reduction in enforcers [has] reduced the opportunities for Aboriginal players in the NHL overall”.

So, why is racial stacking important for us to consider? First, limiting a player of a certain race to any role or position is extremely limiting of their potential as a whole. Assuming that black football players are less capable in leadership roles gives them a glass ceiling of potential, and in fact last year’s NFL MVP Cam Newton is a perfect example of why we should never send this message (his team’s play this year notwithstanding). Similarly, sending the message to Aboriginal players that their biggest opportunity within a team is to be an enforcer, goon, or fighter limits their potential to become a sniper on the wing.

Furthermore, as we have seen since the decline of the “enforcer era” there is now a significantly lower number of Aboriginal players in the NHL altogether. Stereotyping them into this role meant that, when the role was no longer there for them to fill, they were given less opportunity for a career in the NHL. In a time where we are trying to move away from racial inequalities, it is alarming to know that these kind of issues still persist.

Recently, another league MVP, NHLer Carey Price, gave his acceptance speech and recognized the importance of acknowledging the uphill battle that Aboriginal youth face. I leave you with the video of his words below.

References

Valentine, J. (2012). New Racism and Old Stereotypes in the National Hockey League: The “Stacking” of Aboriginal Players into the Role of Enforcer.In J. Joseph, S. Darnell, & Y. Nakamura (Eds.) Race and Sport in Canada: Intersecting Inequalities, pp. ?? Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Coakley, J. (2010). Race and Ethnicity in the Sociology of Sport in the United States. Colorado Springs, CO: University of Colorado.

 

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4 thoughts on “Case Study: Racial Stacking and the Role of Enforcer in the NHL

  1. Hi Brittany,
    Your analysis of racial stacking for the aboriginal player provokes a plethora of feelings. As Canadian we often forgot that the archetype of the racist is not present, at the term is synonymous with the united states especially in the southern states. However, as we clearly stated by you in your analysis of the chapter by valentine that prejudice is present to the aboriginal population. One major point that you bring up that is concerning is how the effect of the change in the style of professional hockey brings up a contrasting point. In the phasing, out of the enforcer role, it appears that the NHL envisions a game that is safer for its players, but at the same time it appears that it is also phasing out the opportunities for others. By removing an element of the game, they are also removing players in a way. This point that you made really showcases how crucial decision making can be for an organization and that the choice we may feel are the right ones, we have to consider all of the ramifications and who is indeed benefiting from it.

    There is one section of your analysis that I feel warrants some questions. It appears that the racial profiling of the aboriginal player is type casted based on physical toughness, strength, and perhaps size. Would you also consider that this profiling exists because of the conditioning that aboriginals have o endured while being brought up through the ranks of their hockey career. As the enforcer is deemed to be a violent career path, there are many social theories attempting to explain why this occurs. One such theory, differential association, claims that violent behavior is learned. Please see: https://www.d.umn.edu/~bmork/2306/Theories/BAMdiffassn.htm for more detail of the theory.
    Other theories explain violence as a cause of being labelled as violent from those with power (labeling theory) or that violence arises from inequalities experienced (conflict theory). Jordan Tootoo shares his experiences of racism and inequality in this article: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/icing-racism-in-hockey-players-speak-out-1.2831319 So my question to you is that do you believe that the aboriginal hockey play is more so a victim of circumstances that forces them to fight and act tough, rather than having genetic endowment to be the enforcer as the article alludes too. Overall, your analysis shows the reader that professional sports bring prejudice attitudes and actions and that we must be cognizant of what is going on. Great job!

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    • Hi Austin,

      Thanks so much for your reply. The book chapter that I read definitely does delve into the concept of aboriginal players potentially being victims of circumstance, so to speak.

      Some of the suggested causes of racial stacking include the coach, discrimination, self-selection, and stereotypes. I think your question falls mostly under the discrimination heading. In the book chapter, the author states that “Many male Aboriginal hockey players grow up facing racism and learn to defend themselves physically against racist comments and treatment (Marks, 2008). Former NHLers Ron Delorme and Gino Odjick stated that they learned to fight in order to survive, and responded to racist comments with their fists (Marks, 2008; Spector, 1997).”

