More than Just Hockey
By Petula Dvorak
When two black 13-year-old hockey players -- one in Maryland and the other in Michigan -- faced racist taunts on the ice this season, they made it onto the Subban family’s radar. And NHL superstar P.K. Subban, one of the sport’s highest profile black players, went into action.
His parents have always encouraged him to reach out to those in need. “Maria, my wife, and I told him he had to do that, he had to help others in his life,” said Karl Subban, the ultimate hockey dad whose three sons all play professional hockey.
So it came as no surprise to them that their son made a video encouraging kids who look like him to believe in themselves.
The Subban family -- the parents, three sons and two daughters -- talk together online all the time. And they posted the column I wrote last week about Divyne Apollon II, who faced monkey sounds and the n-word from an opposing team during a Maryland tournament last month.
Karl and P.K., who plays for the Nashville Predators, were horrified by what they read. Even though they were almost always the only black family on the ice wherever they played in Canada, they don’t remember that kind of toxic racism in the rinks. There were a couple of incidents, Karl said, but they stood out for how rare they were.
“I can’t say there was a lot,” Karl said. “Our journey wasn’t defined by a lot of racist behavior by people. It wasn’t defined by that.”
But that’s not what’s happening in American hockey today.
So Karl reached out to Divyne and his dad, Divyne Apollon Sr., talking to them by phone. He offered words of encouragement and resolve, reminding Divyne that “you are not defined by the color of your skin, you are defined by your potential.”
At the same time, another 13-year-old black player in Michigan, Ty Cornett, was facing racist hate on the ice, too.
Ty has been subjected to racist slurs and taunts on the ice since a spring tournament last year. It got so bad, his father Matthew told NHL.com that the family considered pulling him out of hockey. But the boy loved the sport, so they decided to keep playing.
The same weekend that P.K. Subban heard about Divyne, someone on his Nashville team -- a friend of a friend thing -- told P.K. about Ty.
So in the Detroit arena before their game against the Red Wings, P.K. recorded a quick video and texted it to Ty. It’s become the video seen around the ice hockey world.
“I can tell you this right now: As long as you’re still breathing in this world, you’ve got to believe in yourself and let nobody tell you what you can and can’t do. Especially if it’s because of the color of your skin,” P.K. Subban said.
“In this world, some things happen that we don’t really understand. That’s okay. We don’t have to understand them. All we need to do is understand ourselves, believe in ourselves, keep trying and keep pushing forward.”
Karl Subban wasn’t surprised that his son sent that video. That’s how he raised him.
It also got a little love from P.K. Subban’s love, Alpine skiing legend Lindsey Vonn, who tweeted his video with the comment: “One of the many reasons I love this man!”
In the Washington region, folks were sure the video was for Divyne, whose story made news around the nation. And it got lots of posts tagging Divyne and his team, the Metro Maple Leafs, and the Players Against Hatepage and movement some of the parents created.
It might as well have been for Divyne.
And for Laurent, for Anthony, for Jason, for Darius, for Xavier, for Ziggy, for Phillip, for Justus for all the kids on my sons’ diverse teams who face the racist jeers every season, but put their sticks on the ice and keep playing. And for their determined and patient parents, who always go high when the other teams go low.
They are living what Karl Subban told his sons and his two daughters, who are also wildly successful.
“Don’t let it stop you. What defines you is not the color of your skin. Don’t let anyone stop you from fulfilling your potential,” Karl, a lifelong coach and educator, said. “It doesn’t matter what you look like, you can have success because you were born with a thing called potential.”
The message will go beyond the black players facing adversity, too.
Because P.K. is a hockey god. He commands covers of magazines, inspires feature stories about his wardrobe style and rocks red carpet poses with his accomplished girlfriend. The hockey world will listen to him.
“The hockey arena is no different from the schoolyard. Kids are not born racist. They are taught this. And the kids who did it -- we want them to learn from it. They’re young people, they can learn to be better,” P.K.’s dad said. “And I think those kids heard P.K., but the parents will hear him too.”