Gene Frenette: Jacksonville Icemen player accused of racist gesture puts franchise in tough spot

·5 min read
After an on-ice fight, South Carolina Stingrays defenseman Jordan Subban (5) is held by linesman Shane Gustafson while Jacksonville Icemen defenseman Jacob Panetta (15) is face-down on the ice engaged in a fight with another Stingrays player Saturday night at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. The ECHL has suspended Panetta, who was released by the Icemen, after Subban accused him of making a racist monkey gesture at him
After an on-ice fight, South Carolina Stingrays defenseman Jordan Subban (5) is held by linesman Shane Gustafson while Jacksonville Icemen defenseman Jacob Panetta (15) is face-down on the ice engaged in a fight with another Stingrays player Saturday night at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. The ECHL has suspended Panetta, who was released by the Icemen, after Subban accused him of making a racist monkey gesture at him

It’s beyond shameful what Icemen defenseman Jacob Panetta was accused of doing Saturday night during a skirmish with the South Carolina Stingrays: making a racist gesture in a confrontation with Black player Jordan Subban at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.

The despicable alleged action, which is really a crime on humanity, has no place in sports competition or anywhere else.

Not only did the East Coast Hockey League respond correctly by immediately suspending Panetta, pending an investigation, for being accused of making a monkey gesture – video shows him appearing to raise his arms to his side while staring at Subban – but the Jacksonville organization made no attempt to defend their player and released him on Sunday.

The Icemen’s ensuing 1-0 victory over the Stingrays does nothing to erase the maddening embarrassment of having a player accused of such a reprehensible act. Sadly, the players and coaching staff have to live with whatever stain this incident puts on a franchise that prides itself on cultivating positive community relations.

More: Gene Frenette: Icemen set to become long-term hockey fixture in Jacksonville sports scene

As expected, Icemen president Bob Ohrablo declined to comment publicly Monday until the ECHL investigation is complete, referring only to the statement issued previously by team owner Andy Kaufmann.

The Icemen initially put out a statement saying they were cooperating with the ECHL investigation, then put out another release in less than two hours to say Panetta was being released.

“To be clear, our core values as an ownership group include one love and zero tolerance for racism or any other forms of hate against any group whatsoever,” said Kaufmann. “The platform that is the Jacksonville Icemen is one that is more than just about hockey, but our love for the community and each other.

“On behalf of the entire Icemen organization, we apologize to anyone who was offended and look forward to beginning the process of healing together as one. Thank you.”

Stingrays president Rob Concannon said his organization was “appalled by the incident.” This ugly confrontation was another grim reminder that despite all efforts to eradicate or minimize racism in all segments of our society, it exists far more than we care to acknowledge.

Nobody can rightfully expect any minor-league hockey game to be fight-free. Truthfully, for many of the fans in attendance, they likely look upon the occasional fisticuffs as part of the sport’s entertainment value.

But it’s one thing to have opposing players throwing off the gloves and punching each other until the officials can separate them. It’s quite another to have one of those players adding to the on-ice tension by making racial gestures or uttering racial vulgarities.

The Icemen won’t say it publicly, but the organization felt compelled to rid themselves of Panetta, who was acquired by the club toward the end of last season. If nothing else, just to try and minimize the public relations damage of its name being attached to such a vile incident.

There’s no denying the Icemen were repulsed by what happened. It’s truly a shame if the franchise takes a PR hit, temporary or not, over this event because the blame for this alleged gesture lies with Panetta.

No self-respecting organization would tolerate such contemptible behavior from any player, which is why the 26-year-old from Belleville, Ontario, got his walking papers almost immediately.

While Panetta denied he was making a monkey gesture in a since-deleted social media account, it could also be he knows this incident is a potential career-killer for him and went into damage control mode.

Of course, what ramped up the attention of this incident is the fight involved the younger brother of high-profile Black hockey player P.K. Subban, a New Jersey Devils defenseman and three-time NHL All-Star.

This news wouldn’t have received a fraction of the publicity had it involved a more anonymous Black player – albeit the act would be equally shameful – but the Subban brothers made their feelings known on social media with the appropriate disgust.

Jordan admitted trying to engage Panetta in a fight after a Stingrays’ player, Andrew Cherniwchan, made contact with Icemen goaltender Justin Kapelmaster, which triggered the fight between the teams.

“As soon as I began to turn my back, he started making monkey gestures at me, so I punched him in the face multiple times and he turtled like the coward he is,” Jordan tweeted.

Saturday’s incident came just one day after the higher-level American Hockey League handed down a 30-game suspension to San Jose Barracuda forward Krystof Hrabik for taunting Tucson Roadrunners player Boko Imama, who is Black, by imitating the movements of a monkey in a Jan. 12 game.

P.K. Subban weighed in on the topic with his 1 million Twitter followers, saying: “With everything that has gone on in the past couple years in the world, I’ll say with all due respect to everyone who has an opinion, this isn’t a mistake. We all know what’s OK and what’s not. Even your own teammates wanted to see you get your clock cleaned. This happens a lot and it never gets exposed in the lower leagues.”

The ECHL is expected to deliver its verdict soon, and you have to think the pressure to come down hard on Panetta will be enormous, particularly in light of the AHL penalty on Hrabik.

Unfortunately for the Icemen, this embarrassing act came just five days after it was basking in the glow of hosting its first ECHL All-Star Classic, which was televised on the NHL Network and put a positive spotlight on the team and the city of Jacksonville.

And then a few seconds of utter stupidity by Panetta, at least by what the video shows, unfairly casts the Icemen in a different light just because one of its own players tried to allegedly dehumanize an opponent.

The Jacksonville Icemen don’t deserve to have the franchise stained long-term by such an inexcusable act. Hopefully, enough of their fans believe the goodwill the Icemen have tried to generate in the community overrides one appalling lapse of judgment.

Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Jacksonville Icemen player accused of racist gesture puts franchise in tough spot