Through the years, we have heard stories about racial issues that have occurred during the course of hockey seasons at various levels. Racial slurs have been thrown around as though they are regular words that are okay to use in the heat of battle in a hockey game. The thing is, they are not okay and they never have been.
February is Black History Month, so I thought that I would reach out to Vancouver Canucks defender Jalen Chatfield to ask about his life in hockey as a person of colour. I appreciate that Jalen took the time to speak with me about a sensitive topic.
I have to say that I have had the opportunity to speak with Jalen twice now and both times I have come away feeling like I have a better grasp of who he is as a person and player, and I also feel like I’m a little bit better of a person after having spoken with him. He has an incredible attitude and I think that it has served him well on his way up through the world of hockey and in life in general.
I wanted to know if there were any people who Jalen admired or looked up to while he was growing up as people who were having success in places where people of colour maybe hadn’t had the opportunity historically, to which he said:
Well, for me I wouldn’t say that I was just a fan of somebody because of their skin colour, I was pretty open to everything. I think one thing that was pretty big for me, actually, that I can remember was when Obama became President, the first black President. And it just shows, you know, how the world has come along and it’s really inspiring.
I am not a minority, so when I was playing hockey, most of the people who I was playing with or against looked a lot like me. It wasn’t something that I thought about on a regular basis, but in prepping for this article, I got to wondering what Jalen saw when he looked around the room, or out on the ice. Did he have many coaches, trainers, teammates or opponents who were people of colour and if so, was there any kind of special bond with them due to having to face similar challenges?
Like I said, I never really was a guy who was close to someone just because they were black or white or whatever. I can recall one year when I was 16 I had a teammate in junior and some things were said on the ice that were directed towards us. We talked about it and reflected on it. It was just tough to deal with, so yeah, having someone to talk with, especially on your own team helps a lot.
We’re still friends to this day and I think that might have brought us together a little bit more and just knowing that we are playing the sport that we both love. We’ve both always said it doesn’t matter what skin colour you are, just go out there and you know, treat everybody the same.
It was at this point of our conversation when I asked the question that was making me feel a little bit uncomfortable, but if we can’t have these uncomfortable conversations, we will never make progress and take the necessary steps as a society. I asked Jalen if he had any negative experiences as a person of colour on his way up in hockey. The attitude that Jalen currently has and has taken since a young age about this has impressed me immensely. I’m not certain that I would be able to handle things in the same manner that he does.
I think the story is different for everybody growing up and playing hockey. I’ve talked to my brother about it and he’s never been called anything on the ice, but for me, I can recall multiple situations growing up… mostly when I was younger. You know, just the name-calling when you’re battling on the ice… I was always pretty numb to it and didn’t let it get under my skin because I knew at the end of the day that I wasn’t going to let somebody else’s words hurt me and that I was better than that. A lot of it probably has to do with just being young and not as mature, and you know, that’s where a lot of that probably comes from.
The sport of hockey has been great for me. I’ve made so many friends who are friends still. I mean, I wouldn’t want to change anything growing up, it’s just the way it is, it’s just part of life, you know you’re gonna go through things like that. It doesn’t matter if it’s hockey, it could be another sport or a job, you know, it’s just how life is and you’ve got to accept it in certain ways and hopefully just make positives out of negatives and keep pushing forward.
You can let other people’s thoughts and words tear you down and change you in a negative way, or you can take the approach that Jalen Chatfield has and focus on the good and just be a good human being.
Chatfield’s support system when he has faced these issues in the past, and the ones he turns to most when he needs to talk is his family.
To be honest, mostly my family. I’d say my brother more than anything, we’re close. But like I said, you know, I’ve dealt with a lot of stuff on my own. I didn’t really come out and say anything to my dad or anybody else about what was said on the ice or anything like that. I just feel at the end of the day, I wasn’t going to let it affect me, it didn’t matter. So maybe I just bottled it up inside a little too much, if you could say so, but you know, for a guy like me, like I said, I’m not gonna let it affect me, so it was pretty easy to get through. Other people might deal with stuff differently, you know, sometimes they talk to somebody and get some comfort from that.
One question that I like to ask players when I get the opportunity to speak with them is what the best advice was that they have received in life and who gave it to them.
I’ve had advice from so many people that it’s hard to remember, especially from my family. Just hearing stuff like my dad saying to just go out there, you only live one life, and you know, you’ve got to make the best out of it. That’s something that I’ve learned. Just go out every day and try to be happy. I’m happy playing hockey right now, I’m happy that I’ve got a good life. My family has been healthy, everything has been going well right now so I know it could be a lot worse. There are a lot worse things going on in the world. If you focus on the stuff that you don’t have, you have less.
“If you focus on the stuff you don’t have, you have less.” I don’t know about you, but when I was 24-years-old, I certainly hadn’t figured this out yet.
My final question for Jalen was to ask his thoughts on where we are as a society and if we have made any strides during his lifetime. Are we moving in the right direction, or do we still have a long way to go?
I definitely think that in hockey we have made progress. Like I said, a lot of the stuff that happened in hockey when I was younger was probably from kids not being mature. But with society as a whole, you can see all the stuff that’s been going on. People are kind of starting to speak up about it and that’s great. I personally haven’t really had any experiences outside of the name-calling in hockey, but I’m pretty sure that other people have.
You know, like I said, my experience in life has been pretty positive right now with all of that stuff, so I can’t really speak on something that I haven’t experienced, or know too much about, but I know for sure that there was stuff around my high school that led to stuff. That was years ago, but as of right now, the past few years everything has been looking better. We just need to keep turning in that direction, just treat one another like humans.
I just don’t think that you need to look at skin colour, personally. That’s something that I was really big on when I was growing up. I never really noticed black, white, Asian or whatever. Everybody is the same, it’s about the heart and the mind. You can’t really judge someone by their skin colour or where they’re from, that’s just crazy. I guess that’s something that has grown along through history, you know, just how people have made it into something when it’s really nothing. You know, we are all humans at the end of the day and we all have feelings and that’s what should matter the most. It should be about putting the small, dumb differences aside and moving forward.
Jalen Chatfield gets it. He has been raised with the kind of values that have allowed him to have success as both a professional athlete and as a legitimately good human being. He has been able to tune out those who have tried to use the colour of his skin as a weapon against him and he sees people for who they are, rather than as what colour their skin is or where they happen to have been born. We could use a lot more people like Chatfield in this world.
I appreciate that Jalen took the time to speak with me and to the Vancouver Canucks for allowing me access to speak with Jalen for this piece. This is a topic that isn’t always comfortable to talk about, but the conversations need to continue in order to keep things heading in the right direction.