Disappointment, anger, hope: P.K. Subban discusses anti-Black racism in hockey

New Jersey Devils' P.K. Subban speaks to media about the racist gesture directed at his brother Jordan, voicing his frustrations with the matter and desire for change down the road so more people don't have to deal with these issues. COURTESY: Devils

Standing in front of the New Jersey media after Sunday’s match against the Los Angeles Kings, Devils defenceman P.K. Subban had more on his mind — and more to say — than what happened in one of the 82 times his team will take to the ice during this regular season.

During an ECHL game the night before, Jordan Subban, P.K.’s younger brother, was subjected to what was widely recognized as a racist gesture from a player on the opposing team, Jacob Panetta.

Limited video of the incident is available, though a grainy cell-phone video capturing nearly one-and-a-half minutes of what took place was shared broadly on social media. The footage shows an initial scrum in the corner that Subban and Panetta were involved in. Afterward, Subban skates toward the middle of the ice while talking to an official, with Panetta trailing close behind.

Panetta can then be seen gesturing in a way that resembled an impersonation of a monkey, an action known to be dehumanizing and racist when directed toward a Black person. After the game ended, Subban, the former fourth-round NHL draft pick, quote-tweeted an Icemen Twitter post that described overtime between the two teams as beginning “with a rough fight resulting in multiple penalties on both sides,” pointing out the club’s omission of what he said was a racist taunt from Panetta that incited the roughness.

“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,” Subban wrote. “There fixed it.”

Since the incident, which led to Panetta being released from his club and suspended indefinitely by the ECHL, pending an investigation, Panetta has said that his gesture did not have racist intent, even though that was how it was perceived, and described it instead as an attempt to mock Subban for acting like a “tough guy.”

P.K. Subban was among the first prominent voices in the hockey community to discuss what happened. On Sunday, he had more to say. His responses about what took place, the experience of being a Black person in hockey, and the systemic nature of anti-Black racism can be found in their entirety below. The questions, as asked by Devils media members, have been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you find out about what happened to your brother, and what were your thoughts and emotions, given how close to home it is for you?

P.K. Subban: You know, I didn’t sleep much. I think I got to bed at like 5 a.m. Obviously, I had a conversation with my family. Sheer disappointment. It’s distasteful. There’s no room for it in our game. I’m embarrassed, you know, I’m embarrassed because our game is better than this.

What I think about is all the great people and the great things about our game that I love, but the unfortunate thing is it isn’t just the incident. The unfortunate thing is how many kids deal with this every day and it doesn’t come to light.

You know, the fortunate thing about this, a lot of people talk about me on social media and what I do in my my time. But I’ve done a lot of work in the community. I’ve done a lot of things to build a following and where people want to follow me and see what I do. And in this case, you know, without that following, without that platform, am I standing here right now? Is ESPN talking about it? Is everyone outside the hockey world talking about it? Probably not.

I think about all the other kids and people that deal with this every day and it doesn’t get talked about. You know, I see it on my social media every day. I’ve posted different things. And in this case, I think I’ve been very responsible with the platform that I have. You look at my history and the things that I’ve done with my social media. It’s all been about the good of the game and bringing people into our game and inclusiveness, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

The biggest thing that I want to say on behalf of our family is that we don’t we don’t need pity from anyone. I didn’t need it when I was five years old. I didn’t need it when I was 10 years old. I didn’t need it when I played junior hockey. My brothers didn’t need it. My parents didn’t need it when they moved to Canada. We don’t need anybody’s pity, you know, and no one felt sorry for us when we went through our experiences through our life. So we don’t expect anybody to feel sorry and we don’t expect anybody to really understand that isn’t Black.

If you’re not Black, you’re not going to understand and that’s okay with us.

You can debate whether it’s racism, placeism [discriminating against a locality or geographic location], whatever you want. But for us, this is life. This is life for us. And that’s what’s sad. This is life for people that look like me who have gone through the game of hockey. And that’s part of the history, whether we like it or not, and we’re trying to change that. I’m an advocate to change that. But to do that, we got to bring people together. And hopefully this is another step in doing that.

I think it being Black History Month [in February], Willie O’Ree getting [his number retired] was such a big deal for the NHL and a big moment and then we saw what happened in the AHL [when Krystof Hrabik, the forward for the San Jose Barracuda who made a racist gesture toward Tucson Roadrunners left-wing Boko Imama, was suspended for 30 games]. It keeps happening. So we can look at one incident and talk about it all we want. But tomorrow there may be another one. The next day, there may be another one.

Are we going to debate that, or are we going to focus on what’s real? I’ve lived it. I can sit here and answer questions all you want. I’ve lived it. I still live it. For our family, the reason why we have a lot of respect is because we don’t parade around flapping the race card every time we don’t get something that we feel we deserve. Even though we know sometimes that might be a part of it, that’s okay for us. We put our head down, we do the work.

Unfortunately for some people that want to make comments or do things, I have a platform to speak on that not many people have — and I’m going to use it.

How is Jordan after what happened on Saturday?

P.K. Subban: Jordan will be fine. I mean, that’s what we always say. When things happen, we’ll be fine. You know, I got asked today ‘How are you doing?’ And I’ll be fine. You know, I’ll be fine. Unfortunately for us, regardless of what happens, we have to continue to move forward. And that’s something that I’ve learned to deal with in my life, not just in my career, in my life. And there’s no one that’s going to pay me for those damages, or pay to help with those damages that my brother has to go through, that I’ve had to go through, that other people have to go through every day.

