By Stu Hackel
The NHL suspended Florida forward Krys Barch for the game the Panthers played Thursday night against the Rangers -- and, yes, I am very weary of writing about suspensions, but this one is a bit different.
The reason for the one-gamer was Barch's use of "inappropriate language" during his team's game against Montreal in a now-traditional New Year's Eve afternoon contest. It was an unusual transgression and the whole incident remains murky, which is too bad, because the NHL could have turned it into a valuable, teachable moment or clearly exonerated a player who was wrongly accused of making a racist remark.
Let's briefly run through the event as best we can. With 1.2 seconds left in a first period that had gotten feisty, there was a face-off in the Florida zone to the right of goalie Jose Theodore. The puck was dropped and Habs defenseman P.K. Subban, who had lined up in the left face-off circle, charged the net in hope of creating some havoc, if not to knock the puck past Theodore.
The puck went harmlessly in another direction, however, and Subban ended up bumping with Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson at the top of the crease. The buzzer sounded, Gudbranson slashed at Subban's stick, and Subban shoved him with a forearm. Gudbranson then threw his arm around Subban's neck and wrestled him to his knees as players from both teams, and the linesmen, began to converge.
The crush of bodies finished Subban's fall to the ice and he covered his head with his arms as skates, legs and stick surrounded him. The players were eventually pulled apart and, with the period done, they started skated off. Barch -- who has 10 goals, 16 assists and 618 penalty minutes in 275 career NHL games -- was on the Panthers' bench. As Subban skated by on the way to his team's dressing room, Barch yelled something at him.
What Barch said has not been confirmed, but two sources told George Richards of The Miami Herald that the remark in question was asking Subban, who is black, if he had "slipped on a banana peel" when Gudbranson took him down. Linesman Darren Gibbs, who was standing between the benches as the players filed by, heard it and immediately alerted the referees. Subban later stated that he never heard anything (and video from the Panthers' home telecast shows Subban on the bench as players exited the ice, watching some commotion and looking puzzled while Ed Jovanovski chases after a linesman, then the referees seemingly arguing a decision. This is where we could have used HBO's magical 24/7 audio).
Richards, who subsequently reported that Gibbs had overheard a racial slur, also learned that the referees contacted a league official between periods to get an interpretation of the rules before making the call. Panthers GM Dale Tallon offered no comment to Richards as he went down to the dressing room to find out what happened. But Florida's owner, Cliff Viner, later told Richards, “This is not what the character of this organization is about. Period. I'm devastated by that kind of behavior. That is not what we're about as an organization, a team, coaching staff, hockey operations.
"I'm sure Dale will be very critical of this. I hope they talk to the team and let them know this is unacceptable. You play hard, you fight hard. But that's not part of any competition."
The rulebook is clear on this matter -- which we know thanks to former NHL ref Kerry Fraser, who wrote on his always excellent TSN.ca blog about what remarks are considered acceptable on the ice and what are not. More on that later, but the rule itself -- 23.7 (iii) -- is clear, prohibiting "racial taunts or slurs."
Barch was rather upset by the penalty and the allegation. His agent, Scott Norton, told Richards that Barch did, indeed, say something, but what was said “didn't have any racial undertones nor was a slur. It may have been a misunderstanding or taken out of context.”
Norton added that Barch "is a family man with kids, his whole family is in Canada and are hearing this everywhere. It's tough on all of them." He was confident that Barch would be exonerated when everything came out at the NHL hearing that occurred Thursday morning. The suspension that was issued afterward hardly sounds like an exoneration, but that's the way Barch was playing it.
“I stated my case; I know myself and what I said. It may have been inappropriate, but it was nowhere near a racial slur nor that intent," Barch said after Florida’s morning practice at New York's Chelsea Piers rink. “The things I said were pretty explicit and maybe not for kids’ ears, so that’s why I can’t repeat it. My grandma wouldn’t want to hear it. Lets put it that way." He added the ordeal had been very hard on his family and his teammates.
That doesn't seem to mesh with what Colin Campbell, the league's Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, said in his statement: "Mr. Barch has admitted making the remark, but denies that the comment was racially motivated. While we accept Mr. Barch's assertion, as a player in the National Hockey League, he must be held accountable for making a comment that, in the context in which it was made, and in light of the entirety of the circumstances, was offensive and unacceptable."
Barch said that Campbell told him that if the remark had been considered racially motivated, he would have been suspended five or 10 games. But if Campbell didn't think it was racially motivated, why suspend him at all? Why not just give him a fine? Or nothing? He got a game misconduct because the officials, who were aware of and involved in "the entirety of the circumstances," considered what Barch said to be a racial slur. So was Campbell's decision a sop to them? Was it not-so-harsh reminder to Barch to maintain some civility while running his mouth? This feels like a case of Campbell believing the remark was bad, but maybe not, perhaps like being "a little bit pregnant."
It's all very confusing, and at a time when the NHL has moved toward greater transparency in its rulings on player behavior, this one is almost opaque. We're left with what seems like a compromise decision when the NHL could be doing something else, either clearing Barch's name or reinforcing an important statement, one that it has made before: that racist remarks have no place in this league.
Let's shift back to Kerry Fraser's blog post, which I urge you to read. We've become increasingly aware, thanks to HBO, of what NHLers say on the ice, and we know it isn't pretty. We've known that all along, of course, but we now have firsthand evidence. Most fans recognize that what is now called trash talking (when I was a kid in the Original Six days, it was called "needling") is something that goes on all the time.
It's a mistake to believe that everything and anything is permissible when it comes to saying stuff to get an opponent riled up or off his game. As Fraser points out, there are limits, and racist remarks are not the only ones that go over the line. Comments about families and girlfriends, for example, are considered off-limits. It's possible that it wasn't clear to everyone until Sean Avery's infamous remarks about opponents dating his former girlfriends, but it should be clear now.
And when it comes to racist remarks, Fraser has a solid understanding of their corrosive nature. "Political correctness in our ever-changing world demands us to be sensitive to the feelings of others," he writes. "The hard truth is that the intolerance and inequality well documented throughout history was never okay but certainly something to learn from."
He's right. It is a hard truth and not everyone understands it or wants to. But some of the biggest acts of world genocide have been fueled by racism, like the American slave trade, the wars against Native Americans, the Holocaust -- and even more recently on a smaller scale, the Bosnian genocide of the mid-1990s.
And the targets of racism aren't its only victims. The perpetrators and others are often the victims as well: The South's defense of slavery in the Civil War caused perhaps 1 million Americans on both sides to either die or be wounded. It wasn't just six million Jewish people who died in the name of the Nazis' twisted racial purity; an estimated 50 million people off all backgrounds perished.
For some, racism and racist remarks are a source of humor, but they are truly deadly business. Racism is like cancer in the human body. It can't be tolerated and allowed to spread, and it has to be cut out. No institution in our society, including a sports league, can condone that sort of thing. Of course, some do, or excuse it too easily.
Well, enough of that. Krys Barch may or may not have meant what he said to be racist. Perhaps it was just a poor choice of words, perhaps something much more. From our collective vantage point on the other side of the glass, we can't know. If that "banana peel" remark was what he said, the ambiguity of it certainly leaves some room for doubt. Darren Gibbs was right there, inside the glass, and he didn't have any doubt.