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Sabres of Yesterday | Hockey Diversity Panel Part One

In the first of a two-part series, we sat down with former-Sabres, Rumun Ndur, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, and Val James to discuss diversity in hockey

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The discussion surrounding racial injustice has always existed in sports. As movements championing racial equality have finally made it to the forefront of the American social agenda, we must examine these injustices, and how they manifest in our everyday lives, and keep the conversation going.

In the hockey world, Akim Aliu sparked the conversation in a big way. His recantations pertaining to the racism he faced on his journey to the NHL served as a sobering reminder that the league has a long way to go to make the term “Hockey is for Everyone” more than just a catchy phrase.

The onus doesn’t just fall on professional leagues. In order to enact meaningful change in our society, we must each do our part to help amplify the voices of those being discriminated against. We must listen to their stories, and observe the world from another perspective.

This is particularly important for those of us who are white. We don’t have the same lived experiences as BIPOC, and we will never know what it feels like to experience racism.

It’s critical that we play a part in not only calling out racism when we see it - including in the locker room, on the ice and on the Internet - but also actively working against racism in hockey, in sport at large, and in society as a whole.

In a special segment of our “Sabres of Yesterday” series, we decided to speak with three Black former-NHL players who spent time with the Buffalo Sabres organization. In the first article of a two-part series, we spoke to Rumun Ndur, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, and Valmore James about the issue of race in hockey, and society in general.

A bruising defender in the late-90’s and early-2000’s, Ndur was selected by the Sabres in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. As the first Nigerian-born player in NHL history, he spent six years with the organization. In 1995-96, he helped lead the Rochester Americans to a Calder Cup victory.

Grand-Pierre arrived in Buffalo in 1996 as part of a deal that sent Yuri Khmylev to the St. Louis Blues. While he did appear in 27 games for the Sabres from 1998-2000, he too made a big impact with the Amerks, helping them reach the Calder Cup Final two consecutive times.

In 1981, Val James became the first American-born Black player to dress in an NHL game. He debuted with the Sabres for seven games that season, serving as an enforcer during an era where physicality was king. He too was a Calder Cup champion with the Amerks in 1982-83. Five years later, he would become the first person of color to don a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform.

The following Q&A segment took place in two parts, one including Ndur and Grand-Pierre as a duo, and one with James individually. All players were asked the same line of questions.

Question #1: As most people know, Akim Aliu was at the forefront of the re-ignited conversation about racism in hockey this past season. It seems like his experiences surrounding racism in hockey were very severe, and also very common. Can you give us your thoughts on Akim opening up this conversation, and the positive impacts it will make as we try to eradicate racism from the sport?

Ndur: “Now, I don’t want this to sound like it’s anti-Akim, but I didn’t feel it was ‘very common.’ It was there - I was called the N-word. But in the dressing room, I never felt like it was a common thing to have racism thrown in my face and to be confronted with it. Now, I don’t want it to sound like it’s not there, I just didn’t think it was a common thing for me.”

“Just having the conversation… I think things are different now. I cannot believe the shift that’s happening and Akim, he kind of opened the conversation up, but I think other things obviously that have come to pass, have really ignited a fire in the world. I think that’s great. We’ve been having these conversations for too long and nothing has happened.”

“I think something is really different in the way people think and feel, and in their actions. That will be a great thing. We’ll have to wait and see. We’ll have to keep talking because it can’t just be this moment. It can’t just be this little moment in time. We have to keep going and make sure things like what Akim has gone through doesn’t happen again. What George Floyd went through... Those are the things that have really sunk in with people.”

Ndur Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Grand-Pierre: “Personally, I’ve never encountered it in a locker room or a coaching staff, or anyone I worked with in an organization, one-on-one. It’s something that is very unfortunate when you hear what happened to him (Aliu). I personally can’t imagine having to go through that, especially coming from a coach, which is kind of incredible.”

“I can see why some players were afraid to speak up, or why for him at the moment it’s hard to speak up. If I put myself in his shoes, and there you are trying to chase a dream, which is to play in the NHL, and all of the sudden you’re like – am I going to make noise…?”

“Pro sport is different than the corporate world in some ways, where you don’t want to ruffle feathers and have this… let’s call it a “tag,” because you’re speaking up for yourself, trying to earn respect. All of the sudden you become a “troublemaker”, right?”

“I’ve never been in his shoes, thankfully. Now, have I heard the N-word in buildings or from opponents on the ice? I probably did, but honestly, you almost shield it where as a kid it happens to you and it hurts you, but once you become an adult it’s almost like it bounces right off your back. You know, you hear a fan say the N-word when you’re in the penalty box… I don’t know, maybe it’s just because I’m old.”

