Toronto hockey league investigating teen’s allegations of racial slur during game

A jarring racial attack has left a young Toronto hockey player contemplating whether he ever wants to play the game again.

“It broke me. I turned into a ghost. I didn’t know what to do,” 15-year-old Yonas Nicola-Lalonde said of the alleged incident. “After it ended, I skated off the ice and went to the change room and tried to recompose myself because I was in so much shock.

“I felt empty. I felt useless. It made me not want to play anymore and just retire from hockey.”

The incident happened Sept. 30 in a game between Nicola-Lalonde’s Humber Valley Sharks team and the Forest Hill Force, both of the Greater Toronto Hockey League.

Called N-word

It all started with a fairly innocuous play. Nicola-Lalonde’s team was breaking out of its end and one of his teammates was body checked by an opposing player, though the game was being played under non-contact rules. Nicola-Lalonde retaliated with a cross-check.

Nicola-Lalonde, who is Humber Valley’s only Black player, said the player then called him the N-word.

“I was shocked. I really didn’t know what to do,” he told CBC Sports.

A brawl broke out and in the midst of the melee, it’s alleged the same Forest Hill player hurled another racial slur at Humber Valley’s goalie, who is Asian.

Nicola-Lalonde has played hockey for many years and has been called the N-word and dealt with racial abuse a number of times before, but said this time it struck a painful nerve.

“When it happened to me the first time, I was only 10 years old and the player that said it at the time couldn’t have understood how impactful and negative that word could be,” he said. “But now I’m 15 and everyone knows how offensive that word is.”

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There was no penalty assessed on the play and the Forest Hill player finished the game and participated in the rest of the tournament.

In the commotion of the moment, the referee told Nicola-Lalonde’s team he didn’t hear anything, but it was clear to everyone on Humber Valley’s bench that something had happened.

“Something was clearly wrong, [Nicola-Lalonde] was going wild, he was like, ‘come on, come on,’ to the referee. He was looking for an answer,” one of the team’s coaches, Padraig Kenny, told CBC Sports. “He comes over and take his helmet off on the bench and he is just balling his eyes out, just crying. He whips off his neck guard and throws his helmet. He is yelling, ‘he called me the ‘N’ word,’ pointing at the kid. It made me sick.”

Kenny said the team implored the referee to do something even though he didn’t hear the alleged slurs.

“We said to the referee that it would be better to err on the side of caution. I mean, look at this kid, he’s crying. He’s not going to make that up. But the ref dug his heels in and said it’s not that we don’t believe him, we just didn’t hear it.”

The referee did inform the GTHL about the alleged incident as did Humber Valley. Nicola-Lalonde and his family also informed the GTHL.

They also reached out to Akim Aliu, chair of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, for guidance and support

Aliu, a former NHL player, is the co-founder of the HDA, a group formed to root out racism and intolerance in hockey. In 2019, Aliu accused Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters of directing numerous racial slurs toward him when both were in the Chicago Blackhawks organization, leading to Peters’s eventual resignation from the Flames.

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Aliu also spent years playing in the GTHL, the world’s largest youth hockey league.

“It’s on a weekly basis that I get these types of reach-outs,” Aliu told CBC Sports. “It’s sad what is happening but hockey culture continues to be extremely toxic and there isn’t a place right now for people of colour and people of diverse backgrounds to feel welcome in the game.”

In the days after the incident, Nicola-Lalonde and the team heard nothing from the GTHL.

“It really wasn’t sitting well with me that this guy hasn’t been suspended, that nothing has happened. I find it gross. I don’t have the will to go to the rink,” Nicola-Lalonde said. “They haven’t handled this well at all.”

Aliu tweeted about the incident on Thursday morning. That same day, Nicola-Lalonde’s father, Paul Lalonde, said a third-party investigator from the GTHL asked for a meeting, the first time either his son or the team had heard from the organization. 

In a statement to CBC Sports, the GTHL said would not comment on the matter.

“With the safety and privacy of everyone involved as the highest priority of the GTHL, especially for those who came forward, the league cannot comment further on the allegations and furthermore, the investigation,” the statement reads.

The Forest Hill Hockey Association is cooperating with the investigation.

“If in fact we do find out from the investigation that there was an incident, it will be dealt with swiftly and harshly as we have a zero tolerance policy for this type of behaviour,” said the organization’s president, Aaron Greenberg.

While the investigation could take months, Aliu said it should be fairly straightforward.

“To me this is pretty cut and dry. I really don’t believe a kid would lie about this kind of thing,” he said.

Nicola-Lalonde said he knows any action on this could take months. He is still figuring out what he will do next. But he has no regrets about coming forward and telling his story.

“I feel it’s important to speak out against these things. I didn’t want to just come to the rink the next day and put it behind me,” he said. “If I do that it will just keep happening again and again. People want hockey to change, but the reality it’s not going in the right direction. Not enough is being done about situations like this.”

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