Friday, November 29, 2019

Maxime Fortunus Autographed Card

Does racism exist in hockey? Of course it does, because it still exists in the world.

I was in a special bubble growing up, playing hockey in the NDG district of Montréal where there was at least one girl and four people of colour on every team in every category in our neighbourhood until - and including - Midget. It wasn't by design or by some sort special program - we all grew up loving and playing hockey, and there were enough of all of us to fill two A-level and two B-level "elite" teams and usually a handful to eight C-level "house league" teams per category (from Novice to Atom to Pee-wee to Bantam to Midget) and, statistically, the proportions were often relatively the same at all levels on all teams. It represented our neighbourhood, as did the fact that half the teams were French-speaking and the other half had English as a common language.

As a matter of fact, as most things Montréal, language was a larger factor of discontent, fighting and favouritism than skin colour or gender.

Were insulting words ever said? Absolutely. Until Pee-Wee at least, when folks on both sides start realizing the meaning - both from the person saying it and the person receiving it. A person of Indian descent getting called "Paki" finds it ridiculous until the "all you Brown people are the same category of not welcome" starts kicking in, and the playfulness of an insult stops being funny when the other side gets hurt more than intended. And almost everyone was a target of slurs at some point, from the Francophones ("Frog", "Pepper", "Pepsi") to Blacks to Indians to girls to guys who look more "effeminate" to Indigenous peoples... even straight, "regular" white Anglo-Saxon Canadian males ("Squareheads", "Blokes").

Starting at the Pee-Wee level, ages 12-13-14 (depending on date of birth), people learn to not say hurtful things to people they care about, and eventually we'd just start hearing it more from kids from poorer neighbourhoods, and we'd use it as a rallying point. One of our teams would usually finish in the top-5 of any province-wide end-of-season ranking, and would usually medal in tournaments, even when icing just half a team because said tournament was played in the daytime on a school day, or all day during the Sabbath:
After Midget came the LHJMQ. Girls were no longer part of the equation, but I'm of that generation that produced elite goaltending (Jean-Sébastien Giguère, José Theodore, Roberto Luongo) and tough guys, a lot of them being people of colour (Jason Doig, Peter Worrell, Donald Brashear, Georges Laraque, Craig Martin, Francis Bouillon, Jason Downey). Laraque spoke eloquently (as usual) about the pains he endured as a child climbing up the ranks.

All of this is to say that I'm just a little bit stunned by Akim Aliu's recollection of events that happened in the AHL. Not that it happened at all, but that it happened in the third-best hockey league in the world. You'd think the kind of language used would have been weeded out by encountering other human beings as Bill Peters would have climbed the ranks from Amateur to Juniors to the pros. You'd think someone would have told him it's wrong, would have stood up to him, would have been in a position to threaten his job at some point.

But more than the language, you'd think the Omertà would not have been strong enough to allow for Aliu's demotion to the ECHL simply for standing up to him. And that's one of the major problems with the way the AHL management teams are set up: usually, the AHL team's GM is either the parent team's GM or their assistant-GM, meaning they oversee player personnel and decisions, but from the main offices in the parent team's building, 90% of the time, when what would be required is a continuous presence with the team, to feel its pulse, to not rely on one person's opinion regarding not just the makeup of the team and asset management, but also possibly the player's ability to deliver and become the best he can be - either for the team or for someone else via asset exchange.

Since players are the "product", they should be cherished and nourished to become the best they can be by being put in the best situation for them. Minor-league coaches are only there for their development. Sure, they may eventually earn a promotion... if they succeed at developing impactful players. There should be no other criteria, or goal.

Which brings me to Maxime Fortunus. He's five years younger than me, so I never got to play with him, and I've had all of two minutes of interactions with him in my life. I don't know if there is a reason beyond size and perhaps defensive zone lapses that made him go undrafted or limited him to 9 NHL games, but I know he makes a really good pass and has a booming shot, and I know he wore an "A" on his chest with the Manitoba Moose and the captain's "C" with the Texas Stars, so he at least was a respected presence in an AHL locker room. And I've seen Aliu play, and there is no on-ice reason why the former first-rounder could not have at least been the type of guy who is an AHL star like Fortunus. For God's sake, he's still practising full-time in Toronto in the hopes that an NHL team will call, he knows he's skilled enough.

And, hey, Fortunus left a spot open, as he's now playing in Germany, for the Fischtown Pinguins. Here's a card from his first season with the Texas Stars on card #11 from the 2010-11 Choice team set by Choice Sports Cards:
It shows him wearing the team's white (home) uniform; he signed it in blue sharpie in 2015 or 2016, adding his uniform number (18) to his signature.

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