“For me, it just kind of bounced off of me and I forgot about it. I didn’t have any further problems or ‘Oh my god I’m so angry I heard the N-word from the stands.’ Of course it doesn’t make you happy, but you’re so focused on achieving your goal, which is reaching the NHL, that you almost forget about it. But to have my own teammates, who I’m fighting with and for every game, or my own coach, it’s unacceptable. Thankfully I was not in that position.”

James: “Well, I have to say it’s a gallant effort. Hopefully, everybody keeps going in the right direction and they don’t get derailed by other things. Now, I think that it probably was… his statements about what happened to him were a catalyst to get everyone to become aware of what was going on. Then with everything that has happened socially, that just brought everything to light even more. So now, people started revisiting all of these things from the past and realized that there’s some truth to it. Even now, people are actually starting to send in footage of things that have happened.”

“I guess the bottom line is, it was always there, it was just that it was… people just thought it was so unbelievable that it couldn’t be true. It’s like with anything else. How does it go? If you’re from Missouri, you know, you’ve got to show me first.”

Val James Portrait Shoot Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives

“Now that we have a world stage, it’s opened up the racial situations that are happening all over the globe. As the human race, we have an obligation to each other to set things right, and now that everyone is becoming so aware, this is the opportunity to do that.”

The newly-established Hockey Diversity Alliance is obviously part of the push toward progress here. What types of things would you like to see them enact, and focus on in order to make impact in short order?

Ndur: “You hear so much about the youth, and ‘changing the culture’, and just their way of thinking. I think that’s the only way you can change things. You know, you hear the word ‘systemic’ and I don’t think it’s a planned, organized group of people. I mean, of course there are certain groups that are extremely racist, but I just think it’s kind of ingrained in people from centuries. So, it has to start with the youth and just making sure they’re brought up in a different culture.”

“You know, ‘we’re not racist’ but if you don’t say anything, you’re kind of feeding the beast a little bit, you know? Everybody has to change. It starts, I guess, from a generation that is coming up right now, then maybe we’re talking years and it changes for the better but let’s have the conversation.”

“Let’s start talking about it in a real way. Let’s not just bring it up because it’s a hot-button topic right now in the world. Let’s really put systems in place where we can make change, and change the way people think and act, and change the culture for the generations to come.”

Grand-Pierre: “I’ll give you an example. If I’m a youth hockey coach, and all of the sudden we’re playing a game and I have a player, and all of the sudden I hear somebody in the locker room drop the N-bomb on him and calling him names… Yeah, I’ll go ahead and suspend the player or whatever. As the youth coach you suspend the player, talk to the parents, but it doesn’t resolve the issue, right?”

Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre #34

“The issue is so much bigger. It’s a cultural thing. Nobody is born saying “oh, I hate Black people” or “I hate Jews.” It comes from your home or from other people. You’re not born racist. You can be born into racism because it’s within your household, but it’s really hard to… I don’t want to say it’s too late, but the NHL is doing all these actions, which is awesome. It’s great, but it’s such a bigger issue.”

“It’s going to take 50, 60, 70 years and the history will always be there, but you can’t change it with just tapping people on the fingers, or saying ‘guess what, you’re banned from the NHL.’ Yeah, you learned your lesson. You might resent the other race even more because technically that’s what made you lose your job. Again, if I was smart enough, I’d figure it out and that problem would be gone, but it’s so much bigger than sports, or just saying the words. It’s basically an attitude or resentment toward a race that was instilled in you some time in your life and to get rid of that is going to be really, really hard.”

“As far as the NHL, paying close attention to that situation, and taking these guys out of the NHL… I get it but hey, this guy (Aliu) lost his career over it. It’s too late for him, unfortunately. So yeah, other people paid with their jobs, but this guy’s whole life got ruined over this.”

James: “Well first, everyone has to be educated on what happened in the past. If you don’t know what happened in the past, you can’t take that step forward into the future and change things. It would be a painful learning experience for everyone involved but in the end, people would come to understand. We can’t take someone who was born 10 years ago, who has an attitude, and expect them to understand how this all evolved and got started. We have to go back 400 years and see how things were run then.”

“You have to look at it from both sides. You have to look at it from the white perspective, and you have to look at it from the Black perspective. You can’t just take one side and say ‘this is how it is’ because there are a lot of things that were catalysts, and things that made changes.”

“If everyone can be educated to that depth, then there will be a better understanding of why society has advanced the way that it has. It’s like anything else. Once you understand your history, the history you can make will definitely be better and that’s where we sit right now.”

