It is easy to say the NHL's one-game suspension of Krys Barch for an "inappropriate" remark directed at a black player is yet another example of the league's failure to seriously address an important issue.
Soccer's Premier League, for example, where racism is more open than it is in hockey, recently showed how seriously it takes the problem. Liverpool's Luis Suárez was suspended for eight games – no small punishment in a 38-game season – for making racist remarks to Patrice Evra of Manchester United.
However, just as racism in the NHL can be a subtle affair, a close examination of this case shows Colin Campbell, the league's senior executive vice-president of hockey operations, did the right thing in giving Barch the benefit of the doubt. If you follow the web of reactions from Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban, to whom Barch's remark was directed, to others with first-hand experience with racism in hockey, it is hard to disagree with Campbell's decision.
The incident occurred last Saturday during a game between the Canadiens and the Florida Panthers. Subban got into a fight with Erik Gudbranson of the Panthers and fell hard to the ice after taking a punch. As Subban was skating off the ice, Barch yelled several things at him.
One of the linesmen heard what sounded like a racially-motivated remark. Barch was given a 10-minute misconduct penalty and thrown out of the game. Campbell added the one-game suspension on Thursday.
No one, from Subban, who said he didn't hear anything, to Barch, who admitted he said something "inappropriate but it was nowhere near a racial slur nor that intent," would repeat the offending remark.
George Richards of the Miami Herald reported two sources said "that, aside from various expletives, Barch basically asked Subban if he 'slipped on a banana peel' after his legs went out from under him."
Thus the linesman was duty-bound to report the remark to the game referees and the league. Given that Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers had a banana tossed in his path during a pre-season game in London, Ont., and there have been similar incidents over the years, it was the only thing to do.
After that, things move towards shades of grey.
Unlike the Suárez case, where there was no doubt a direct racial slur was uttered several times, this was different. Barch argued that in addition to some profane remarks, he was only making fun of Subban for falling down.
Slipping on a banana peel has been a lame comedic device in movies and television for generations, so immediately jumping to the conclusion the remark was racist is a mistake. Plus, Barch was in the middle of an emotional situation, a hockey fight which often involves scuffling among secondary combatants, and Subban himself inspires emotional reactions from opponents. Indeed, Subban is a brash young man with a well-established reputation for speaking his mind, which has resulted in squabbles with his own teammates.
So, with the direct evidence in doubt, one has to turn to the indirect evidence. As expected, Barch insisted he is not and never has been party to any racist behaviour. But more interesting were the reactions of two other people, Subban and Trevor Daley, a black player for the Dallas Stars who is a mutual friend of Subban and Barch.
Subban said he did not hear what was said by Barch. Well, maybe. People in the middle of hockey disputes tend not to whisper. While some offenders skated free in the past because racist epithets were not heard by anyone else, things can be heard even above the crowd noise.
Perhaps what Subban means is that he did not hear anything he considered out of line. Barch, who called him the next day to explain, implied Subban accepted his explanation.
Then there is the reaction of Daley, who was not present for the confrontation and only saw it on video at best. But he is a good friend of both players. Daley and Barch played together for years on the Stars and Daley called Subban shortly after the incident.
Daley told Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News that Barch "is a great guy and I have never felt he would ever say anything derogatory." He also said he spoke to Subban, who again said he did not hear anything Barch said.
Lest you think Daley is cutting a hockey buddy some slack, it must be remembered he was involved in one of the ugliest racist incidents in hockey. As recounted here, Daley briefly left his junior team, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, when his coach, former NHL goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, referred to him by the N-word several times in a conversation with other Greyhound players when Daley was not present. Vanbiesbrouck resigned after the players reported his slurs.
As a result, there is much doubt about the intent of Barch's verbal jab. And Campbell did the right thing in giving him the benefit of the doubt but at the same time issuing a suspension to serve notice to all NHL players to be careful of their language, even in stressful situations.
"As a player in the National Hockey League," Campbell noted in a press release, "[Barch]must be held accountable for making a comment that, in the context in which it was made, and in light of the entirety of the circumstances, was offensive and unacceptable."