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Racism lingers for NHL players 60 years after O'Ree landmark

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WASHINGTON — Devante Smith-Pelly got up from his seat.

The Washington Capitals forward had heard the unmistakably racist taunts from fans from inside the penalty box. As a black hockey player, he knew exactly what they meant by yelling, “Basketball, basketball, basketball!”

“It’s just ignorant people being ignorant,” Smith-Pelly said.

That scene unfolded in Chicago in February, 60 years after Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s colour barrier and paved the way for more minorities to play the sport and reach its highest level. O’Ree is being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday for his pioneering career, and yet incidents like the one Smith-Pelly went through show how much more progress needs to be made, in a league that’s 97 per cent white and beyond.

“It’s come a long way, but there’s still a lot of things that still need to change,” Edmonton defenceman Darnell Nurse said. “That just comes through minorities as a group working together to try to eliminate those things from this game.”

Those things just keep happening.

In 2011, Philadelphia forward Wayne Simmonds had a banana thrown at him during a preseason game in London, Ontario.

In 2012, then-Washington forward Joel Ward was the subject of racist social media posts after he scored a game-winning playoff goal.

In 2014, then-Montreal defenceman P.K. Subban was the subject of racist social media posts after he scored a game-winning playoff goal.

In April, Detroit prospect Givani Smith was subjected to threats and racial taunts and messages after a junior game in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. His team had a police escort the next time they went to the rink.

“(O’Ree) had to go through a lot, and the same thing has been happening now, which obviously means there’s still a long way to go,” Smith-Pelly said. “If you had pulled a quote from him back then and us now, they’re saying the same thing, so obviously there’s still a long way to go in hockey and in the world if we’re being serious.”

Through his work as an NHL diversity ambassador over the past 20 years, O’Ree has tried to work toward more inclusion and better minority representation. He is eager to tell kids at YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and schools that hockey is another sport they can play.

USA Hockey and Hockey Canada don’t keep participation statistics by race, though there are fewer than two dozen black players currently on NHL rosters. The NHL celebrates “Hockey is for Everyone” month each season and quickly condemns racist behaviour.

“A lot of it’s basically on your parents and how people raise their kids,” said San Jose forward Evander Kane, who acknowledged being the subject of racist taunting as the only black player on his minor league teams in Vancouver. “You can have all the awareness that you want, but at the end of the day, it’s really up to the individual and how they act and how they want to treat other people.”

O’Ree, 83, still remembers how he was treated in the ’50s as hockey’s Jackie Robinson. He did his best to drown out the noise by listening to his brother Richard.

“I heard the jeers and some of the racial remarks, but it kind of went in one ear and out the other,” O’Ree said. “He told me, ‘Willie, names will never hurt you unless you let them.’ He said, ‘If they can’t accept you for the individual that you are, just forget about it and just go out and do what you do best and don’t worry about anything else.'”

Nurse said black players still have to worry about racist jeers and remarks.

“I had a lot growing up and my brother had the big one too last year,” said Dallas forward Gemel Smith, Givani’s brother. “How we were raised, nothing really bothers me. That stuff doesn’t really get to me and things like that. My dad always taught us just to try to close it out, block it out.”

Like Smith-Pelly, Simmonds is quick to say racism isn’t an issue unique to hockey or sports in general. His solution is a zero tolerance policy, which is what happened to the four fans in Chicago who were thrown out and banned from all home games by the Blackhawks.

“I think what could be done to keep these types of incidents from happening would probably be to ban those people who are doing those lewd acts,” Simmonds said. “I think if you set a strong example right from the start, you won’t have too many people acting like clowns.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman, who is going into the Hall of Fame with O’Ree as part of the class of 2018, considers it important to make clear to fans and players what’s expected and what’s not tolerated and said: “Even if it’s only one incident, it’s one too many.” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said creating and cultivating an inclusive environment and building diversity are significant league priorities.

There has been incremental progress. In the aftermath of Smith-Pelly’s incident, fans in Chicago raised $23,000 to donate to the Fort Dupont Ice Rink in Washington, helping hundreds of children.

