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Tammi Lynch was angry. She didn’t know exactly how to respond to news that her friend’s son, Divyne Apollon II, had been racially taunted during a hockey game, but she knew she had to do something. When Lynch logged on her computer the morning after the incident, she opened Microsoft Word and used a template to design a sticker.
That sticker, which is a circle with the word “Racism” in the middle, and a hockey stick as a slash mark going through it, quickly made the rounds. Then it became a movement.
The “design kind of became the face of not only the story but of the anger against what had happened,” Lynch says in a phone interview. “People at the rink started asking for them. Parents started asking, ‘Can I have more?’ … People really wanted them.”
This week, the NHL named Lynch, an Elliott City, Maryland resident who co-founded the non-profit Players Against Hate along with Apollon’s father, Divyne Apollo Sr., as one of its three finalists for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.
The award is named after O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL. Last year, the NHL selected Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club founder Neal Henderson as one of the award’s finalists.
“I was super surprised,” Lynch says of the honor. “I really didn’t think that I was going to be a finalist. I was just, I was pretty shocked. In terms of what it means to me, I’m grateful for the increased exposure. I guess I’m honored that people think this is important enough to give it exposure, so in that sense, I’m really, really happy. But the whole reason we started this isn’t for a happy reason.”
Back in January, Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak published an article detailing how opposing players taunted the 13-year-old Apollon, who is black, with racial epithets and chants of, “Get off the ice! Go play basketball!” at a hockey tournament.
“It happened in Hagerstown earlier in the season, too,” the older Apollon told Dvorak. “The N-word. The basketball chants. We had a team chat and he explained the history of how it happened before.”
News of the incident, delivered by Apollon’s father to the team’s parents, brought tears to Lynch’s eyes. Her son also played on Apollon’s travel hockey team based in Odenton, Maryland. Growing up in Howard County, Lynch, who is white, says she has been exposed to a diversity of culture and races.
“That’s played into my sense of right or wrong,” the 52-year-old middle school special education teacher explains.
Apollon’s teammates have plastered their gear with Lynch’s sticker, and shortly after Dvorak’s article, the Washington Capitals invited Apollon and his teammates to a game.
“For me to meet [Apollon] and look him in the face as someone who’s gone through it and can talk to him and share my experience is important to me,” Devante Smith-Pelly, one of the few black players in the NHL, told Taryn Bray of WashingtonCaps.com. “It’s a pretty gross thing to be happening.”
The past few months have been a whirlwind for Lynch. When O’Ree called her to inform her about her nomination, Lynch reacted with confusion while walking around at the MedStar Capitals Iceplex practice facility in Arlington. In took her a few moments to realize what was going on.
“I’m looking around like why are you here, how am I going to find you,” Lynch says. “I was shocked and in disbelief.”
The non-profit started off as a local effort in the D.C. area, but has evolved into an international platform to combat racism in youth sports. The website lists nearly 20 hockey clubs that support the group’s efforts. The organization helps sponsor scholarships for minority athletes and making educational material for kids.
“It really grew out of what we were seeing, that we gotta change the mindset, that we’re not going to stand for hate in the game or in the stands,” Lynch says. “We gotta teach the kids and work with the organizations to stand up to the hate and make the sport more diverse … We’re working toward that structural change.”
Lynch says that she has spoken to her children about what it means to “stand up for your friends,” and that as white Americans, they may be foreign to experiences that young athletes like Apollon have faced. Hockey is still very much a predominately white sport.
Growing up in a politically active family, Lynch says she had always felt too busy to live the activist life like her parents. She wouldn’t have considered herself an activist prior to this winter.
“Am I activist? Yes. Are people listening to my voice? Yes,” Lynch says. “So I’m certainly going to keep talking but at the heart of it all, I’m a mom who wouldn’t want it to happen to my kid, so I stood up to say, ‘This isn’t right.’”