USA Hockey President Jim Smith has had enough.
In a letter sent Wednesday to USA Hockey members, Smith announced he is dramatically increasing the penalty for using racial and homophobic slurs, as well as other hateful language, in and around hockey.
That behavior will now be met with an immediate and indefinite suspension.
Smith’s letter read, in part:
I am issuing a directive effective immediately that anyone assessed a penalty under Rule 601 (e.3) will now receive an automatic Match Penalty, in lieu of the game misconduct penalty that currently exists, and shall be immediately suspended until a hearing is conducted by the governing USA Hockey Affiliate or junior league.
This new rule will target “anyone who uses language that is offensive, hateful or discriminatory in nature anywhere in the rink before, during or after the game.”
Until now the penalty has been simply removal from the game and typically a one-game suspension. As Smith wrote in his letter, “For reasons that I cannot understand, this penalty does not seem to be enough of a deterrent to stop this conduct.”
The letter goes further, laying out a process for accusations of hateful language to be investigated. If action isn’t heard by a referee, they cannot penalize the player; In this new process, the referee will report the accusation and there will be an investigation into it.
Hockey in North America has long had a tenuous relationship with race and sexual orientation. Less than 5% of NHL players are black. The NHL has also never had a current or former player come out as gay — every other major men’s pro league in North America has had at least two.
It’s clear Smith isn’t messing around anymore with language that can make the sport inhospitable to LGBTQ people and people of color, and he is using the full weight of the rulebook to eradicate the behavior.
The question with any rule change is, how will the referees enforce it? Given the incredibly stiff penalty, will referees be more hesitant to make that call? Will players get warnings before a referee decides to take action?
It will be interesting to check in with USA Hockey in six months to see just how many of these cases were brought, because it’s entirely possible that some officials who don’t understand the gravity of racism and homophobia may choose to look the other way.
To be clear, this doesn’t affect the NHL, NCAA or most high school-based programs. USA Hockey sets the rules for amateur youth, disabled and adult hockey. It will be in part up to each league to determine how strictly they want their referees to police this behavior.