Two forwards with the Seattle Thunderbirds major junior hockey team have been released for the remainder of the season for a racist taunting incident in which the squad’s lone Black player alleged he was called a racial slur and a banana was waved in front of him.
The players, age 17 and 18, had been suspended since the Thunderbirds’ first two Western Hockey League games last weekend after team officials investigated a complaint of racial harassment against a 17-year-old teammate.
On Thursday the Thunderbirds told the suspended players they were no longer on the team and would be flown back home to Canada shortly, and removed their names from the roster. The Seattle Times is not naming the players because two of the three are minors.
“It’s obviously an unfortunate situation that we don’t condone,” Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge said in an interview Thursday. “We have a zero-tolerance policy for anything racially insensitive or bullying or anything of the sort.”
The players can’t be picked up by another team for the remainder of this season because the WHL trade deadline has already passed. Though the players could be brought back next season, the local team says that won’t happen. Team management did say the players could be traded elsewhere next season.
La Forge said he was made aware of the incident by a Thunderbirds employee on the night of March 17 — two days before the team’s WHL opener — and met with the accused players at 7 a.m. the next day. La Forge said the players were told they were to immediately cease all team activities and go back to their local host families pending a team investigation.
Both are awaiting information about when they can return to Canada, as the pandemic has led to tightened border restrictions. The 17-year-old is from Alberta, the 18-year-old from British Columbia.
The victim texted, “I am very disappointed with what happened, but I appreciate and respect the way my organization has handled this situation. That’s all I am going to say, and now I just want to focus on our season at hand.”
The WHL, for players age 16 to 20, is considered a pipeline to the NHL and has four Washington-based teams and one Portland squad in its U.S. Division. Players — typically from Canada — are paid small stipends and housed with local families, though a growing number of Americans and some rare in-state locals can be found on rosters of U.S. squads.
During the investigation, it was alleged that the 17-year-old had been taunting the Black teammate with the racial slur since last season. La Forge said this was the first time he had been made aware of prior incidents.
“I think that anytime you have something like this and you start looking into past behaviors — something that didn’t get to my level last year might get to my level now. We heard things, but it’s tough to regulate things that happened 12 months ago. We were not aware of anything of this nature last year. And when we were aware of it, we acted quickly and decisively.”
Two sources that contacted The Seattle Times about the matter this week expressed concern that the suspended players would be allowed back on the team as soon as next week. The targeted player, they said, was adamant that he did not want either to return.
The Times first contacted the Thunderbirds for comment Wednesday afternoon. La Forge agreed to be interviewed Thursday morning, after both players had been removed from the roster.
La Forge said the team wanted to speak to as many people as possible about what happened before making a final decision.
The sources indicated — and La Forge said the team’s investigation confirmed — that the 17-year-old had waved a banana at the victim last week. The incident took place in the locker-room area, where players have been isolated in smaller groups out of COVID-19 precautions.
La Forge said both players had undergone “courses” — he declined to get into further detail — since the incident to educate themselves about racism. But once the investigation concluded, he said, there was no way the team could keep them on.
“It’s not a great situation, that’s for sure,” he said. “I’m disappointed and obviously wish I didn’t have to deal with something like this. But when it happens, we have to address it, get in front of it and use this to learn and become better people.”
La Forge said he hoped “the players involved will use this to improve themselves and learn from their mistakes.”