Luke Henne | Sports Editor
Jan. 27, 2022
A pair of minor-league hockey players in separate leagues were disciplined for their involvement in separate racial incidents during games this month.
On Friday, the San Jose Barracuda suspended Krystof Hrabik. His suspension, which is 30 games long, is the result of a gesture he made toward the Tucson Roadrunners’ Boko Imama during an American Hockey League game on Jan. 12 in San Jose, Calif.
According to ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski, Hrabik “imitated the movements of a monkey in a taunt that targeted Imama, who is Black.” Wyshynski also noted that this taunt “was spotted by players on the Roadrunners bench, and Hrabik was confronted on the ice by Tucson’s Travis Barron while Imama was held back by a linesman during a stoppage in play.”
Following the AHL’s decision, Imama released a statement on Twitter, part of which said, “Even though I honestly believe the sport has made positive strides, we still have a long way to go to educate the ignorant and to make hockey a safe place for everyone.”
He added, “We have enough to worry about as pro hockey players, and it saddens me when anyone has to deal with these types of issues.”
Imama was also the target of a racial incident in 2020, when he was a member of the AHL’s Ontario Reign. In a game against the Bakersfield Condors, Bakersfield’s Brandon Manning was assessed a misconduct penalty after using a racial slur toward Imama. As a result, Manning was suspended for five games, per The Hockey News.
Hrabik issued a statement on Friday, in which he apologized and also added, “People should know that I had absolutely no inappropriate intent. The gesture was made in the heat of battle and while I didn’t mean anything racist by what I did, I realize now through my own ignorance how my gesture could be interpreted. I alone am responsible for that, it was terrible, and I make no excuses. When I heard about Boko’s reaction to the gesture, I was horrified by what I had done.”
Hrabik’s statement also indicated that he sent a personal apology to Imama.
The Barracuda also released a statement, indicating that Hrabik will be eligible to apply for reinstatement after 21 of the 30 games have passed. His reinstatement will depend on “an evaluation of his progress in training provided by the NHL Player Inclusion Committee.”
The disparity in suspension lengths stemming from incidents in which Imama was targeted raises an important question: What’s the difference in intent?
Why, in a span of just two years, did the appropriate suspension length jump from five games to 30 games? With two similar racially motivated incidents occurring, wouldn’t consistency be important? Does Hrabik’s gesture carry more weight than Manning’s slur did? Is Hrabik’s lengthy suspension the product of a culture more committed to social justice than those that came before?
Just one day after the AHL announced Hrabik’s suspension, another racial incident came to the forefront during a Saturday-night game in Jacksonville, Fla.
At the tail end of a brawl in an East Coast Hockey League contest between the South Carolina Stingrays (the Washington Capitals’ affiliate) and the Jacksonville Icemen (the New York Rangers’ affiliate), an individual scuffle between South Carolina’s Jordan Subban and Jacksonville’s Jacob Panetta ensued when Panetta made a gesture toward Subban. It was insinuated that the gesture was racially motivated.
Following the fight, the Icemen tweeted, “Overtime began with a rough fight resulting in multiple penalties on both sides.”
Subban quoted Jacksonville’s tweet with a response of his own, saying, “More like @JPanetta12 was too much of a coward to fight me and as soon as I began to turn my back he started making monkey gestures at me so I punched him in the face multiple times and he turtled like the coward he is. There fixed it.”
Jacksonville issued a statement on Sunday, announcing that although the incident still has to be reviewed at the league level, the team “will be releasing the player involved effectively immediately and will continue [their] mission of sharing [their] love of community and hockey.”
Jacksonville’s decision to immediately release Panetta without a completion of league-level investigation also raises questions.
Is this a full committal to the franchise having a zero-tolerance policy toward racism? Or, is it more a matter of Jacksonville no longer wanting to deal with the baggage Panetta’s action carries, regardless of what the league investigation finds?
Panetta posted a video to Twitter on Sunday, in which he said that he told Subban that “You’re only tough once the refs get involved.” He said that he followed that comment to Subban with a “tough guy, body-builder like gesture,” the same gesture he said he’s made to “non-racialized players a number of times when there have been on-ice confrontations.”
Panetta proceeded, reiterating that he used “no racial slurs, noises or anything of the like” during the incident.
Before finishing his video, Panetta said that racism and other forms of discrimination have no place in hockey or society.
“I believed that before, and I still believe that now,” Panetta said. “I intend to fully participate in the ECHL’s ongoing investigation in this matter, and I will continue to try and reach out and contact Jordan and the Subban family to express my regret.”
Despite Panetta’s comments, racial gestures directed at African Americans have become a regular occurrence in professional hockey, most notably at the NHL level.
According to NBC Sports, the Philadelphia Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds had a banana thrown at him from the crowd during a shootout attempt in a 2011 preseason game. When asked about it after the game, Simmonds said, “When you’re Black, you kind of expect [racist] things. You learn to deal with it.”
In 2012, the Capitals’ Joel Ward was the victim of racist tweets following his series-clinching goal in the team’s first-round playoff victory over the Boston Bruins.
In 2018, per NPR, Washington’s Devante Smith-Pelly heard chants of “Basketball, basketball, basketball” as he sat in the penalty box during a game at the United Center in Chicago against the Chicago Blackhawks.
In a league where, according to Sports Illustrated, only 18 Black players appeared in more than five games during the 2019-2020 season, the representation is still thin and the problem will find a way to persist. If the issue isn’t addressed and resolved at the NHL level, it creates a direct path for letting similar behavior continue to infiltrate the AHL, ECHL and other lower-level leagues.
Will the issue get enough attention if the sport continues to see such a small representation of African Americans?
In a series of tweets following the incident, P.K. Subban (Jordan’s brother who currently plays in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils) called out Panetta.
“They don’t call the east coast league the jungle because my brother and the other Black players are the monkeys,” Subban said in his first tweet. “Hey @jacobpanetta you shouldn’t be so quick [to] delete your Twitter or your Instagram account you will probably be able to play again… that’s what history says but things are changing.”
Hrabik’s and Panetta’s actions and subsequent punishments came just before and after the Bruins held a jersey retirement ceremony at TD Garden for Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958, prior to the team’s Jan. 18 game.
Over 60 years after O’Ree’s historic accomplishment, the league and sport still face a crisis worth addressing.
Imama, a recurring victim of the prevalent discrimination, wants nothing more than this battle to stop.
He closed his statement by saying, “My hope is that people learn from this and that some day hockey will truly be for everyone.”