LAS VEGAS — When news was first announced that Kenan Thompson would be hosting the 2019 NHL Awards, it seemed a little too good to be true. The man whom one recent publication surprisingly called “underrated” would be coming to the stage to entertain the hockey world, something he’d been doing since he first appeared in The Mighty Ducks movie trilogy, a series that for many people is their lone avenue into or reference point to the sport, quite frankly.
There was a part of me that was hoping this event could serve as a yet another milestone moment that breaks down the psychological barrier that many still have between blackness and pucks. And while this night wasn’t exactly that from a comedy standpoint, there were a few moments that helped the cause overall.
The monologue was effective, but didn’t stray too far into deep water.
“Welcome to the 2019 NHL Awards. I will be your host this evening and, for the last time, no, I am not one of the Subbans.
“My name is Keenan Thompson. You might recognize me from SNL, All That, Kenan and Kel. … But, let’s be real! You don’t. This is a hockey room. So you only know me as the kid from The Mighty Ducks 2 and 3!”
“You know, I can’t really decide if my favorite player is Ryan Reaves or … I don’t know. Man, I don’t know, maybe even Malcolm Subban, you know, from the Golden Knights. I just … Hey, I don’t know. I feel a strong connection to the two of them. I don’t really know what it is. I can’t put my, can’t put my finger on it.”
See, that’s funny because Ryan Reaves and Malcolm Subban are both black and both play in Las Vegas. I’m still sort of wondering where that joke would have gone had those roster spots not been what they were, but who cares. Point is, that was about the extent of Thompson’s routine about being black in the hockey world, which in truth, is all that was needed because the realities are certainly still harsh enough to not make light of the subject.
Throughout the night, the league highlighted the nominees for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, given to “an individual who – through the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society.” It’s named after the NHL’s first black player, Willie O’Ree, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year.
By sprinkling in vignettes of the nominees’ stories, the theme stayed top of mind during the broadcast that this is an enduring battle. So between Thompson appearing as Steve Harvey, LaVar Ball, Charles Barkley and some weird mad scientist character with white hair, you couldn’t lose track of the fact that diversity existed beyond Thompson’s well-known Saturday Night Live go-tos.
There was Anthony Benavides, who runs the Clark Park Coalition, which launched a youth hockey program in Detroit for black and Latino kids, after rebuilding an outdoor rink with the help of his community. Another nominee was Tammi Lynch, the mother of a hockey player, whose teammate, who is black, was racially taunted during a recent game. She didn’t just fight back, she formed an entire movement called Players Against Hate, which aims to educate everyone about racism on the ice.
The inclusionary theme wasn’t just about black folks. Robin Lehner talked at length about his battles with mental health. Laila Anderson, the St. Louis Blues superfan who is battling a life-threatening immune disease, was featured in the cold open with Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski. And Carey Price stole the show when he surprised a young fan on stage, whom he’d met before, following the death of his mother.
Not to be forgotten was the unveiling of the new NHL 20 cover, which features the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews. Matthews’ mother is Mexican, and one of his earliest coaches helped found Mexico’s national ice hockey program. There are rumors that the EA Sports game might even have an SAP option, which is tremendous.
“It’s the way they’re growing the game and, you know, different markets, different countries, and just encouraging everybody all over the world to play hockey,” Matthews said. “I hope it’s not my voice that’s going over it, because my Spanish isn’t very good. But I think that’s awesome.”
But the big winner of the night was Rico Phillips, who took home the Willie O’Ree Award. A firefighter in Flint, Michigan, he started playing hockey in high school. Then his journey took him to the world of refereeing. Now, with the Flint Inner City Youth Hockey Program, Phillips is doing everything he can to give back to the community that built him and he works in today.
“Yes, so when we first started the program, there was certainly a need. There is lack of cultural diversity in hockey all across North America, but specifically in Flint. And as I would look out as a referee, I would see that lack of diversity,” Phillips said Wednesday night, sitting in Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino with his award by his side. “And so when we put it together, I had to get with local community leaders, especially the business community, to be able to provide the funds and the equipment for the kids, because we knew we had to have this absolutely free.”
It isn’t just about getting kids out to play for all the obvious reasons that’s helpful. It’s about an exchange between communities that oftentimes goes beyond the ice, which is essentially the whole point.
“One of the best things about our program is the volunteers themselves. We host eight different high school hockey teams who come in on different weeks and adopt the program. So there are built-in on-ice instructors,” Phillips explained. “What’s great about that is these kids, the high school kids come from the suburbs and rural areas, and then they come into the inner city to work with our kids. And this complete cultural breakdown that happens to where they all become one and it’s magic to see. I didn’t know it was gonna be that way, but that is one of the magic parts to our program, is that it’s really community-connected.”
Afterward, Phillips flashed pics with various hockey players, including P.K. Subban — who, by the way, covered NHL 19, becoming the video game’s second consecutive spokesperson of color — and other greats. Earlier in the day, the NHL also approved the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to a Latino owner, California billionaire Alex Meruelo. One is topical, one is deep-rooted.
So while the NHL and hockey as a whole are doing their best to put people with brown faces in outward-facing positions, some who are in them know just how tricky that can be in a real-life application. Hockey is only as inaccessible as anyone makes it seem, although the structural problems do create obstacles.
“There isn’t that gap that people think,” Kevin Weekes, a former NHL goalie who is currently an analyst for the NHL Network, said after the show. “Hockey players and NHL players don’t live on Pluto. I feel like the game is a people game. It’s a family game, it’s a community game. … It’s nice to have them recognized. Community leaders need to be recognized.”
Thursday in Las Vegas, many were. But the scars of the realities of racism don’t go away just because a few trophies are handed out. Those rewards just serve as a reminder of the many things that not only the game has to overcome, but everyone else does too.
“In the ’80s, it was a running joke. I was the only black guy on that team. In the whole, everywhere. All right? And I had to absorb that and laugh it off and joke with them,” Phillips recalled. “Otherwise I would have been sad and mad and all those other things. My mother taught me, ‘Well, that is their regular, it’s not yours. Change their minds about who you are. And that’s all that matters.’
“And as a result of that, over time, the cultural things have changed. Now, when I became a young official, the N-bomb got cast right at me. My first season, I was 17 years old. So to think I’d be sitting here today after that dude called me that. Gold, man. Gold.”