CHARLOTTETOWN — The governing body for hockey in Prince Edward Island announced Friday it has handed down 25-game suspensions to five players accused of hurling racial slurs toward a Nova Scotia goalie last November.
Mark Connors, a 16-year-old goalie for the Halifax Hawks U18 AA team, said a group of teenagers in the stands during a game in Charlottetown uttered racist slurs at him and he was later subjected to slurs at a hotel during a tournament.
He said he was repeatedly called the N-word at the rink, and at the hotel, he was told hockey was a white man's sport.
The five players had been suspended indefinitely following the alleged incidents before the 25-game sanction was handed down in a written decision dated Thursday.
"The experience for me was pretty nervous, pretty emotional," Connors said in a phone interview Friday. "With the result of Hockey P.E.I. suspending the five boys, I'm satisfied with that, but I truly believe that no one wins here as I'm going to have to live with that and they're going to have to live with that themselves."
Hockey P.E.I.'s executive director, Connor Cameron, apologized to Connors during a virtual news conference on Friday.
"First and foremost, sorry Mark, it's really upsetting that this happened to you on P.E.I.," Cameron said. "I thank Mark because he had the courage to bring it to our attention, and I also thank him for putting our organization in a position where we have to address some of this stuff going forward."
In a 24-page ruling, a special discipline and ethics committee found Connors' testimony that he'd been taunted at the arena with slurs to be credible. Other witnesses also provided testimony supporting his claim.
The report noted the evidence provided by the five players was "indirect and limited" and they appeared as a group. Most did not speak directly with the committee on video, and submissions were made on their behalf by their parents.
"A lengthy suspension is required in order to reflect the seriousness of this type of conduct and to recognize the degrading nature of racial slurs," the committee concluded. "A racial slur attacks the very core of what it means to be recognized as a person."
Hockey P.E.I.’s special discipline and ethics committee says a third-party investigator found inconclusive evidence about racist slurs uttered at Connors at the hotel, citing a lack of witnesses. The five suspended players were not linked to that incident, but the committee says the hotel investigation is still open.
Aside from the 25-game suspensions, the five players will also need to complete anti-racism training. "While it is true that these five players were old enough to know better, they are also young enough to be better," the ruling read.
Connors' father, Wayne, was satisfied with the suspensions but said the most important aspect is the educational component — and he said that should extend to all teams in P.E.I. and be an in-person exercise.
"It has to be in person, it sinks in to you when it's an in-person talk about racism in hockey," Wayne Connors said. He added that Canada's minister of sport should play a bigger role in a national discussion, noting that after the incident became public he was contacted by soccer and basketball players who reported persistent racism in their sports also.
"I know the topic for some people is uncomfortable, but sometimes you have to get uncomfortable to get down to the root cause," Wayne Connors said.
After the case became public, Mark Connors received widespread support, with several current and former professional hockey players reaching out to him.
He received a letter of apology from P.E.I. Premier Dennis King, and New Jersey Devils defenceman P.K. Subban discussed Connors' experience on social media. "When does it stop? Believe it or not these stories are sent to me every day. This is happening every day in our game," Subban wrote.
Subban added: "Hang in there Mark! We got you."
In a statement Friday, the Halifax Hawks Minor Hockey Association praised "the courage and strength shown by Mark Connors throughout this process" and expressed appreciation for the thorough investigation conducted by Hockey P.E.I. The organization said that in response to the suspensions, it is ending a boycott of games in P.E.I. that was introduced after the racist incident.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2022.
— By Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal.
The Canadian Press