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Jax Icemen fans split over team's response after player was suspended for racist gesture

Jacob Subban, Stingrays player No. 5 (bottom left) got booed by Jacksonville Icemen fans during the Feb. 20 game.
Patrick O'Donoughue
Jacob Subban, Stingrays player No. 5 (bottom left) got booed by Jacksonville Icemen fans during the Feb. 20 game.

Fans have always booed and jeered at sporting events, whether it’s at opponents, officials or their own team. At the Feb. 20 Jacksonville Icemen game, though, one of the hockey team’s supporters felt other fans were taking the expression too far.

It was the first time the Icemen faced the South Carolina Stingrays since the incident that led to former Icemen player Jacob Panetta getting suspended from the ECHL.

The fan, Patrick O’Donoughue, says fans were raining boos down on only one particular Stingrays player, Jordan Subban, whenever he touched the puck. Subban is the only Black player on the Stingrays, and Patrick felt sickened by what he heard and saw.

“I was disgusted and didn’t want to be there anymore,” O’Donoughue said.

This comes on the heels of the incident involving Subban and Panetta.

During the Jan. 22 matchup, a scuffle between players began after a collision between a Stingray player and the Icemen goalie. During the scuffle, Subban tried to engage Panetta in a fight. Subban alleges that Panetta used a racist gesture toward him — imitating a monkey.

A video of the Jan. 22 incident circulated on the internet and prompted condemnation from around the world of hockey. Subban’s brother and NHL defenseman P.K. Subban retweeted the video, saying he felt Panetta wouldn’t get proper punishment for the gesture.

Panetta in a statement said that he never intended the gesture to be racist and that it was a “strongman” gesture that he had directed at several players during his playing time. The ECHL eventually suspended Panetta for the remainder of the season, but he will be allowed to apply for reinstatement on March 18 if he successfully completes a program with the National Hockey League Player Inclusion Committee.

Icemen President Bob Ohrablo said the team has been focused on helping players and members of the organization understand and learn from the January incident.

“We believe that hockey is for everyone,” Ohrablo said.

He encouraged fans to reach out to the team about any situation they feel needs to be addressed.

Not all fans agree with O’Donoughue that the league handled the Panetta incident the right way.

O’Donoughue noticed several fans were wearing T-shirts that said “I stand with Panetta,” appearing to show support for Panetta and his side of the story. The shirts seem to have been organized through a fan group called the Jacksonville Icemen Puckheads. No one from the group would comment for this story when WJCT News reached out on Facebook.

O’Donoughue said that at one point he spoke to one fan who was booing Subban about why they were booing. The fan expressed similar sentiments, feeling that the gesture Panetta made was not racist and that the team and league acted hastily in suspending Panetta.

O’Donoughue says fans need to understand that just because they don’t agree, they need to consider the effect of their actions on players like Subban — and on others watching the team.

Excessive booing toward the only Black player in the rink? “Hockey needs to go out of its way to stamp out this sort of behavior to make the game more inclusive. And the Iceman and ECHL need to condemn the behavior of the fans,” he said.