Boston Bruins v Toronto Maple Leafs

“There’s a lot of people who don’t understand history. They don’t understand the pain and suffering behind the N-bomb… You could go on and on, and it’s not just the Black race. You have to think about the Native Americans who owned this country before we came along. We have to think about gay rights, and things like that too. When you get down to it, when you’re calling people names, the feeling is the same. It doesn’t change. Only the subject matter changes.”

Rumun, a couple times now you’ve brought up a very valid concern regarding the sustained progress of this movement. Do you believe that an organization like the HDA can prevent this from just being a “trendy” topic right at this moment?

Ndur: “That’s all our goal, because it has to change. If I’m being honest, personally, I feel it. I feel something different in the world. You know, we’ve had the Rodney Kings, and we’ve seen other things like this all our lives.”

“I’ve experienced it in arenas and during games like Akim has, or like Jean-Luc has, but I think things are different now. Whole leagues, like the GTHL is overhauling their whole diversity initiatives. Things are moving in the right way and I think it’s meaningful now.”

Grand-Pierre: “So, to Rumun’s point - why are we saying there is hope? Our children and the generation after them. They’ve changed the way of life more than we can think of. Sometimes I look at my son and wonder why is he so sensitive? This new generation, they’re softer. You know, you look at the LGBT community and all the steps, and how much we’ve progressed. There’s so much progress happening with them. This new generation, they’re out here. There’s definitely more love than there ever was before. This generation, they really want a better world. Yes, they may be selfish, but it’s in a good way.”

Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre skates on the ice.

James: “Well, that’s the aim of the program. Now it’s just a matter of what sub-programs you’re going to put in place to hold it all together. The thing is that it’s easy to come out and say this, that, and the other thing, and then walk away. You have to follow-up. You have to nurture it.”

“It’s like a child. If you don’t stay on it, it’ll go awry on you. As long as they stick to the facts and help the people that need to be helped... I’m sure that you want to help people of color, but you also want to help everyone else who doesn’t have the same opportunities that other people have.”

What advice would you give to young players of color in pursuit of a hockey career?

Ndur: “It might sound very generic, but I’d say to them what I would say to any kid. If you really want to play in the NHL, or to play in the OHL, or whatever – you have to have a laser-focus. So things like that (racism), they cannot get to you. If you want it that bad, you can’t let… If we’re being perfectly honest, maybe we’ll have a better world. A world with less racism, but I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of it completely, so you have to have a laser-focus and a determination and things like that won’t stand in your way.”

“Those are ways for other people to get you down. You have to be strong. You just can’t let things like that get you down and tear you apart, because there’s going to be things that you don’t like to hear. That’s just the bottom-line of life, you know? So, I would just tell them like I’d tell any kid. You have to be strong-willed. You have to be determined and things like that won’t affect you as much.”

Grand-Pierre: “Let’s go all the way back to Jackie Robinson, and Willie O’Ree and what they had to go through back then, compared to what Rumun and I have been through. It’s only getting better and better. Is it perfect? It’s not. It may never be, but my biggest message to these kids is… and again, in Canada, the way I was raised by my parents, it was not like “Hey, Jean-Luc, you’re a Black kid, so you need to know that you’re not going to be treated the same way.” Honestly, in America I see it a little bit different. It’s almost like, sometimes in the household, there’s that warning that you’re not going not be treated the same.”

“For me growing up, I walked in the locker room and I didn’t look at myself as the only black person. I just saw myself as a hockey player. I think it makes a big difference. That shift, that little shift in your attitude and how you perceive the world and whatever situation you’re put in… You can’t say ‘I’m Black, or Italian, or Jewish and I’m the only one on my team.’ You have to look at yourself going in and there’s 20 players.”

“You’re just a teammate, you’re just a classmate, you’re just a co-worker. You have to look at yourself as an equal, and that’s inside of you.”

James: “The first thing I would tell a young kid of color is – you’ll probably have to face some adversity as you rise among the ranks. It’s going to be racial, it’s going to be… hopefully not as bad as it was for people who came before them, and hopefully at some point in time it’s stamped right out so the child can just go out there and just try to play the sport and not have to worry about all of that.”

“That is extremely stressful on a young child and it all stems back to not being wanted. Because if you feel like you’re part of something and that everybody wants you to be there, all your inhibitions are lifted and you can actually get down to concentrating on what you’re there for, which is to play the sport.”

Are you a hockey fan who is now asking “How can I educate myself? How can I help fight racism in hockey and in society?” We recommend visiting this website, which is a work in progress put together by Jashvina Shah (@icehockeystick). The website features ‘resources to support minorities and tools to educate yourself on systematic racism and biases.’

Stay tuned for part two of this segment where Ndur, Grand-Pierre, and James discuss their time with the Sabres’ organization, and their lives after hockey.