In the spring of 2015 Chicago came to visit the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre. One Chicago fan came into the arena sporting a fake headdress. This didn’t go over well with Jordan Wheeler, a long-time Jets fan and season ticket holder. Wheeler, who is Cree from the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, filed a complaint with True North Sports and Entertainment, owner of the Jets franchise, according to the CBC.
On Thursday, in advance of Chicago’s first game at MTS Centre this season, True North Sports and Entertainment announced that they would not ban headdresses in the arena. However, if someone arrived in one, “We would have a conversation with them and we would make them fully aware of the ramifications of wearing that and the cultural ramifications of it,” senior director of corporate communications for True North, Scott Brown, told the CBC.
Brown continued about the decision, via the CBC:
Brown said that after much research, True North has decided not to ban headdresses to sporting events at the MTS Centre. Instead, staff will deal with the situation “on a case by case basis … rather than come down with one blanket policy.”
“Once you make a policy or whatever it could have far reaching effects which you may not be aware of at the time you make the policy,” Brown said.
Part of that decision hinged on the fact that there is no policy like this in any other NHL arena. True North Sports and Entertainment would be setting a precedent for how a team has dealt with the act of co-opting First Nation imagery and symbols should they ban the headdress. That is admittedly tricky territory when a divisional foe is named the Blackhawks.
Then comes the twist.
The “much research” put in by True North wound up not being “much” enough. True North reversed their stance later in the day.
The reversal came after owner Mark Chipman met with First Nation leaders to discuss the topic. The CBC reports that among those present in the discussion were Assembly of Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak and MLA Kevin Chief.
“After gaining probably a better understanding of that significance we have decided that going forward we will no longer be allowing costume and non-authentic headdresses into MTS Centre for hockey events,” [Brown] said.
It’s a significant moment to have a team create a policy in this situation, though the team doesn’t call it a policy. Brown told The Hockey Writers via email, “You could say it will be more a ‘practice’ than a policy given the notion that banning certain head wear can cross over into grey areas with other cultures and other religions which we feel we should be able to handle the same way we did in this instance.”
The practice, Brown says, to be specific, is that they “no longer be allowing costume or non-authentic Aboriginal regalia into MTS Centre at hockey events.”
Nonetheless, there’s the potential for this “practice” to be viewed by others as precedent. The significance of the precedent was seen earlier in the day when the lack of precedent lead the team to not ban headdresses. It’s easy to see how the Jets could be a leader on this issue should a situation arise in, say, Calgary. Flames ownership may take a look around the league in the same way that Jets ownership did, and they’re going to see a different landscape than the Jets saw on Thursday.
While “practice” is certainly weaker than “policy,” the Jets don’t appear to be shirking away from the possibility that this sets a precedent. Brown told THW, “I guess that remains to be seen. We have a larger Aboriginal population here in our city compared to others so it was important for us here in Manitoba to make the proper decision when it came to a group of our citizens who we’ve had a really good relationship with so far and are a large part of our fan base.”
The laudable key here is that Chipman ultimately didn’t defer to precedent, but talked to First Nation leaders. Nepinak told the CBC, “I think it is a huge sign of respect that Mr. Chipman would call me to get insight.”
That’s the key there. Respect. Bringing Nepinak and other First Nation leaders made it clear that the there is offense taken repurposing a spiritually significant object as a team symbol.
“I am between a rock and a hard place, because I do believe that it is disrespectful to appropriate imagery in that way,” Nepinak told the CBC. “I am also empathetic to those people who clearly don’t have an understanding about how these sacred items become to be in our care.”
Nepinak said that the headdress is so spiritually significant that no one showing it respect would wear it to a game unless prompted by “a ceremonial purpose.” He continued, “Such as a prayer, an honour song, if the drum is present. Then I could bring an authentic headdress to the event if protocols were followed. And that normally means I am responding to a passing of tobacco. But just for the purposes of showing up with my headdress, there is no way that would ever, ever happen.”
Wheeler, for his part, didn’t appear to have soured any on his team throughout the process, saying that he will feel better if the Jets “have less neutral zone give aways tonight. (sic)”
The significance of this precedent likely won’t be lost on Chicago, who remains just outside the fiery debate about the Washington Redskins in the NFL.
The debate over their name in the last couple of years has been brought to a crescendo (it’s been going on longer than that, but has ratcheted up, particularly with their brief loss of copyright protection) and it’s brought the Blackhawks into the debate as well, forcing people to ask why they get a pass just because the Redskins’ name is arguably more offensive. The Redskins even employed dragging Chicago into the debate as a PR tactic at one point.
Nonetheless, Chicago has been given a pass for now, for one reason or another. But the debate will continue to include them and the Jets decision isn’t insignificant in the long run.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.