“When you see the reaction and the way that people rally around moments like that and try to make a positive out of it, I think that’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Nurse said.

For some players like Seth Jones, the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, hockey has been a safe place. The Blue Jackets defenceman said he has so far never been on the receiving end of race-based taunts or messages and said, “I was just like everybody else playing hockey, which is what everyone wants.”

Most black players haven’t been that fortunate. And while Jones is optimistic that people can change, Smith-Pelly wasn’t sure exactly how that will happen.

“It’s tough,” he said. “I don’t really know a plan to stop it. That’s how people are.”

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Dwane Casey's Pistons hand Raptors third loss of season

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On his first visit back to Toronto since the Raptors fired him last spring, Dwane Casey’s Detroit Pistons slapped the NBA-leading Raps with just their third loss of the season, and his players spilled onto the floor shower their new coach with celebratory hugs.

Behind 30 points and 12 rebounds from Blake Griffin, Detroit – the sixth-place team in the Eastern Conference – orchestrated a white-knuckled 106-104 come-from-behind victory over the Raptors. Griffin concluded the emphatic night by saying the win was for Casey. Then the all-star delivered the zinger of the night when asked about his new coach’s ability to draw up game-winning plays.

“It’s not like we just discovered this today. We put in plays like that all the time in practice,” said Griffin. “He demands execution and we executed. Maybe to Toronto fans or to their GM it was a surprise, but not to us.”

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Kawhi Leonard, who led the Raptors with 26 points and nine rebounds, had a chance to win it with the game tied 104-104, but made a costly gaffe instead. He was dribbling in for what could have been the game-winning shot when the ball ricocheted off his shoe and out of bounds with two seconds remaining. Reggie Bullock hit the final bucket for Detroit, and the Pistons flooded the floor in celebration.

“They were pulling for me. I appreciate that tremendously,” said Casey of his Pistons. “They felt for me. I was trying to deflect it as much as we could. Blake was the first one. ‘This is a great win for you coach.’ That means something when your star player comes to you and tells you that and other players join. We have a good unit. We may not be as talented, but we’re gonna be one of the scrappiest bunches in the Eastern Conference, I promise you that.”

It was the second straight loss for the Raptors, who fell to 12-3, while the Pistons – a club that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008 – improved to 7-6.

Kyle Lowry, who had 14 points and seven assists for Toronto, blamed a lack of communication.

“I think just talking, man. Communication. Open your mouth. We’ve gotta speak, we’ve gotta talk, you’ve gotta say something,” said Lowry. “Can’t play if you can’t say nothing.”

The lead-up to the game had been surreal. The likeable ex-Raptors coach held court for a lengthy media session after the Pistons’ morning shoot-around – one so large it looked like Game 7 of a playoff series.

He shook hands with all the familiar faces in Toronto’s sports media contingent. He joked that his young son, after spending much of his childhood in Toronto, was glad to find a Tim Hortons in their new Michigan neighbourhood, so he won’t go without Timbits.

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Casey’s pre-game media session was no less jam-packed. He gushed about the talent he sees from afar on this year’s Raptors team, and spoke like a proud papa of the young players he helped develop. The well-mannered coach was stopped by well-wishers countless times in the arena’s basement hallway on his short walk to the visitor’s locker room, from media to stadium staff to season ticket holders.

A hearty standing ovation roared throughout a video tribute for Casey in the first quarter. Griffin had to tell him to stand up and acknowledge the crowd because Casey had been busy drawing up a play and didn’t see the video.

Shoulder soreness left the Raptors without Serge Ibaka on Wednesday, right in the midst of a strong run the Congolese big man has been having at the centre spot. Instead, the Raptors inserted Jonas Valanciunas back into the starting lineup for this game, set to battle with Detroit big man Andre Drummond.

The Lithuanian 7-footer got into some early foul trouble and little-used Greg Monroe was thrust into action already in the first quarter. Monroe came up with a 17 point, 7 rebound night, while Valanciunas would manage 14 points and six boards.

With Both Norman Powell and C.J Miles also off with injuries, the Raptors reached further down the bench to fill out their reserve corps. Malachi Richardson was brought in, fresh off a 34-point night on Tuesday with the team’s G-League affiliate, Raptors 905 (which included eight three pointers).

