The color of his skin didn’t matter to the ice. The color of his skin didn’t matter to the puck. And until this season, Divyne Apollon II believed that the color of his skin didn’t matter to his opponents.
So Divyne, 13, the only black player on his suburban Maryland hockey team, wasn't prepared for the monkey sounds another team's players made at him. And the n-word. And the constant chants of "Get off the ice! Go play basketball!"
"I've never had it in my face like that before," he said.
But what really shocked him and his father, Divyne Apollon -- a bear of a hockey dad -- was the reaction by his own teammates after a particularly awful round of racial hazing at a tournament last weekend.
"They were so angry about it. They seemed even angrier than us," Apollon said.
First, there was the brawl.
Divyne, who plays defense for the 14-and-under Metro Maple Leafs, a travel hockey team based in Odenton, was shaking it off.
"I told him he would face this in a mostly white sport," his dad said. "I did the same thing for my daughters when they played tennis. I just told them: 'People are going to say things to you. Just perform and win. Don't worry about anybody else.' "
And since he was 8 years old and discovered the unparalleled passion of boy-meets-ice, he'd never heard unusual rink hate. He started his hockey career with a diverse suburban hockey team.
"But it wasn't until we started playing some of the teams out of Pennsylvania that we started hearing this kind of stuff," Apollon said.
Saturday's game was buzzing with racial animosity. The monkey sounds were constant when the players were in Divyne's zone. He tried to ignore them.
"Normally, stuff like that doesn't happen directly to my face," said Divyne, an eighth-grader. "But it was there."
He kept looking at the other coach, the refs. They did nothing. Maybe they couldn't hear. But his teammates heard, and they were furious. The game got rough.
At the end of the third period, the fed-up teammates started yelling at the other team and a fight began. Divyne said he got punched in the face, and he fought back.
After the kids were pulled apart, Divyne was suspended from the rest of the tournament and he finally told the adults what the other team had been saying. His teammates backed him up, telling the parents and team manager what happened.
"It happened in Hagerstown earlier in the season, too," Apollon said. "The n-word. The basketball chants. We had a team chat and he explained the history of how it happened before."
They were stunned.
"It brought tears to my eyes," said Tammi Lynch, one of the team moms. "To hear from him how pervasive it has been. How he's just let it roll off his back. I think we had no idea."
Yup. There’s the bubble for you. It’s easy for folks -- especially us white people -- to live in a liberal cloud of peace and color-blind harmony and to be oblivious to the racial slights our neighbors are enduring.
Lynch lives in an especially liberal and diverse suburban enclave and even as a middle-school teacher, she hadn't realized how bold and hateful kids were being.
The Maple Leaf community got that lesson in full on Saturday. And it responded.
That evening, when Divyne wasn't allowed to play, the Apollons went to watch the next round of games anyway.
And what greeted them was a team and a spectator stand full of support.
Lynch, after asking Apollon if he would be comfortable with her activism, had designed a logo the morning after the fight. She pulled up Microsoft Word and used a template to create a sign crossing out the word "Racism" with the slash mark as a hockey stick, then printed them out on sheets of round stickers. Every player plastered the logo on his stick. The parents wore them over their hearts.
"I was a little shocked by all the support," Divyne said. "And the online support."
Apollon posted the story and a photo of the stickers on Instagram and by Sunday morning, he was flooded with messages of support and stories of other black parents in predominantly white sports.
By Thursday morning, Lynch had at least two other teams asking for stickers -- at least 200.
So the Apollons and some of the other parents decided to try to make this a movement. They want to call it "Hockey > Hate." Divyne thought of that, giving a teen twist to their initial logo, "Hockey Over Hate." And maybe they can create workshops and videos about hate.
"At this point, standing by and not saying anything is being complicit," Lynch said.
Because this isn't about hockey, the ice or the game. The hatred these kids are showing is taught at home. And it's time to call that out.
Seeing the outrage of their white friends reminded the Apollons of how much hatred they quietly swallow and forge past in their daily lives.
"I've grown numb to it," the dad said.
"Yeah, I just learn not to get upset by it, like the monkey sounds. I try not to even hear them," the son said.
But this time, his teammates heard them. The other parents heard them. And they want the rest of the world to hear them, too.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.
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