The number of black players in the NHL had escaped this writer because it appeared no longer important. It was no longer a novelty. You stopped asking how a certain black player reached the NHL because his road to the highest hockey level was no longer unusual.
And then Thursday happened and P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens scored two power-play goals, including the double-overtime winner, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bruins.
Before Subban could even complete his coast off the ice at TD Garden, hateful tweets streamed into the atmosphere, referencing only Subban’s racial background, the words “damn Canadien” never entering the 140-character spaces.
It was as if those Bruins fans — or whoever decided to vent these disheartening and disgusting tweets — were offended that a black player scored the winning goal in their sacred game, as if hockey is still not meant for certain people.
Some still view the sport as exclusive, or perhaps they accept black players as long as they aren’t too boastful or too talented to score the pivotal goal for the opposing team.
There is a problem here. The tweets paint Boston into a corner that it appeared to escape 30 years ago, as a town that may be accepting on the surface but contains racists in the crevices who only come to the forefront in certain situations.
When a black player scores the winning basket against the Celtics, such tweets don’t appear. When a Dominican pitcher shuts out the Red Sox in the playoffs, they don’t surface. When the Baltimore Ravens beat the Patriots in the playoffs, there are no such hateful statements against Ray Lewis or Ed Reed.
Yet it seems that hockey brings out the worst in some, because the same reaction occurred two years ago when Washington’s Joel Ward knocked the Bruins out of the postseason with a winning goal and suddenly Ward was the “n-word,” as if the fact he flourished in a traditionally white sport — for an opposing team — was offensive.
Given the influx of black players in the NHL, the fact that the fourth overall selection in the 2013 draft was an African-American, and the striking irony that the Bruins’ top prospect is the Subban’s brother, a skilled goalie for Providence, Thursday night’s developments seem rather shocking.
Or maybe not.
Just in the past week, we’ve seen an NBA owner spout racist statements against African-Americans and Brazilian soccer standout Dani Alves have a banana thrown in his direction as he played for FC Barcelona in a match against Villareal.
But we were supposed to be above that in Boston. Our most sacred Red Sox player is a burly Dominican. We shed tears when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce returned to Boston in January. We celebrated the first American in 31 years to win the Boston Marathon — who happened to be black. But somehow Subban crossed the line?
It’s embarrassing to the city. It’s embarrassing to those people of color who are forced to defend Boston as a diverse and peaceful city, and embarrassing to those non-prejudiced hockey fans who disdain Subban simply because he plays for the archrival and the stakes are so high.
Now the Bruins have to turn to Jarome Iginla, who is black, with a look of “it’s really not like that here” when they should be preparing for Game 2.
“Jarome is here and he’s been treated with nothing but respect in Boston since he’s been here,” said Bruins left winger Milan Lucic, who is Serbian-Canadian, if that carries any significance.
“All the Celtics and Patriots and Red Sox and all those players that have been here have been treated with nothing but respect. If you’re going to make bad comments, stick to hockey comments, not to stuff that crosses the line.”
The message of these tweeters is blurry. Is Ortiz a good black guy because he mashes home runs for the Red Sox? Is Subban an “n-word” because he is skilled enough to burn Tuukka Rask with two critical goals and not apologize for his dominance?
One of the purest part of sports is the creation of villains. There’s Andrew Toney, Bucky Dent, Bart Scott, David Tyree, Magic Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez. It’s fun to chide villains, and the mere effort of berating them is a sign of respect.
It’s OK to dislike Subban because he plays for Montreal or tends to strut when he scores, but it’s pathetic, disgusting, and ignorant to dislike him because of his color, because a black man from the other team was a better man on that one day.
When P.K.’s brother hits the ice and becomes the greatest black goalie since Grant Fuhr, but he’s donning black and gold, what are these fools going to do then? Cheer because he’s “our black guy”? Roar for shutouts because now a Subban is on our side?
That kills what is greatest about hockey, and that is its diversity.
Real hockey fans should praise the sport’s growth, the fact that black Canadians and African-Americans are embracing what was considered a white sport not even 20 years ago. The sport is more diverse and the athletes are becoming more impressive.
Hockey’s popularity is peaking. The playoffs are thrilling. Black players are becoming as common as overtime playoff games, but suddenly this reminds us that the ugliness that discouraged many blacks from pursuing hockey still exists.
Blacks are accepted as long as they flourish only for the home team. That type of condition should force all of us to bow our heads in shame and realize that we’re not as far along as we thought we were.
But hey, all will be fine if the Bruins win Saturday, eh?Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.