In a week and a half, Matt Damba saw firsthand both the progress that the NHL has made and what remains to be done.
As a member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, an organization founded last year to eradicate racism in sports, Dumba proudly sported a custom tape on his stick ahead of a January 8 game against the Washington Capitals. His teammates followed suit during the warm-up.
It was part of the #TapeOutHate campaign organized by the Hockey Diversity Alliance in partnership with Budweiser Canada. The hope is to inspire change at the grassroots level with words like “RACISM DOES NOT WORK IN HOCKEY” pasted onto the ribbon itself.
“We are so grateful and humiliated to receive such a response,” Dumba said. “It’s very cool to see. Supporting white players is very important because of the demographics and the nature of the game.”
But Damba witnessed the other side of the spectrum on Jan. 17 after a game against the Colorado Avalanche. In that game, his teammate Jordan Greenway inadvertently knocked down goaltender Darcy Kemper, which angered opposing fans.
On the bus after the game, Damba sat next to Greenaway as his social media direct messages were flooded with various racial slurs.
“We sit on the bus and say: “Look how stupid this is. It’s funny,” Dumba said. “That’s how it’s real every day.”
It goes beyond sports. This is a reality that people of color face every day.
Even though there have been tangible changes over the past year and a half and more people have taken action, the truth is that racism has always existed and will always exist in one form or another.
As a child, Dumba couldn’t do anything to stop it. Now he has a platform to make a difference.
“We are protecting ourselves as 12-year-olds, our future children, the next generation,” Dumba said. “There is no reason why a child should feel that the color of their skin determines whether they are suitable or able to play hockey. And it’s been that way for too long.”
This summer, Damba, along with other members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, gathered in Toronto.
The meeting was hosted by Budweiser Canada to start a dialogue that could be used to promote the #TapeOutHate campaign.
The open and honest conversation that followed exceeded all expectations.
“They gave us a couple of points to talk about and we just started cutting them,” Dumba said. “I think it took (should have been) 30 to 45 minutes to shoot and we kept talking for an hour and a half.”
— Hockey Diversity Alliance (@TheOfficialHDA) January 8, 2022
In the video, Damba sits in a circle with former hockey player Akim Aliu, Anthony DuClair of the Florida Panthers, Nazem Kadri of the Avalanche, and Wayne Simmonds of the Toronto Maple Leafs. them away when they were young.
The ad had strong points, including showing various racial slurs that members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance have faced throughout their careers. There were also some sharp exchanges between players that really hit the mark.
“Why do you want your child to ever experience something like this?” Dumba asked the band during a commercial. “Would you put them in hockey?”
“If I had known that she would have to face the same thing that I faced, probably not,” Simmonds replied. “At the same time, I want her to be able to do what she loves.”
This was the first time Dumba could remember having spoken to other players in such a public forum. He had many such conversations backstage. Never in front of a camera.
“For us to have such a conversation, so open and vulnerable, I don’t know if either of us really got into it,” Dumba said. “You can talk about it forever because it has been going on for so long. You can add more bodies to this conversation. You can add guys who have played further in the past. You can add maybe some younger kids going through this. That’s our goal: to get people talking about it.”
As for Dumba, he’s gotten to the point in his life where he can deal with the nasty things the keyboard warriors release into the universe.
He doesn’t think of himself when he talks about the racism he’s experienced. He thinks of a 10-year-old boy who recently uploaded social media for the first time and has to deal with name-calling from his peers.
“You are being harassed online and being harassed at the skating rink,” Dumba said. “This doesn’t look like a safe place. Why do children go to the skating rink? There is a sense of loneliness.”
This is why the #TapeOutHate campaign is so effective. It’s important for kids to see words like “RACISM DOES NOT WORK IN HOCKEY” proudly displayed by top level players.
“That’s a big part of it,” Dumba said. “Whenever anyone sees a tape, it spreads that information and creates a new potential conversation. I think the hockey world is doing a great job and we are grateful that they chose it and supported it the way they did.”
As for the record itself, it’s become so popular that Dumba joked that members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance couldn’t get their hands on it right now.
“It’s jumping off the shelves,” he said. “We were sent some buns and all the boys used them to warm up. I was so proud. Just knowing that my teammates support me and taking the time to ask and understand what it is.
“I explained it to the boys and showed them the video. It was talked about in the dressing room and the guys were amazing, wanting to support it and put it out there. I am very grateful for the kind of teammates I have.”
From the moment Dumba took a knee during the national anthem before a game on August 1, 2020, after an emotional speech about fighting racism in sports, he has become the face of the movement.
Although he received a lot of support along the way, especially from other members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, Damba was one of the most vocal players for the need for change in the NHL.
This experience gave strength to Dumba. Especially after feeling like an outcast as a child, always trying to blend in with others, never trying to stand out. This mindset brought him to the NHL early in his career.
Over the past couple of years, however, Damba has become more comfortable in his own skin. Even if he looks different than some of his peers.
Dumba hopes that in an ideal world, the #TapeOutHate campaign, as well as some of the other initiatives the Hockey Diversity Alliance is taking on at the grassroots level, encourage kids to be more receptive from a very young age.
“I don’t think anyone is (born) racist, angry or hateful,” Dumba said. “You will know it somewhere. There is a sense of ignorance that comes with a child and finding a way. I think helping with educational programs and things like that and teaching kids what is right and what is wrong is a huge step in all of this.”
This is a step in the right direction. Now the marathon continues.
“Our mission with (Hockey Diversity Alliance) to eradicate racism in the game is no easy task,” said Dumba. “Yes, it was taken over by seven, eight, nine of us in the beginning. Now he has grown. We have so many different parts and it’s still so fresh.
“We have to find the pieces of the puzzle and what makes this whole organization work together and run smoothly. It’s not the easiest. But we understand that and we’re bringing in more people, which is great.”