‘We Are Hockey’ exhibit goes beyond game, offering important conversations about culture, society

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion sectionplease see the FAQ.

“You need to come to the ‘We Are Hockey’ exhibit,” my friend said to me.

When it comes to hockey-related issues, I always listen to Dr. Courtney Szto. She is one of Canada’s greatest hockey scholars – the managing editor of Hockey in Society – and an assistant professor of kinesiology at Queen’s University.

She did her PhD on hockey culture and South Asian Canadians. Her research strengthened her connection to the South Asian Studies Institute (SASI) at the University of Fraser Valley in BC Prior to her project, the stories of people of color and the contributions of cultural communities in hockey were seldom being told. Sure, there is Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi Editionbut what about the origin story of those broadcasters?

A collaboration with some dedicated academics, including Dr. Satwinder Kaur Bains of SASI and her team, resulted in the creation of an incredible exhibit called “We Are Hockey” that first launched in 2019 at the Sikh Heritage Temple in Abbotsford, BC When COVID-19 hit, the opportunity to share this important exhibit with the community was put on hold – until now.

The exhibit is currently on display at the Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives (PAMA) in Brampton, Ont., Just northwest of Toronto, and that’s where I went this past Saturday. The exhibit is housed in one of the four historic buildings that make up PAMA. It is a special part of Brampton that exhibits history and has important conversations about culture and society.

What makes this collaboration particularly special is the way that hockey is offered to the community through the lens of people of color. There is a wonderful history and a movement within the game of women, racialized players, broadcasters, academics and sports journalists who love the sport and have stories to tell and stories to protect.

L to R: Dr. Courtney Szto, Saroya Tinker, Amrit Gill. (Submitted by Herman Custodio)

Disseminating information through education and inclusion are key elements of why this interactive exhibit is so impactful. At the opening, children came and colored small paper hockey jerseys, made clay figures of hockey players and saw displays of hockey media, players and coaches who are racialized. There are beautiful photos, various jerseys on display, a video reel, gloves, a hockey stick and so much more. It is offered in a brightly-lit space with a knowledgeable staff who are happy to answer questions.

Claire Bennett is the curator at PAMA and she collaborated with SASI and Dr. Szto to develop the show and ensure it was perfect. PAMA is the first venue where “We Are Hockey” is being displayed outside of BC Bennett said the hope is that the exhibit garners more interest from different museums across Canada and can travel to other spaces.

At the opening there was a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Szto with Amrit Gillone of the hosts of Hockey Night Punjabi and a producer with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and Saroya Tinkera pro hockey player with Toronto 6ix of the Premier Hockey Federation and the executive director of Black Girl Hockey Canada.

As we watched three racialized women on a panel discussing hockey culture, their journeys and why this exhibit and collaboration with PAMA was so necessary, I could not help but feel uplifted. It was a far cry form what I had been feeling about hockey as of late. Educating the wider community about lived experiences in hockey is always a great way to solidify connections.

I was very excited to have the opportunity to listen to their powerful voices and I ended up live-tweeting the event.

One of the most compelling things about this panel of racialized women was not only the diversity of their cultures and races and how they connected to hockey, but the spaces they occupy in Canada’s most beloved sport: academic, broadcaster, and professional player.

I asked the panel what was the greatest compliment they had received. Tinker said she is told by the many mentees she has that she is so confident. She said that they see a “glowing Black woman” and she wishes she could have glowed earlier in her life. Her dedication to youth is incredible.

Gill said she feels deeply the thanks she gets from the elders in her community, while Dr. Szto said that from the perspective of an educator, she feels grateful to be able to work with players and offer them the language to use to combat systems of oppression in hockey.

As the packed room listened to these intrepid faces of hockey, it was hard not to feel invigorated. While the recent revelations about the culture of hockey have left us feeling discouraged, this was a very deserved breath of fresh air.

Presently, hockey in Canada is fraught with disappointments and distrust. If community partners and museums are able to share this show, it gives the public an opportunity to relate to hockey in a manner that is powerful and lasting. The exhibit is on display until April 30, 2023.

This is an exhibit for sports lovers, community folks and everyone in between. Many characters in this hockey story are working and succeeding in real time. We get to see their stories captured as they continue to make a difference in the hockey landscape.

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