Tammi Lynch of Maryland up for NHL award for starting ‘Players Against Hate’

May 3, 2019

First, Tammi Lynch’s son Jacob told her about the fight at that day’s game, which involved his friend Divyne Apollon II, his teammate on the Metro Maple Leafs youth hockey club. Lynch’s husband, recording the game as a volunteer, happened to get the fight on video.

Then came the texts from Apollon’s father, explaining what the opposing team said to the Maple Leafs’ lone black player that prompted the fight: The N-word. “Go play basketball.” Monkey sounds. All game long.

“I immediately was so angry about it,” Lynch told The Washington Times. “Then Divyne (Sr.) and I started having our own private text, and I felt like I had to do something ... I couldn’t just sit there and say, ‘I’m sorry this happened today.’”

Lynch wanted to do more. Soon, the Players Against Hate movement was born.

For her efforts in founding the movement, Lynch was named a finalist for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award. Public voting for the award is open through May 5 on NHL.com/OReeAward.

The league says the award is meant to honor a person or organization that “has worked to make a positive impact on his or her community, culture or society to make people better through hockey.”

“We didn’t plan on starting a movement,” Lynch said. “It just kind of grew organically out of the incident that happened with Divyne.”

Lynch, an Ellicott City, Maryland native and special education teacher by day, wants Players Against Hate to address racism in hockey and bring about change in a sport that is overwhelmingly white. Though the movement is only a few months old, Lynch plans for it to support scholarships for players of color and develop educational materials about race for hockey programs to use.

Youth players, Lynch feels, aren’t the only ones who need to be on board with that education.

“It certainly involves changing the mindset of a lot of adults, getting adults to see themselves more as allies instead of, ‘Not my problem,’” Lynch said.

Fortunately, the movement has allies in the NHL, including with the Washington Capitals, who are promoting Players Against Hate as well as Lynch’s nomination for the O’Ree Award.

When Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly heard about what Apollon endured, he and teammate John Carlson reached out with a message of encouragement and invited Apollon and the Maple Leafs to a Capitals game. The team got to meet players in the locker room afterward.

Smith-Pelly is black, and he is no stranger to ignorant chants saying he belonged on a basketball court rather than a hockey rink. He faced those exact taunts from fans in Chicago during the 2017-18 season.

“There’s people who are gonna think that way and it’s pretty closed-minded, dumb way to think,” Smith-Pelly said in January. “The message (to the Maple Leafs is) it’s amazing that you guys stood up and you guys have the right mindset, and you guys aren’t falling into the trap of thinking the way those other kids did.”

Now Players Against Hate is both the name of a broader movement and a 501(c)(3) organization. It’s raising money by selling helmet stickers and pucks with its logo a red hockey stick crossing out the word “racism.”

On Players Against Hate’s website, Lynch describes herself as “a newly declared activist and movement starter.” As she describes where she wants the movement to go, she acknowledges how tall a task it would be to eradicate racism, even from one subculture like hockey.

“I don’t know that there’s a simple answer to such a complex and systemic issue,” she said. “It’s certainly one that’s out there in this country in so many more ways than just hockey.”

The NHL established the Willie O’Ree Award last year, and for two years running, one of the three finalists has come out of the District-Maryland-Virginia area. Neal Henderson, founder of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club in Washington, was nominated last year.

Lynch was shocked when O’Ree the first black man to play in the NHL personally called her to inform her she was named a finalist. She originally thought O’Ree was calling to speak to Apollon, whose family was with the Lynches at a tryout that day.

“Then when he said that, I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Lynch said. “It was just a shock. I was not even thinking that that would happen.”