The Pistons, who had trailed by as much as 19 during the night, roared back on a 23-9 run and stole the lead in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter, capitalizing on Raptor gaffes and turnovers. There were fiesty moments down the stretch – like a charge by big Drummond on Lowry and a swatting block by Griffin.

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Pascal Siakam, decked in flashy teal shoes, had 17 points and seven rebounds while also spending much of his night chasing around Griffin. He thwarted the first of two Pistons game-winning in-bound plays with a monster block. But then ex-Raptor Jose Calderon executed the pass to Bullock, who scored the fadeaway winner.

The Raptors shot an abysmal 4 of 20 from three-point range and 10 of 17 from the free-throw line.

Next up for the Raptors is a Friday contest in Boston with the Celtics.

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Olympic bid's demise creates roadblock for Calgary's infrastructure plans, mayor says

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Mayor Naheed Nenshi in Calgary, Alta., on Oct. 31, 2018.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Following voters’ rejection of holding an Olympic Games in Calgary, the city’s mayor says the billions in funding committed by higher levels of government for infrastructure is still needed.

In a plebiscite on Tuesday, 56 per cent of voters rejected holding the 2026 Winter Olympics and the promise that the Games could boost Calgary’s struggling economy. The vote was non-binding but the city and the bid corporation have both said the process is now over.

The result means the city, which prides itself as a winter sports destination, will no longer receive billions of dollars in promised federal and provincial funding that was contingent on hosting the Olympics.

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“I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but Calgarians did say no to $4-billion in funding yesterday,” Mayor Naheed Nenshi said on Wednesday, referring to funding promised by Ottawa, the Alberta government and the International Olympic Committee.

“Maybe we don’t need all those $4-billion if there are no Olympics, but we still need some of it.”

Mr. Nenshi, who supported the bid, said the federal government’s decision to delay announcing its funding for the Games until two weeks before the plebiscite might have contributed to the loss. City council had promised voters would have a month to study the bid, including the funding agreements. Instead, the public was presented with a last-minute document hammered out over a weekend of frantic talks to salvage a funding agreement.

“If the federal government had been to meet their deadline and get their numbers out more in advance, would we have a different response?” Mr. Nenshi asked as he spoke with reporters.

The bid’s demise puts a major roadblock in front of the city’s long-awaited plans for a fieldhouse, a multisport venue that would include indoor fields, running tracks and other facilities. The city has had such a project on its wish list for decades. Supporters of the bid insisted Calgary needed the venue regardless of whether it hosted the Olympics. The city’s $5.1-billion Olympic bid also called for the construction of 1,800 units of affordable housing.

Opponents of the bid argued holding the event would be too expensive and risky, and they rejected the idea that Calgary needed to host a multibillion-dollar sporting event to build infrastructure the city needs.

While some councillors have said they don’t expect the city to move forward with the fieldhouse in an era of austerity, Mr. Nenshi left open that possibility. However, he said the city does not have the money to build the proposed affordable housing.

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Alberta Tourism Minister Ricardo Miranda said the province, which had set aside $700-million for the Olympics, would review any future funding requests from Calgary on a case-by-case basis but no plans exist for a special fund to help the city.

Federal Sports Minister Kirsty Duncan did not make herself available for an interview. Her spokesman, Craig MacBride, said in an e-mailed statement that the $1.4-billion in federal money committed to the Games was dependent on a successful bid. Neither Ms. Duncan nor Mr. MacBride were immediately available to respond to Mr. Nenshi’s critique of the federal government.

Moshe Lander, who lectures about sports economics at Concordia University in Montreal, said if projects such as affordable housing or a renovated Olympic oval really are needed, the city should be able to make the same argument even without the bid. Mr. Lander said using the Olympics to wrestle money out of the federal and provincial governments turns the bidding process into a “hostage negotiation” that isn’t the best way to plan, or pay for, major projects.

“If you were able to make a compelling argument to the provincial and federal governments and get them to commit money to it, then I think you should be able to do that this morning without any significant loss of the strength of your argument,” Mr. Lander said.

