At a historical NHL draft on June 2017, one Asian-Canadian hockey player, Nick Suzuki, and two Asian-American players, Kailer Yamamoto and Jason Robertson, were all picked in the first two rounds of the draft (Cruz, 2017). 17-year-old Nick Suzuki was selected 13th overall for the Vegas Golden Knights, 18-year-old Kailer Yamamoto was selected 22nd overall by the Edmonton Oilers, and 17-year-old Jason Robertson was selected 39th overall in the second round of the draft for the Dallas Stars, all were signed to three-year entry-level deals with their respective teams (Peng, 2017a).
The father of London, Ontario native Nick Suzuki, explained that Suzuki’s great-great grandparents immigrated to Canada from Japan in 1909 (Peng, 2017a). Yamamoto, a forward from Spokane, Washington of Japanese and Hawaiian heritage, explained that his father is half-Japanese which makes him one-quarter Japanese (Douglas, 2017). And Robertson, whose mother is of Filipino descent, is from Northville, Michigan (Peng, 2017a).
It’s not common for these surnames to appear on the back of a hockey jersey. And this is the first time this many Asian-Americans/Canadians have been drafted into the NHL at one time (Douglas, 2017). As Kalman-Lamb (2012) stated, hockey is a predominantly white sport, even though there is a multiplicity of cultures that participate in and appreciate it. Krebs (2012) goes as far to say that hockey being referenced as universally Canadian may be a form of the reproduction of colonialism in Canada, since organized sport was used in the 19th-century in Canada to discipline colonized subjects. Krebs (2012) argues that White hegemony in hockey is reproducing colonialism in contemporary Canada. It might be a stretch to say that hockey is enforcing colonialism, however, there definitely is a lack of multiculturalism in hockey and it does not exactly represent atypical Canadian, like hockey always says it does. Perhaps this is the way things are because the formula of White players in the NHL has always worked, and it hasn’t been common enough to draft players of Asian descent into the NHL. Poniatowski & Whiteside (2012) suggest that since media often portray White men as having big, powerful, unbreakable bodies, it may play a pivotal role in pervasive Whiteness in hockey. Throughout history, Asian men have been stereotyped as smaller, weaker, and more feminine than White men (Wong et al., 2012). Furthermore, Davis & Harris (2002) mention that Asian athletes have been commonly stereotyped as obsessive conformers, rigorously self-disciplined, excessively hard-workers, unemotional, machine-like, and exotic.
Race over Skills
In the past, Asian hockey players in the NHL have suffered discrimination and prejudice by other players in the league, the coaching staff and administration, and even fans. The first player of colour and Asian descent, Larry “King” Kwong, was only permitted a shift that lasted barely a minute long during his first and only NHL game on March 13th, 1948 (Markusoff, 2014). Even though Kwong had a notable playing record, and was one of the two players from the Rangers’ farm team, he was not played because of his race (Johanson, 2015). His teammate from the farm team, Ronnie Rowe was put in to play frequently (Johanson, 2015). This was possible because this took place during a time when it was legal to discriminate against others due to race. When Kwong returned to the New York Rovers, the Rangers’ farm team, whenever he scored a goal, he was noted differently: he was always referred to as “that Chinese boy” (Markusoff, 2014). “King” Kwong’s career didn’t end as a one-game wonder. His long legacy continued playing overseas in Switzerland, where he later coached into the 1970s (Markusoff, 2014).
Kwong was not the only notable player of Asian descent in the early days of the NHL. 42 years later, when Jim Paek made his NHL debut on October 13th, 1990 with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he became the first South Korean-born player in the NHL (List of Ice Hockey Players of Asian Descent). Paek has denied any prejudice that he has faced from being Korean and in the NHL, but he did deflect any racial discrimination that was shot at him during his professional career (Peng, 2017b). Paek debuted at a time when racism and discrimination was illegal, which allowed him to play for multiple NHL teams: the Pittsburgh Penguins (1990-1993), Los Angeles Kings (1994), and Ottawa Senators (1994-1995) (List of Ice Hockey Players of Asian Descent). Paek also became the first player of Korean descent to win and have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup in 1991 when the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup Finals (Steiss, 2014).
