The American Hockey League is touted to be the best ‘developmental hockey league’ in the world. Its goal is to serve as the primary player development collaboration for the betterment of National Hockey League hopefuls.
This means the AHL serves as a stepping stone for players following the conclusion of their Canadian Hockey League careers, as well as that of American college hockey players, and everything in between. It is geared towards preparing players for the day to day rigours of an NHL schedule.
The American League provides each NHL team with an affiliate to which its players can be summoned up to the big club at any point – as long as proper NHL contracts are in place, that is. The AHL does a fantastic job at gearing its players towards competition at the highest of professional levels.
Serving as the second-best professional hockey league in North America, the AHL has done a noteworthy job in development amongst many current NHL superstars, including the likes of Kyle Connor, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Darnell Nurse, John Gibson and Zach Werenski, to name a few.
What the AHL has also continued to do is show its players instances of targeted racism.
“Pardon me?” you ask.
Shift your attention to that of 25-year-old Bokondji Imama – or Boko Imama, as he likes to be called.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound forward’s parents immigrated to Montreal, QB. from the Republic of Congo prior to his birth. He turned a five-year Quebec Major Junior Hockey League run with Baie-Comeau Drakkar and the Saint John Sea Dogs into a career in professional hockey when he stepped on the ice with the AHL’s Ontario Reign for the 2017-18 season.
Imama played 38 games with the Reign, before bouncing between the ‘A’ and the ECHL the following season – as is typically the case in the first full season in the career of a late-round NHL draft pick (Imama went 180th overall in the sixth round of the 2015 draft to the Tampa Bay Lightning).
He found his form by 2019-20 and stuck with Ontario through the 2020-21 season, to which he even served as an alternate captain. Having earned roughly $400K through his first four seasons of professional hockey, Imama signed a league-minimum $750K contract with the Arizona Coyotes back on August 6.
He did so to mentally escape the roadblock that was a well-documented, racially-charged incident between himself and Brandon Manning. Manning – the same player who intentionally broke Edmonton Oilers’ star forward Connor McDavid’s collarbone in December of 2016 – was sent to the AHL in February of 2019 and seemingly forgotten about.
That is, until he made headlines for directing a racial term towards Imama while on the ice in competition in late-January of 2020.
Manning was suspended for just five games by the American Hockey League.
“Last night I made comments to an opposing player that were stupid and offensive. After the game, I spoke with the opposing player in person, which I’m very grateful for,” Manning said following the incident. “He allowed me to apologize and I took full responsibility for what I said. To say I’ve learned from this situation is an understatement and I promise to be better.”
Imama may have “allowed” Manning to apologize, but he certainly took it back out on him the next time they met. In just his second game back from suspension, Manning threw down with Imama in a centre-ice tilt, to which Imama clearly got the better of the 29-year-old Manning.
I could watch Bokondji Imama beat the wheels off Brandon Manning all day. pic.twitter.com/KnEayx1qA3
— World Hockey Report (@worldhockeyrpt) February 8, 2020
Following the incident, Imama released the following statement through both his agent and social media, asking for privacy.
“I have taken some time to reflect on what transpired on the ice against Bakersfield Monday night. What happened is unfortunate for everyone. No matter how intense or heated a game gets, there is no room for this in our game and no excuse. I am very proud to be an African Canadian hockey player and to stand for all other players that are in the same situation as me.
I would like to thank the Los Angeles Kings and Ontario Reign, Edmonton Oilers and Bakersfield Condors for their professionalism in helping me handle this situation. Last but not least, I cannot thank my family and friends for their continued love and support.
At this time, I will not make any further statements or comments and I would very much appreciate if those wishes were respected.”
A heart-wrenching experience for anyone, it wasn’t the first instance of racism that Imama had experienced through sport. And unfortunately, it wasn’t the last, even within the professional realm.
On January 12, in a game against the San Jose Barracuda, Imama was once again the subject of a directed racial gesture. This time it was Barracuda forward Krystof Hrabik, who walked around the ice in a manner of imitating a monkey.
Former Tri-City Americans captain Krystof Hrabik has been suspended 30 games by the American Hockey League for using a racial gesture towards Boko Imama in a game between the San Jose Barracuda and Tucson Roadrunners on January 12.
Good riddance. Why does this keep happening.
— Carter Brooks (@CBrooksie84) January 21, 2022
Hrabik has already served three of his required 30 game suspension handed out by the league on Friday. Currently eligible to return to action on April 3, Hrabik has been offered the opportunity to apply for a reduced suspension after March 12, or 21 games into his ban.
“The AHL stands with Boko Imama,” AHL commissioner Scott Howson said in a statement. “It is unfair that any player should be subjected to comments or gestures based on their race; they should be judged only on their ability to perform as a player on the ice, as a teammate in the locker room and as a member of their community.”
The AHL may stand with Imama, and the inflated 30-game ban certainly proves its desire to uphold its rules, but the penalty, which will likely be reduced, is not enough for the vile action.
Also included in the league’s statement is the following line:
“Hrabik will be provided the opportunity to work with the National Hockey League’s Player Inclusion Committee to participate in education and training on racism and inclusion.”
Following such an action, Hrabik has not been mandated to educate himself on the subject of racism and player inclusion, but rather presented with a choice if he is interested to do so or not.
“The AHL believes that individual inclusion learning is a key element of improving league-wide culture,” the AHL release read. “The American Hockey League is committed to building a culture that is safe, inclusive, and free from abuse, harassment and all forms of unethical behaviour or misconduct.”
Brutal. How many times does Boko Imama have to put up with this bullshit!? I keep hearing that there’s no place in the game for this, well clearly there has been. 30 games is an improvement from 5, but accountability and education will hopefully prevent this stuff. https://t.co/ZJiGxyXd4B
— JT Brown (@JTBrown23) January 21, 2022
Until players of similar backgrounds to Imama can last a career within the league without dealing with a racial attack, the AHL will continue to fail. Forget a career, but how about two years? Imama’s plead for privacy was released on January 22, 2020. Nearly two years to the day, his second ‘reported’ aggressor received his suspension.