The American Hockey League announced this morning that San Jose Barracuda winger Krystof Hrabik has been suspended for 30 games as a result of racist gestures made toward Tucson Roadrunners winger Boko Imama during a game between the two teams on Jan. 12. Hrabik has already served three games of the suspension while the league investigated reports from the officials working the game. Reportedly, Hrabik mimicked an ape, a gesture directed at Imama, whose family immigrated to Montreal from the Democratic Republic of Congo and is Black.
Both the AHL and Roadrunners issued statements in support of Imama.
“The AHL stands with Boko Imama,” said AHL President and Chief Executive Officer Scott Howson in the statement. “It is unfair that any player should be subjected to comments or gestures based on their race; they should be judged only on their ability to perform as a player on the ice, as a teammate in the locker room and as a member of their community.”
The statement also said that the league is “committed to building a culture that is safe, inclusive, and free from abuse, harassment and all forms of unethical behavior or misconduct.” Part of that commitment includes education, which will be made available to Hrabik through the National Hockey League’s Player Inclusion Committee. Though the suspension will end on April 3 (assuming no schedule changes), Hrabik may apply for a reduction after March 12, should he make satisfactory progress with the committee, as determined by Howson.
Arizona Coyotes President and CEO, Xavier Gutierrez, said this in a statement: “We are appalled by the disgusting and blatantly racist gesture that was displayed to Boko during the Roadrunners game at San Jose on Jan. 12 and support the AHL’s action and suspension. There is no place in society, or in our game, for racism or abuse of any kind. The player’s ignorance is astounding and unacceptable. Diversity and inclusion are core pillars of our organization and we stand by Boko and support him fully.”
Unfortunately, racism has been a constant presence over Boko Imama’s career. During the 2020 season, while playing with the Ontario Reign, Imama was called a racist slur by defender Brandon Manning, then with the Bakersfield Condors. Manning received a five-game suspension. The two also fought on the ice upon Manning’s return from suspension.
Though the increase in the suspension and a commitment to education is a great step forward, it also highlights just how little has changed. When Manning uttered that slur two years ago, the NHL was in the midst of reckoning with abusive coaches — namely, Bill Peters, whose racism and abuse deeply damaged the career of Akim Aliu. Aliu went on to become a founding member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, but the NHL continues to deny the HDA partnership or support.
At the time, Imama had this to say: “I have taken some time to reflect on what transpired on the ice against Bakersfield on Monday night. What happened is unfortunate for everyone. No matter how intense or heated a game gets, there is no room for this in our game and no excuse. I am very proud to be an African Canadian hockey player and to stand for all other players that are in the same situation as me.”
It’s much more reserved than statements he made last year to AZ Central about this incident: “I kind of had mixed feelings when that situation happened. Obviously as a man, someone who wants to disrespect me to that extent, I was ready to take responsibilities into my own hands. That’s why I wanted that fight. We’re allowed to fight on the ice so I wanted to make him stand up for what he said. But if you look at the situation, does the fight change anything? Absolutely not. Because the guy, I think he still got away with it.
“It’s still a little bit sour in me, because I know it wasn’t dealt with in the right way.”
That piece also reflects on an incident last fall when former Tucson Roadrunners defender Jalen Smereck, a Black hockey player from Detroit, Michigan, was taunted with a racist banana-peeling gesture from an opponent while playing in Ukraine. Smereck parted ways with the Ukrainian club following the incident.
“You look at hockey overseas now, and which hockey player of color would want to go play there now?” Imama said at the time. “I think it’s just hurting the sport because I think if it was more diverse, if everyone was more included, I feel like it would touch a bigger audience and it would just be better for the sport. But when things like that happen it’s just unfortunate for everyone.”
It’s a disgusting reality that every non-white player in this sport, at every level, in every league, almost certainly has a story like this. A 30-game suspension, with mandatory education, is a step forward, but it’s not a very big one for a problem so widespread.
If there’s really no place for racism in the sport, then there shouldn’t be roster spots open to those who use another person’s skin color to degrade them — a decision that is now on the Barracuda to make.
And knowing that there is a Black player in their dressing room (defender Montana Onyebuchi, whose father was born in Nigeria), I sincerely hope they make the right one.
The San Jose Sharks and Barracuda’s full statement is below.
On the morning of Jan. 13, the American Hockey League (AHL) alerted San Jose Barracuda management that Krystof Hrabik made a racial gesture towards Tucson Roadrunners forward Boko Imama during the teams’ Jan. 12 game in San Jose.
Hrabik was immediately removed from all team activities pending an investigation by the AHL, with the full cooperation from the Barracuda organization.
Following its investigation, the AHL today announced that Hrabik has been suspended for 30 games with the potential to apply for early reinstatement on March 12, pending an evaluation of his progress in training provided by the NHL Player Inclusion Committee.
The Barracuda and San Jose Sharks organizations were appalled to learn of this incident. We offer our sincerest apologies to Boko, the Roadrunners organization, the AHL, our fans, and the entire hockey community.
While we support the ability for individuals to atone and learn from disrespectful incidents in this context, these actions are in direct opposition to the Barracuda and Sharks organizations’ values.
In connection with the NHL’s league-wide effort to foster an inclusive culture in hockey, the San Jose Sharks and San Jose Barracuda have partnered with the RESPECT Group to launch a series of trainings and workshops for personnel and players.