Pittsburgh Penguins top prospect P.O. Joseph made a special trip back to Pittsburgh last summer to participate in the organization’s Willie O’Ree hockey academy. Joseph spoke on the need for inclusion in hockey then, and he is angry after recent on-ice incidents showed just how far we have to go.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now was one of two Pittsburgh outlets to speak with Joseph late last week as the WBS Penguins made a pit stop at the UPMC Lemieux Complex for practice on their way to a two-game set in Cleveland.
Joseph, 22, is usually smiling and jovial during his media availabilities. He was last Thursday, too, until the subject of two recent racist incidents in the AHL and ECHL was broached. Joseph turned very serious. He didn’t sidestep the issue like an oncoming forechecker or rush past it like a neutral zone trap.
That he had to meter his thoughts or restrain his words probably says as much about the world we live in as it does about his grace in dealing with the subject.
“There’s so much I would say right now, but I usually can’t. I just think it’s disgusting. I think that’s the word I’m going to use. I think seeing that during the same week as the Willie O’Ree game, retiring his jersey (in Boston), I think it’s incredible. It’s… it’s…I feel like people don’t learn around this sport. That’s more frustrating than anything, especially in pro hockey. And I think it’s good that we keep talking and talking about it, but I think it’s really disgusting from the players to use those type of comments,” P.O. Joseph said.
February is Black History month and is being celebrated across the NHL, which has made a concerted effort in recent years to reach audiences beyond the traditional white middle-class audience and support social change.
“For me, this guy doesn’t have…He shouldn’t be playing hockey, and he shouldn’t be playing in the same league as us,” Joseph said. “You want to treat us like that, and you just kind of lower your standards. In my opinion, he shouldn’t be playing anymore in pro hockey, but I’m not making the decision. So I’m just going to, you know, stay positive through all this.”
PHN was unable to speak with Joseph after Thursday due to the WBS Penguins travel and game schedule, and then he was recalled to the Pittsburgh Penguins taxi squad. So, we were unable to get his comments on the subsequent denials by ECHL player Jacob Panetta, who released a lengthy Instagram post denying it was a racist taunt but was instead the “strong man” pose.
Panetta’s ECHL club released him and released a statement acknowledging his denial but also the hurt that racism causes. While the ECHL incident with Panetta may have been debated, the AHL incident just a couple of days prior was not debatable. The AHL suspended San Jose Barracuda player Krystof Hrabic for 30 games for a racist taunt that appeared to be similar to the “strong man” pose but was decidedly not.
There isn’t a place in the game for that ugliness. And Joseph made a salient point that hit home with me and perhaps will for you, too.
“If you’re ready to say some comments like that, you’re not really improving your part and the life we live in the world right now, so…I mean, that’s my personal opinion. What if he comes back in 30 games…I don’t think in 30 games he’s going to learn much,” Joseph shrugged.
“I think everyone has Twitter and Instagram, and everyone’s been seeing stuff going on around the world, and if he doesn’t really know, I don’t know what will teach him more than beginning a year suspension or something like that.”
Joseph indirectly referenced the lack of substantial punishment in Ukraine after a player went pantomimed peeling a banana. That incident was one of several over the past few years which were lightly punished in that league.
For many of us, it’s not easy to imagine being on the receiving end of such taunts or the depth of ugliness behind them. That a 22-year-old held his fire but firmly made a point speaks well of the Pittsburgh Penguins prospect. Over the summer, Joseph admitted that he was shielded from much of the racism growing up, but it still sneaked the game.
“We didn’t care about it… You encounter it here and there, on the ice and off,” Joseph said on Aug. 3. “But you ignore their ignorance and surround yourself with good people. Plus, I think my family would protect us.”
Joseph’s brother Mathieu is a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But now the racism is front and center, and it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t done directly to Joseph.
Joseph was sent down to the WBS Penguins on Wednesday, as the Pittsburgh Penguins are off until next Tuesday, and the taxi squads are scheduled to cease due to relaxed COVID testing. The youngster has been kicking at the NHL door for about a year.
There was nothing subtle about the Ukrainian or Krystof incidents, and Joseph is dealing with an additional issue and pressure beyond just getting to the NHL.
Maybe next time, hockey will take care of the situation before Joseph or the Hockey Diversity Alliance has to call attention to it. And, maybe someday, there won’t be a next time.