Most of the investments planned for the 2026 Games were supposed to refurbish existing venues, many of them dating from the 1988 Winter Olympics. A number of bid supporters have warned that those venues will require a significant injection of cash in the next decade to remain up-to-date.

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Happily ever after ending for Casey on fairy tale return to Toronto

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There was a high school dance kind of awkwardness to almost everything around Dwane Casey’s return to what is now called the Scotiabank Arena.

Masai Ujiri looked like he’d rather be a hundred other places Wednesday night. Casey had that big forced smile on his face in his pre-game media scrum, that appeared to be so part nerves, part excitement, part get me the heck out of here. And Nick Nurse, he is more the best supporting actor nominee in this basketball drama — he may have been party to the firing of Casey and certainly was party to his own hiring as coach of the Raptors, but when he was announced in all the pre-game noise as coach of the Toronto team, if there was applause, you couldn’t hear it.

And then the odd scene on the court, when the Detroit Pistons called timeout for the very first time in the first quarter, and the game night operators put the two-minute tribute video on the board to celebrate all Casey accomplished in his time coaching the Raptors. There were the owners of the team, George Cope of Bell and chairman Larry Tanenbaum standing and smiling and enthusiastically applauding.

When was the last time you saw owners giving a raucous standing ovation to a coach they had to approve the firing of just months ago?

If I’ve seen anything like this before on a sporting night, I can’t remember it.

The video, not surprisingly, was very well done. It had various views of Casey, numerous highlights and words and graphics outlining his many accomplishments here, and with it came applause from the Scotiabank crowd getting louder and louder and more enthusiastic as it ended with a thank you.

And odd, or maybe it’s just Kyle Lowry being an individual; Lowry left the Raptors bench during the time out, with Nurse apparently giving instructions and not turning to watch the video of the man who bright him to the NBA, but Lowry had to say something about the coach who helped turn from NBA annoyance to all-star. Lowry walked to near centre court, watched the video, stood there and applauded. No one was going to take that from him.

There aren’t many nights like this one on any team’s schedule. A beloved coach returning. Coaching against the best Raptors team we’ve ever seen. With the former assistant coach now in charge. And with Casey saying he has accepted his firing, he still doesn’t understand it.

The truth: He knows he and Ujiri had gone about as far down the road as they could have as working general manager and coach, even if Masai has another title. He knows there’s a point in time when you can’t work together any more, can’t trust each other, don’t believe in each other. That’s what happened with Ujiri and Casey. Essentially they fired each other, with only one of them able to make the decision.

It was definitive but it also meant for an uneasy and uncomfortable goodbye.

But here we are, with the Raptors 15 games into a new season, with 12 wins and three losses for Nurse the first-year coach, a win turned into a loss Wednesday night and after all the drama, the angst, the reality, the anxiety, the attempts at defining and explaining who did what to whom, there is a surprising win-win in all of this.

Ujiri has the team he wants with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, at least for this season and who knows how much longer.

Nurse has his first head coaching job in the NBA. It only took forever to get here. Casey provided him with the opportunity to get in the league and when Casey could have used some support from Nurse after the horrible sweep by the Cleveland Cavaliers last May, his friend wasn’t there. That doesn’t mean as much today as his 12-3 record. First time coaching. Superb record. The drama is partly who cares drama now. So much is working out for Nurse in the early going, and never mind the fans barely acknowledged him on Wednesday night and the Raptors let a win turned into a loss.

And yes, after going through the indignity of winning coach of the year and getting fired after a record season, and wondering about misplaced personal loyalties, it was worked out well for Casey. He is coaching the Detroit Pistons, a franchise with a few stars and a roster in need of building. He is surrounded by the kind of basketball people he has hoped to be surrounded by in Toronto. And he’s getting serious money, five years, somewhere around $40 million US. Life changing money for a guy who never made a lot over the years. Now his kids and his kid’s kids will be taken care of forever.

So Ujiri wins. And Nurse wins. And Casey wins on a night when his Pistons made a last second bucket to win a game they had no business winning.

It’s all happily ever after. For now. For everybody involved as we now return to the scheduled portion of the regular season.

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