For me, I get annoyed by the questions. I’d rather people focus on how can we make it better so the next kid that looks like P.K. Subban or Jordan Subbban doesn’t have to go through this.

What can members of the hockey community, and society more broadly, do to be better allies?

P.K. Subban: I’ve tried to do that. Rather than piping up and jumping on bandwagons every time there’s something that happens, I think I’ve been selective with when I speak. I’m not the type of person who looks for every opportunity to jump out and just call people out. I’m an actionable items type of person. That’s why I started the Blue Line Buddies program to get underprivileged youth involved. The Devils have been a supporter of that. The Nashville Predators have been a supporter of that, and we’ve seen a lot of success in that.

But I think people have to start with their friends and their family and that’s where it comes from. It’s not okay. It’s just not okay. It’s a bad look. It’s a bad look for the league, but fans, too. We need fans and everybody. We need everybody to make this feel like a place where everyone feels comfortable.

You do so much charitable work in the community. Do you ever feel like you have to work even harder to get your message across?

P.K. Subban: I think the message is there, people just have to listen. When they don’t and when they don’t improve and the make mistakes, they need to be held accountable for it.

I got out and have a couple drinks and get behind the wheel of a car, no one cares if I had a rough day. No one cares if my dog died. No one cares if I broke up with my girlfriend and that’s why I was drinking and got behind the wheel. You’ve got to pay the piper. That’s just what it is. If you make mistakes, you’ve got to deal with the consequences. I’ve been taught that.

For me, all I try to do is set examples. I know probably everybody in here has watched The Last Dance with Michael Jordan. The one hting that I took from that is ‘I try to set an example for people. If you like it and you follow it, great. If you don’t, then maybe I’m not the person that you need to be following.’ That’s how I live my life. I try to set examples.

When I see something that is wrong, I have an accountability to call it out, just like everybody else does. I’ve been in situations where things have happened and people have seen it and don’t call it out. That’s how systemic racism continues. We have to understand that.

Everyone is going to have a preconceived notion about what I should or shouldn’t do. That’s fine, but nobody is walking in my shoes. Nobody wakes up in the morning and is living in my skin, so I don’t expect everybody to understand how I feel or what I go through or people like me go through. That’s okay. I don’t put that on everybody. All I put on everybody is to do the right thing, and I think we know what’s right from wrong.

Has there been a lot of support where people have gotten in tough with you and said ‘Hey, this isn’t right, what can we do?’

P.K. Subban: Yeah, I think a lot of people have over the past two years. When I think about the pandemic and when it started, there’s a lot of people that have reached out. I talked about it during that pause, a ton of players when I tried to get a program together, before the PIC [Player Inclusion Committee] and the NHL stepped up with these groups to try to create programs, players reached out.

And like, well-known players. Crosby, McDavid, all these guys. When I look at it, we have the support of the players who want to make a difference. We have to call this stuff out. I just think about it, yesterday I was so upset because it is just not good for our game. This is not our game. We’re better than that and we’re all better than that.

I was on the ice tonight talking to Jonathan Quick, talking to different players, and everybody is just sick and tired of it. I think that’s what it is. Everybody is just sick and tired of it. It’s 2022. Like, come on. We’re better than this.

I think that, on the bright spot, we are moving in the right direction. Myself, I’m working with Anson Carter and we’re talking about doing some things with the league. What allows me to get up every day and come ot the rink with excitement is knowing that I have the support of this organization, from ownership down. Josh Harris and David Blitzer, I think you guys know the work that they’ve done and the support that they’ve given me, and the league since I’ve been here.

I look forward to doing a special night for Black History. I don’t want to give too much away, but it will be a special night to do that. I think it will be a special month. It’s interesting with the timing of this, but we’re going to get ahead of it and move forward. I know the New Jersey Devils are a big part of that. There’s been a lot of great Black players to play for this organization, so I’m looking forward to this special night that we’re going to be hosting.

How should situations like what happened to your brother be handled? Should there be a zero-tolerance policy for handling racist acts in hockey?

P.K. Subban: You know what? I can draw the line. The league can draw the line. Now one is probably going to be happy with whatever the result is. Everything is going to be debated, and it’s probably going to be debated by people that have never experienced racism before. I’d love to be able to sit down and explain it to someone who’s never experienced it before, but you’re not going to understand. You don’t know what it feels like.

What accounts for that damage? How do you fix that damage when you’re embarrassed, like my brother was, and the whole world knows? How do you fix that?

I don’t expect everybody to understand, but it’s happening and it continues to happen. It happened to my brother. You think about it, and if his name on the back isn’t Subban, am I here talking about it? Probably not. But it just goes to show you that racism, it doesn’t matter what you do or how much money you make, or how popular you are. Racism is just racism. It’s just hateful. It’s just not right.

Fortunately, his name was Subban on the back of the jersey, and he’s got an older brother in the league who cares about him and loves him and wants to see the league move in the right direction and wants to do whatever he has to do to help the league move in the right direction.

So, I think that we can take this and turn it into a positive with actionable items. But we can’t glaze over this and this is just a misunderstanding. It’s not. If that’s the case, then I got hundreds of misunderstandings that we can sit down and debate. But you can read about that in my book one day.

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