William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past eight years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles University of Ottawa forward Yvan Mongo, who has developed an anti-racism program with a personal touch.
Yvan Mongo was appalled by the death of George Floyd, a Black man whose life ended with a knee on his neck while in custody of the Minneapolis police on May 25.
Mongo, a forward on the University of Ottawa men’s hockey team, wanted to turn his emotions about Floyd’s death into an action that address racism in society and in hockey. But what to do?
The answer came during a telephone conversation with University of Ottawa coach Patrick Grandmaitre.
“My coach, Pat, was calling me just to check up on me and see how I was dealing with everything going on,” Mongo said. “The conversation went toward my involvement in our community. I always wanted to do something, but he kind of pushed the idea that he could help me do something. Right then and there, we started throwing out ideas of how I can get involved.”
The result was Mongo’s Brave Buddies, a program that lets young people of all backgrounds in the Ottawa area attend a team game or practice, spend time with Mongo on the ice and have a conversation with him about shared experiences.
“We created the idea of kids coming to see me and just having a regular conversation and how they feel, whether they’ve had to go through anything, me telling my experience,” said the 23-year-old junior from Gatineau, Quebec. “Sometimes it’s easier for kids to listen to someone they identify to or idolize in some sense. I felt like if I could have that conversation with them, maybe whatever advice I’d have for them would maybe stick a little bit longer.”
Unfortunately, like most things in the hockey world, the start of Mongo’s program has been stalled by the coronavirus pandemic. Ontario University Athletics hockey teams aren’t playing in 2020-21 after the organization announced in October that it had cancelled all OUA-sanctioned sports programming and championships up to March 31, 2021, due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. U Sports, the national governing body of university sports in Canada, also announced in October that it cannot offer 2020-21 winter national championships because of the pandemic.
But Mongo is holding out hope that his program can still get off the ground this season if the coronavirus loosens its grip. Effective Jan. 1, 2021, OAU will allow university athletics departments to determine whether they can participate in member-driven competitions or exhibition games in accordance with individual school policies and within regional and public health guidelines.
“If we’re allowed to play games, I would still like to get the program going,” he said.
Mongo thought about starting his program virtually; instead, he opted to wait until people can attend his team’s practices or games, adhering to whatever health safety policies that would be put in place.
“I want the program to be an event for the kids so that they remember it, so it really stays with them when they grow up,” said Mongo, who has scored 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) in 54 collegiate games and was the fifth-leading scorer on the team last season with 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 27 games. “I feel it wouldn’t be successful online because they wouldn’t get the full experience of in-person conversation, in-person contact.”
Grandmaitre is anxious to start the program as well. He said he believes it would be a learning experience for his players as well as for Ottawa-area youth.
“I think with all these things happening, we as white male hockey players have experienced hockey in one way where Yvan has experienced minor hockey and elite hockey in another way,” Grandmaitre said. “Perhaps this would allow our players to see a different reality, to maybe live through Yvan’s experiences or opening our doors to Mongo’s Brave Buddies to show our guys that it’s not the same reality that they have to face on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s at school, any walk of life, or in the sport that we practice every day a year.”
Mongo, whose parents are from Cameroon and settled in Canada more than 30 years ago, said he has endured his share of racism while advancing in hockey.
The forward enrolled at the University of Ottawa after he played 234 games for Blainville-Boisbriand and Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League from 2014-18 and scored 121 points (52 goals, 69 assists).
Mongo said he’s been called the N-word three times in his career, the first time as an Atom-level player and again in his first bantam season. The most recent incident occurred in 2017-18 during his final QMJHL season with Drummondville.
“That one really hurt,” he said. “That was at a point in my career where I thought I had gained respect from other players around the league. That was really hard. I thought we were at a point that people understand that this is not acceptable in hockey or life in general.”
University of Ottawa players and coaches recently showed how much they respect Mongo by naming him team captain for 2020-21.
“It’s a huge honor because it just makes me feel that people have put a huge amount of trust in me,” he said. “To know that people hold me in high regard, it means a lot to me, especially from my coaches and my teammates. I appreciate them and [being named captain is] a sign that they appreciate what I bring to the table every day.”
Photos courtesy: Greg Mason and Greg Kolz, University Ottawa Varsity Athletics