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HOCKEY REMAINS BEHIND THE TIMES IN RACE RELATIONS

Times are supposed to be different. They are not.

Rumun Ndur will acknowledge race is still an issue in the National Hockey League.

"I don't even like to talk about it because it hasn't really been a problem for me yet," he said. "At least not at this level, but yes, it's out there. I've seen what's happened to Pete (Florida Panthers player Peter Worrell) and I understand what he's doing. I guess I would handle it the same way."

Like Ndur, the aspiring Buffalo Sabres' defenseman, Worrell is black. He's a young left winger trying to make his way in the largely white National Hockey League. There are more black players than ever before in hockey, but it's still a number you can count without using your toes. For all of them, it hasn't been easy.

Two players, Chris Simon and Craig Berube, have been suspended for racial comments directed at blacks. Another, Chris Gratton of the Philadelphia Flyers, reportedly called Worrell an (expletive) ape last week. Gratton denied it, but videotape played over and over in the City of Brotherly Love strongly suggests he's not telling the truth.

Earlier this season, Panthers management claimed some players on the Tampa Bay roster directed similar remarks toward Worrell. Each time, Worrell has chosen to downplay the issue. He writes it off as stuff said in the heat of the moment.

Does it hurt? Certainly. But Worrell has said he doesn't want to be a champion for black rights in hockey. He simply wants to play the game.

"I think I would handle it the same way," said Ndur, a native of Nigeria who was raised in Canada. "I can't say I've experienced it at this level, but I've seen it before -- in juniors, at the AHL (American Hockey League) level. You hear it and it kind of surprises you because you think people are beyond that. Especially people in sports. I love sports. I watch sports all the time . . . and I can't imagine that things like that go on in football or basketball. It just seems in those leagues it's unheard of."

Sports was supposed to be the first and strongest bridge for respect and understanding between people of different color or ethnic background. It's long been a given that you were accepted in a football locker room for what you could do on the field. The same can be said of baseball and basketball.

Certainly there was a time when that was not the case, but in baseball it was half a century ago. One likes to think that in the struggle for equality, the sports world was conquered a long time ago. How can it still be different in hockey?

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff insists it isn't. He says he hasn't heard any slurs directed at Ndur or Worrell, whom he coached briefly in Florida.

Ruff said it might have been worse 20 years ago. He played here when Tony McKegney was one of the first blacks to play regularly in the NHL. He acknowledged players could be harsh back then, especially teammates.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time players show a great deal of respect," he said. "Maybe a couple of times things are said that are inexcusable, but I don't think it's as bad as it's being made out to be."

Ruff is probably right, but Worrell and Ndur were in diapers when Buffalo's first black player started with the Sabres. Twenty-two years later it would seem there hasn't been a whole lot of progress.

"It happens in hockey," Ndur said. "I don't know why and it's really tough to talk about. You look at all the sports and hockey is different in so many ways, but you wouldn't think things like that would still be going on. I love hockey, but I also kind of get a sense that it's still like it was 10 or 20 years ago.

"Personally I'm treated well here and I've never had a coach who has put me in a difficult situation, but I know others who have. It's surprising really. I don't feel I have to be the next Jackie Robinson, but it is to a point where it (racism) is not unusual."

It would be easy to blame hockey players for that , but there's a bigger issue in all of this. This is something that's been handed down through the generations.

That hockey is still a stone-age sport in that regard isn't just an indictment of the game. It's an indictment of the people who gave their sons to it, too. In that sense, we haven't come very far at all.

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