Sebastian Jackson: For The Love Of Hockey, When It Doesn’t Love You Back
There is something beautiful about skating across a freshly cleaned rink, alone in an arena, hearing only your skates cut through the ice. Cold air rushing across your cheeks. That feeling of being alone can be serene.
For too many people, however, the feeling of being alone in the game of hockey can occur even when the ice is full, even when the stands are bristling with fans. And it’s far from serene.
In hockey, this isolation, even among ‘peers’ can occur instantly due to your gender, or the colour of your skin.
Luckily for the hockey world, there are people working to change this, to fight this loneliness, and build inclusion, including Chatham-Kent’s Sebastian Jackson, who knows this feeling all too well.
“Just never feeling like this game was for me. I started playing at a later age but I’ve been around this game for 20 years. I look around the room and the arena and I see no one like me and it gets lonely,” said Jackson of the game of hockey. “I’ve been a writer, a scout, an assistant General Manager and a Vice President and every place I’ve gone I have needed to work twice as hard or I get judged and looked at as someone who doesn’t know what hockey is or how the game is played.”
A 5th generation descendant of slaves, Jackson’s family arrived to Chatham via the Underground Railroad.
Jackson has worked as an independent OHL scout for Dobber Prospects and Smaht Scouting. Despite his expertise and experience, the fact that Sebastian Jackson is Black, has been weaponized against him in the game of hockey.
For example, when interviewing with specific Ontario Hockey League franchises for hockey roles, Jackson was explicitly told that he would not be allowed to “be political” or show support for Black Lives Matter because of a fear it would “leave a negative impact on the team’s image.”
In other words, to be admitted into the hockey world by these gatekeepers, Jackson would need to suppress his identity as a Black man.
“In the hockey world, if you are a woman or BIPOC, you will always have to work twice as hard for an opportunity than someone who is non-coloured and with the same experience,” Jackson explained.
Jackson has always loved the game of hockey, but hockey has not always loved him back.
That fact was never more clear than last year following the murder of George Floyd. When Jackson spoke out about his experiences, the overt racism he faced from those within the hockey community was repulsive.
“Last year when the George Floyd killing happened, I used my platform as I usually do to spread awareness of the kinds of things black people have to go through on a daily basis,” he explained.
“I talked about what being Black in hockey is like and during this time I was called the N-word, a Porch Monkey, I had a picture of a noose sent to me, was told hockey didn’t want us. And many other things.”
“I didn’t want to or feel part of this game anymore. I wanted to leave it behind.”
Luckily for the game of hockey, Jackson did not leave the game behind.
Jackson decided to be a part of the solution for hockey, even if the game itself had already given up on him, had discarded his personhood, and refused to recognize that problems exist within hockey culture.
That’s when Jackson spoke to Renee Hess, and got involved in Black Girl Hockey Club. Black Girl Hockey Club is a not-for-profit organization aiming to disrupt racism, inspire a passion for the game in the Black community, and prevent exclusion for any person from the game. The organization is currently doing this through education, advocacy, scholarships, and by creating community spaces.
Jackson became an integral part of the BGHC team who built the Get Uncomfortable pledge, which asks “BIPOC players, fans, media members, executives, sponsors, allies, and other stakeholders to explore the necessary steps the sport must take to disrupt racism on and off the ice and make hockey welcoming for EVERYONE.“
“It is important because it empowers Black voices in the game,” Jackson said of the vital role Black Girl Hockey Club is playing in the evolution of the game.
“It is important because this game has some glaring issues that need to be touched on and BGHC doesn’t mince words, they point to the issue and demand change and we are going to change this game so that People of Colour can tread through this game as comfortable as non people of colour.”
No matter what leagues like the NHL say, hockey is not for everyone. There are too many talented and passionate people like Sebastian Jackson who have been made to feel, and see, that the game is reserved and made for white men.
“The NHL really has failed their hockey is for everyone campaign. You see it every day,” says Jackson.
“Teams lack diversity on and off the ice, specifically off the ice. It’s pushed people of colour into a corner and we are scared to talk about the racism and hate we’ve endured in this game because almost always we are met with backlash. Even when we talk, very few come to our defence and it just gets swept under the rug.”
The fact is, hockey in Canada has a rich history of Black athletes changing the game for the better, but this truth is not celebrated. Jackson points to the Colored Hockey League in Nova Scotia as a key example.
The NHL and other leagues have chosen through action and inaction to alienate BIPOC fans, and to not elevate BIPOC youth to help grow the game.
Unfortunately, stories of racism in hockey have been told over and over again, and lived by people like Sebastian Jackson.
But if you listen to the swell of positive voices emerging from the crowd, the solutions are closer at hand than hockey traditionalists would lead you to believe.
“The NHL just needs to stand by their word,” said Jackson, noting the league has done the bare minimum, and not followed it up with action.
“Stand by what you’ve said. You said you were listening, you said you were learning. What have you learned and how are you going to approach this tomorrow? It’s time that the BIPOC community stop doing the heavy lifting for the NHL and the NHL put their big boy pants on.”
The NHL and other leagues have been participating in performative activism, without steps to turn their words into real cultural change.
Despite facing racism, and roadblocks, the BIPOC community isn’t giving up on hockey, even if hockey has given up on these communities.
Jackson believes a better future for the game is possible, which is why he continues to do the work in the face of the challenges he’s faced.
“It would be nice if everyone could walk into an arena free of hatred, racism, homophobia, and sexism and be accepted equally. We all love this game. We all want to see this game continue to move in the right direction. But we aren’t there yet,” Jackson explained of his ideal vision for the future of the game.
“I’d love to be able to Tweet a hockey opinion and not have to be responded with something like “Stick to something your people are good at like basketball.”
“It’s hard to see what this game looks like in an ideal world because we have too many people still refusing to admit hockey has a problem.”
“I want those people to know that admitting hockey has a problem isn’t admitting hockey is bad. But it’s a game that is 95% white. It’s always been that way. Admitting hockey has a problem doesn’t also mean you are racist or homophobic or sexist. It’s admitting that those things have been a problem in this game.”
When Jackson states that it’s hard to see what the game of hockey would look like in an ideal world, it’s because the world isn’t ideal. Systemic racism exists. Homophobia exists. The oppression of women exists.
It would seem the sports world believes it is already involved in the conversation, but those being impacted by these systems of oppression fear it is just that, a conversation, or talk, without the subsequent and necessary actions that should follow.
“This conversation is going to go on forever if we can’t move forward,” said Jackson.
Perhaps, a better first step than all of the talking, all of the performative displays hockey leagues and teams are taking, is to engage in an even more important step in reconciling hockey’s exclusive history – they should listen.
“Just listen to the stories that BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women tell you about the hate and abuse we’ve all put up with in this game. Listen and understand that just because these things don’t happen to you, doesn’t mean they don’t happen to others and those others include your friends, family, sons, and daughters.”