TORONTO - The changing face of hockey in this province made startling history on Saturday when three of the first six selections — four of the first 12 players picked — in the Ontario Hockey League priority draft were players of colour.
Nothing like this has ever happened before.
This coming at a time when Joel Ward is out-scoring the Sedin brothers in the Stanley Cup playoffs. This coming at a time when P.K. Subban and Jarome Iginla are among the most popular players in all of hockey and Chris Stewart is one of the game’s emerging power forwards.
“I didn’t even think about this until you brought it to my attention, but it is pretty remarkable,” said David Branch, commissioner of the OHL and of junior hockey in Canada. “I don’t tend to think about things like colour, but we did an online draft show and I saw the three Subban brothers (NHL’s P.K., OHL’s Malcolm and draft pick, Jordan) on the set together and I thought ‘I don’t think that’s ever happened before.’
“I don’t necessarily know why it’s happening or how it’s happened but I think it’s great for the game of hockey, great for the ethnic communities in this country. I think we all recognize the importance of reaching out and making our game as accessible as possible to all ethnic groups. I guess this shows it’s working.”
- Darnell Nurse, a lanky defenceman from the Don Mills Flyers, whose father Richard played receiver for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and whose uncle happens to be Donovan McNabb, was chosen third in the draft by Sault Ste. Marie.
- Jordan Subban, PK’s little brother, and a defenceman from the provincial champion Toronto Marlies, was the 5th pick in the draft, chosen like his brothers before him, by the Belleville Bulls.
- Nicholas Baptiste, who has been touted as the best minor hockey forward in Ottawa for years, was chosen fourth by the Sudbury Wolves.
- Stephen Harper of Burlington, who scored 38 goals in 55 games of AAA hockey, was selected 12th by the Erie Otters.
- And if next year’s draft was held today, consensus is that Joshua Ho-Sang of the Marlies, of Jamaican and Jewish descent, would be one of the first players selected.
“This is a very positive step for our game,” said Sherry Bassin, who has been around junior hockey for more than 35 years and admits that nothing like this has ever happened before. “I remember years ago, when one multi-cultural athlete would come to play hockey, that was a big story. Everybody talked about it. Now, I don’t know if this is a national thing but I know what’s happening in Ontario. The sport has become more multi-cultural and look at the quality of player we’re seeing.
“The game is part of the Canadian fabric and more than ever it’s represented by all kinds of Canadians, not just white ones. To me, it’s extremely positive to see the game looking more like our society, and I’m very excited about that, for the game and for the kids playing it.”
When Karl Subban, father to the hockey playing Subbans, was told about the OHL priority selection draft he reacted instantly. “I just said ‘Wow. That’s unbelievable.’
“When I started out with PK and I’d walk into an arena with my wife, we didn’t see too many black faces,” said Karl. “Now, when I’d go in with Jordan, we’d see many black faces. You can see the change, just in that short time. The game is growing in the black community and it’s growing in the ethnic community. And you see it with PK’s popularity, there’s so many kids watching the sport who want to be involved.
“In my neighbourhood in Etobicoke, there are a lot of East Indian kids around. I don’t have to read the newspaper or go on the internet to know what happened in the game last night. The kids all tell me.”
As principal of Brookview Middle School, in the difficult Jane and Finch area, Subban has instituted the Heroes Program, introducing and exposing less fortunate children to hockey. The results, to date, have been fantastic.
“It’s made a big difference, especially with self esteem,” said Subban. “We had this little guy at our school having difficulties and after PK won his second gold medal in Ottawa, he went to school and told me ‘I want to be like PK.’ Knowing where he’d come from, it was good for me to hear that. And you should see this kid now. How he’s changed. It’s all because of hockey. And when I heard today the game is growing, that made me feel even better.”
There is always the issue of cost at Rep hockey for families ethnic and otherwise, but Subban said that there’s something within the game that makes it accessible for everyone.
“There’s a spirit within the hockey community that helps out those in need,” said Subban. “I know it’s expensive. I know parents who have helped out, organizations, sponsors. People don’t seem to mind, they find a way to get kids to play if they want to play.
“And look what happens when you introduce the game to so many people? You see the results now.”