Today, it’s a different story
When asked about discrimination on the ice against them regarding race, Yamamoto and Robertson have refuted such allegations: Yamamoto said he has never experienced anything like that and Robertson believes that “whoever you are, whatever you are, it comes down to hard work and dedication” (Peng, 2017a). As a proud Asian-Canadian and advocate for Asian representation in Western media and sports myself, I am ecstatic of the fact that these hockey players of Asian-descent are being drafted into the NHL. However, I can’t help but mention that although they are of Asian descent, Yamamoto and Suzuki appear to be White, and Robertson’s surname is a White surname. Additionally, all three players are of White heritage, making them — at least partly — fit into the Whiteness of hockey. This is not to discredit the history that these players are possibly making for the future of the NHL, but the mixed racial identity of these players could be a factor to why as many as three players of Asian descent were drafted in the first two rounds of the 2016 NHL Draft.
The prejudice faced by Asian hockey players has since diminished and the lack of the presence of Asian players has since decreased. In recent years, an increasing amount of young hockey players of Asian descent have been going pro in the NHL. At the fourth round of the 2011 NHL Draft, 6 foot tall defenseman Zachary Yuen was selected 119th overall by the Winnipeg Jets, which made him the first player of Chinese descent to ever be drafted by the NHL (AsiansPlayers, 2011).
In the sixth round of the 2015 NHL draft, the Beijing-born, 6 foot 1, 195-pound defenseman, Andong Song made history when he became the first Chinese-born draftee in the NHL (Peters, 2015). He was picked 172nd overall by the New York Islanders (Merk, 2015). Song is currently committed to playing hockey for Cornell University in the 2018-2019 season, and will likely be a key member of China’s hockey team for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing (Douglas, 2017b).
At the third round of the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo, Cliff Pu, a 6 foot 1 and 188-pound center, was picked 69th overall by the Buffalo Sabres (Douglas, 2017). He is the son of a Chinese couple who moved to Canada, and signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Buffalo Sabres (Douglas, 2016). Pu is notable for his size and speed, securing 12 goals, 19 assists, and 24 penalty minutes in 63 regular season games for the London Knights, the OHL team he was previously in, during the 2016-2017 season (Douglas, 2016).
On that same day, forward Jonathan Ang was picked 94th overall in the fourth round by the Florida Panthers (Douglas, 2017). Ang, standing at 6 feet tall, is the first player of Malaysian heritage to be drafted by an NHL team (Douglas, 2017). During the 2016-2017 regular season games for the Peterborough Petes, Ang scored 27 goals, and achieved 32 assists (Jonathan Ang).
Tyler Inamoto, an Asian-American 6 foot 2, 200-pound defenseman of Japanese descent, was picked 133rd overall by the Florida Panthers in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL Draft(List of Ice Hockey Players of Asian Descent)
Other than Yamamoto, all of these recently drafted NHL prospects have yet to make their professional debut, including 2011 draftee and now 25-year-old Zachary Yuen. Although, Yamamoto returned to Spokane, Washington to continue playing for the Junior League team, the Spokane Chiefs. In the meantime, these players continue to play in the WHL, OHL, and plan to play for university leagues to continue to boost their prospects.
A currently active Asian-Canadian player is forward Spencer Foo, an undrafted college free agent. In 2017, Foo went pro after signing an entry-level contract with the Calgary Flames as an undrafted college free agent (Spector, 2017).
It will be interesting, when these players finally debut, to see whether they will form historical legacies for the Asian community in hockey in their future professional careers, and whether this is really a new beginning for a generation of Asian hockey players in the NHL, or if White hegemony will be maintained in the NHL. It will also be interesting to see how long these players’ careers in the NHL will last, since, in the past, the professional hockey career of Larry “King” Kwong only lasted one game, and Jim Paek’s career only lasted 5 years.
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