Before Latrell Harris was a professional lacrosse player, he had hockey on his mind.
Harris played the sport it seems every Canadian tries, and he was even drafted in the OHL. As a teen, he chose to pursue the box after the ice melted, but for years, hockey was an important focus for the athlete.
But there were times he felt it wasn’t for him.
“In my region, there were most definitely not a lot of Black hockey players around, not Black people in the hockey rinks walking in or out,” he said. “So, I had a lot of problems growing up being a hockey player.”
Harris is from St. Catharines, Ontario, which was 2.9 percent Black in 2016, according to Statistics Canada. He said he experienced racial abuse when he was a kid, and hockey was one the main stages for the attacks. It complicated things in the young person’s mind.
“A lot of people would say certain things to me, and at a young age, I didn’t really understand what I did for them to say that,” Harris explained. “After the game, I’d feel emotional, I’d get home and break down.”
He would bottle it up until he got home for fear of looking weak in front of his peers.
“I didn’t want to let my hockey team down, and I didn’t want to miss any games,” Harris said. “I didn’t want to look soft if I came off the ice bawling my eyes out.”
He would confess his feelings to his mother, who would do what she could for her son in that moment. There was one instance in particular Harris remembered from his childhood.
“This kid told me I’m Black, I shouldn’t be playing hockey. He put a basketball in my hands, teasing me, saying stupid comments,” Harris explained. “It got to me, because I was so aggravated and didn’t know what to do. I came home, I started to bawl, and I told my mom, ‘I’m not good enough to be a hockey player, I’m the worst on my team, I don’t know if I want to play hockey anymore.’ She looked at me like, ‘Oh my gosh, who said something to you?’”
His mum, Kerry Anne, listed off names of Black hockey players and did what she could to keep her son’s mind off what happened. Latrell Harris said she would do this when he needed, trying her best to be the shoulder he needed in an impossible situation.
“I don’t know what you can do,” Harris said. “It’s just saying the right things, being there for somebody that’s going through that and making sure their head is clear. Letting them know it’s going to be alright.”
With his mother’s help, Harris overcame the hatred he received and propelled forward in hockey. He was a bigger kid, and along with his skin color, he would receive verbal assaults for his size. Around eighth grade, he began to do something about it, and it led to a major validation.
“I started working out in my garage at home a lot, like every day,” Harris explained. “I later got drafted by the Guelph Storm, and I think it took a lot of people by surprise, because I wasn’t the number one player on my team who would carry the puck up the ice.
“I think that really helped me with my hockey mentality as well, because I realized I can do it,” he added. “I got noticed by a great organization in the OHL, and now I’m here, so just prove yourself, Latrell.”
Latrell Harris ultimately chose lacrosse, but he did so on his own volition – not because his amount of melanin chose for him.
It has been years since he has experienced anything like what he did as a child, Harris said. The racial abuse stopped around when he entered high school, and it has been about 10 years since he has dealt with others openly discriminating against him.
Harris said positive steps have been taken, noting that in the NLL, for example, if a player were caught saying some of the things he heard growing up, fines, suspensions and expulsions are all on the table. He said that behavior isn’t as tolerated in the game today as it was then.
Still, that doesn’t mean the world is holding hands, but Harris is better equipped to cope with however racism rears its ugly head.
“As I get older, I really start to realize this world is still not okay with having different races around or having different races in cities where we haven’t seen it before,” he said. “But there’s no way I’m letting it affect me.”