I wanted this week to write something positive about UK hockey and the EIHL-to focus on the good work being done to grow the game by passionate people in places like Cardiff and Braehead-the unity of the Cardiff Devils Red Army who invaded Coventry last night for the first leg of their Challenge Cup semi final and took the Skydome by storm with noise, colour and Welsh pride to show all that was best in hockey fandom. Or the efforts of fans to cover the sport with blogs and live-tweeting of games which has grown into a mini cottage-industry…the great work done by people like Laura Duff in Fife, the Frozen Steel MNL team in Sheffield, A View From The Bridge in Belfast or the Cats’ Whiskers team in Nottingham. Last week I wrote extensively about the support for Amy Usher across the EIHL.
All things that are showing UK hockey, and UK hockey fandom, at their best.
Then came Wednesday. A day that brought to the fore once again that despite all the good efforts being made to improve and spread the game, there is still a dark-side to UK hockey fandom-attitudes and prejudices that are seemingly still being allowed to go unchallenged and make a mockery of everything that UK hockey fandom claims about itself.
UK hockey likes to market itself as a family-friendly, inclusive sport. It likes to set itself up as “separate” to sports like football with their aggressive, tribal chanting, occasional violence in the stands and lack of inclusion for anyone who doesn’t happen to be one particular type of sports fan.
UK Hockey, we are told, is a sport where all fans are alike and tolerated equally well, and there are no prejudices. Where the fanbase is one big happy family that never leaves a member behind.
However, it appears that while the #hockeyfamilystickstogether, it doesn’t want to admit some of the members within it exist, or consider their feelings. Especially in the EIHL.
In the last year, we’ve had an EIHL team official in Sheffield claim that a former coach of their team was “mentally disturbed” live on radio, & an owner in Nottingham make fun of those with mental illness live on a TV broadcast by calling a rival “mentally ill” as an insult.
We’ve had tweets asking for “girls who look good in knee-high boots” to “send pictures” to a Sheffield team official in order to apply for a job as a matchnight volunteer which raised a storm from both sexes for being sexist, creepy and unprofessional-to the point where an official complaint was made about the person involved to the club due to the fact that it made fans uncomfortable. Nothing was ever done.
We’ve also had tweets where officials and players in the EIHL and EPL openly admit to casually being racist or making racist references, like these:
The one on the left is a pro player for Basingstoke Bison comparing being ginger to being black because apparently ginger is an anagram of a VERY offensive racial epithet, and the one on the right is Sheffield/EIHL representative Dave Simms (a man with a history of controversy, including all the Sheffield incidents mentioned above) admitting to telling a group of Asians to leave Britain to live in Pakistan.
Both tweets are by official representatives of UK hockey clubs, and despite complaints both went unpunished, and indeed were defended by many fans as “not really being offensive”.
Then, last night, casual homophobic jokes were added to the mix:
Yup. That’s an EIHL league official calling someone “a little gay” as a derogatory term.
Again, nothing has been done about this.
Here is my friend Amy’s reaction to the tweet from Simms last night. Amy is a long time hockey fan. She is also one who, in her own words, is queer. This is how tweets like the one above, and indeed the general atmosphere around UK hockey fandom with popular fan humour accounts regularly still using “gay” as an insult, make her feel about UK hockey:
And she’s not alone. I’ve seen reactions from many of my hockey fan friends all across the gender and sexuality boundaries that say UK hockey’s attitude is actively driving away sections of hockey fandom who don’t feel welcome in the UK game due to either their sexuality, gender or race. A large reason for that is the fact that prominent people in UK hockey can seemingly say all manner of offensive things on Twitter about race, gender and sexuality without fear of censure-things that would likely be cause for disciplinary action in some cases in any other profession.
Think about that. There are hockey fans out there who don’t feel safe or welcome at games in the UK because of their sexuality. Or gender. Or race. By not acting when offensive things are said, the league is effectively telling them “you don’t count as people. You are not like us”.
I’ve already written about UK hockey’s need to partner with projects such as the You Can Play project in North America, and how homophobia in UK hockey was still a problem last October, after talk of homophobic abuse being shouted from the crowd at a game. I’ve also told how at least one other EIHL team has turned down a proposal to open up a project with YCP-with an official of that club publicly saying that the players at the club voted against doing so because they weren’t happy with it.
However, last night we got more news still-it turns out that YCP have said they’d like the EIHL to work with them. This is one of the biggest independent sports orgs on the planet. Partnership with them would give the EIHL exposure in a positive fashion across hockey and show it as a progressive, caring, inclusive league.
Trouble is, as YCP founder and one of the most powerful people in hockey Patrick Burke explains-the EIHL haven’t bothered:
Let’s get this straight, then. It appears that one of the biggest campaigning organisations for inclusivity in sport in North America has offered the EIHL the chance to form links with it and promote something that will make life better for fans and players across the UK at all levels…and they’ve not responded. What does that tell you?
Yes, this week we’ve seen the good side of UK hockey fandom in the support for Amy Usher in her fight against cancer. But we’ve also seen that when it comes to the EIHL “family”, apparently some people still face a struggle to be part of it and right now, the Elite League doesn’t send the message that it’s doing anything to make hockey the truly inclusive sport it claims it is.
Recently much has been made of British football fans proudly showing racist behaviour in Paris, and once again there’s been round condemnation and much pride from hockey fans over how UK hockey would never allow such attitudes any space in their sport.
Well, sorry, EIHL, but it’s time to get yourselves off that pedestal. While it can’t be denied the vast majority of UK hockey fans would be horrified to be associated with any sport that allowed homophobia, sexism and racism to be a part of its experience or brand image (and indeed the majority of UK hockey fans have condemned the tweets used as examples of such in this piece and are pushing for change), perhaps the fact that a hockey team and sport in the UK still allows a person who’ll publicly and repeatedly make comments encompassing all that on a regular basis to be a prominent face of their sport in the UK without any seeming attempt to prevent them/take retribution doesn’t reflect well on their commitment to inclusivity and tolerance.
It’s time to make sure EVERYONE feels welcome in the UK hockey family. Because right now, like it or not, there are many that still don’t. LGBTQ people. Those with mental illness. Many women. All these groups are seemingly allowed to be mocked without penalty even though they love the sport just as much as anyone.
And that’s tragic. It doesn’t reflect well on the sport, and can only harm it going forward.
It’s time for the EIHL and UK hockey to act. This is not a situation that can continue.