The National Hockey League, for all its history of drawing European talent to North America, is rife with xenophobia on the part of English-speaking Americans and Canadians. The 2015-2016 season was the first time the percentage of Canadian players, never mind North American ones, fell below 50 percent. In that season, North Americans still constituted almost 75 percent of the NHL’s talent. This is a league in which the best-known commentator is notorious for disparaging Russian players en masse. And as a recent ESPN article revealed, the NHL’s North American players and management are just as much part of the problem as anyone else.
While Major League Baseball mandates that every team have full-time Spanish interpreters, some NHL teams forego interpreters to “force” players to learn English. Chicago Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane said they faked Russian accents when speaking English to their Russian teammate Artemi Panarin—an idea as unhelpful as it is offensive. On the other hand, Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chára, who is Slovakian, speaks a total of seven languages in order to better accommodate new teammates.
I can only imagine what it must be like for a professional athlete to be thrown into an unfamiliar culture—I’ve had a similar experience, but certainly not one so dramatic. English is my first language, but it’s not my native language. I come from a fairly Westernized environment in India, where English is pretty widely spoken as a result of British colonization. Moving to America for college still holds a culture shock. I spent the beginning of my freshman year second-guessing everything from my accent to my habits. I wondered if knowing where I’m from changes the way people see me.
It’s even in the little things. When I forget what a megaphone is called because it’s never been a part of my regular vocabulary, I worry that it makes me sound ignorant. For NHL players from outside North America, this move also involves a foreign locker room, surrounded by fans who can’t understand you and teammates who can’t understand you either. It’s no surprise that this culture sends some players right back to their home countries.
The ESPN story also provides little to no commentary on the casual xenophobia players exhibit in that article itself. The title itself reads “Lost in translation: How players bridge hockey’s language barrier,” and quotes nine English-speaking North Americans and just three athletes from across the pond. One stands out as particularly egregious—Canadian Tyler Seguin said “you just put your foot down” because the players are “in North America” and aren’t going to “have a team of cliques.”
There’s a powerful sense of entitlement in demanding that a newcomer to your country learn to assimilate without help, support, or an effort to accommodate them. There’s a strong undercurrent of prejudicial paranoia in thinking any group of people speaking a language you can’t understand are talking about you. And while there’s some dispute about whether or not xenophobia is a form of racism, it’s certainly a form of ostracizing those who are different culturally. Apparently, only one North American in that article could see that.
Anyone new to an English-speaking country takes comfort in hearing the language of their homeland. In the words of Finland native Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, “you’re thinking Finnish words instead of English words.” It can be much more difficult to express yourself in a language you picked up than in one you grew up with.
A first language isn’t an exclusive club designed to leave anyone out. For newcomers to North America, it’s a welcome beacon in a sea of uncertainty—a sea in which it feels like everyone else is in a clique they weren’t invited to join. European hockey revolutionized the NHL and made it the fast, exciting game it is today. But perhaps more importantly, if the NHL—or any league—truly wants to promote inclusivity and diversity, it would do well to think about how it speaks of the European hockey stars of the future.
Stuti R. Telidevara ’20 is a Crimson Blog editor in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.