      In this sense, I definitely think that the circumstances surrounding Aboriginal life, especially during the “enforcer era” of the mid-80’s to early 2000’s, is a contributing factor with regards to stacking Aboriginals into the role of enforcer. I would even say that it is a factor more so than pure genetic pre-disposition. The idea of putting up a tough front certainly was the norm for many Aboriginal teens facing discrimination.

      Thanks for your critical analysis!

      Like

    • Hi Austin,

      Thanks so much for your reply. The book chapter that I read definitely does delve into the concept of aboriginal players potentially being victims of circumstance, so to speak.

      Some of the suggested causes of racial stacking include the coach, discrimination, self-selection, and stereotypes. I think your question falls mostly under the discrimination heading. In the book chapter, the author states that “Many male Aboriginal hockey players grow up facing racism and learn to defend themselves physically against racist comments and treatment (Marks, 2008). Former NHLers Ron Delorme and Gino Odjick states that they learned to fight in order to survive, and responded to racist comments with their fists (Marks, 2008; Spector, 1997).”

      In this sense, I definitely think that the circumstances surrounding Aboriginal life, especially during the “enforcer era” of the mid-80’s to early 2000’s, is a contributing factor with regards to stacking Aboriginals into the role of enforcer. I would even say that it is a factor more so than pure genetic pre-disposition. The idea of putting up a tough front certainly was the norm for many Aboriginal teens facing discrimination.

      Thanks for your critical analysis!

      Like

  2. Great read! I appreciate the fact that this often overlooked aspect was brought to light. The method I chose to express the effectiveness of your article in relaying it’s key message for the reader is to apply the insights presented by you to other sports, which I feel you have done a great job doing. By allowing the reader the ability to apply the key message in many scenarios you’ve created a solid piece of informative literature for a broad audience.

    The decline in aboriginal players presented by your article could be likened to the decline of
    black college baseball players, a recent study by the United States Sports Academy found that 4.5 percent of college baseball players are black. “Amateur baseball the United states especially college baseball could be mistaken for a country-club sport.” (Keown, 2011). This could point to exclusion of black players like country clubs of the past have outlawed black membership due to racism.

    An issue the NBA faces is again similar to the issue you stated that the NHL. “Eighty-six percent of NBA players are black, but only one team owner is. Talented white players are disproportionately credited with being “smart” players with “high basketball IQs,” whereas black players are more often called “naturally talented” players, which makes the transition from league play to front-office work and coaching jobs an easier leap for white players than for black players” (Rupert, 2011). The NBA and NHL both have race issues that cannot simply go away if we pretend they don’t exist.

    Your analysis of the widely held belief that blacks have inferior intellectual abilities which prevent them from assuming leadership positions on the field and in coaching and management positions off the field is similar to “the byproduct of a small-minded mentality that good old American ballplayers are getting squeezed out by Latin players. This mentality was put on display by radioman Tony Bruno’s decision to use Twitter a technology that sits poised and ready to ruin careers to call Giants reliever Ramon Ramirez an “illegal alien” after Ramirez sparked an August fight with the Phillies by hitting Shane Victorino.” (Keown, 2011)

    Also of note, Maya Rupert points to systemic racism at play in the NBA without having to point to a corresponding racist who is to blame. Rupert brings up this idea of a framework for running a league “that is conscious of this power dynamic and show that while racism may seep into the institution, the people in charge are committed to combating its impact.” (Rupert, 2011). I believe this framework once further developed could be a useful application in reducing racism across all models of sport.

    Sources
    Keown, Tim. “Keown: Are There Too Many Hispanics In Major League Baseball?”. ESPN.com. N.p., 2011. Web. 1 Nov. 2016. Retrieved from
    http://www.espn.com/espn/commentary/story/_/id/7058357/are-there-too-many-hispanics-major-league-baseball

    Rupert, Maya. “The NBA: Where Racism Happens?”. The Root. N.p., 2011. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.
    http://www.theroot.com/articles/lists/2011/12/nba_and_racism_time_to_address_the_issue/

    Like

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