TAMPA, Fla. — Two former Tampa-based Off-Ice Officials are suing the National Hockey League after they claimed they were fired for reporting a supervisor's alleged racist behavior.
David Walkowiak, who lives in Hillsborough County, and James C. Watkins, who lives in Pinellas County, filed the lawsuit Monday in federal court and are seeking a jury trial.
According to the lawsuit, both Walkowiak and Watkins were employed by the NHL to work Tampa Bay Lightning games held at Amalie Arena. Walkowiak started in September 2005 and Watkins started back in 1998.
Both were fired on Feb. 27, 2020, after they say they were targeted for reporting racist comments and behavior.
Court documents state that as part of their job, Watkins and Walkowiak were required to wear a headset that allowed them, their supervisors and other NHL personnel to communicate with each other.
Among those who reportedly had the ability to communicate on the headset was Ron Brace who became the two Off-Ice Officials supervisor in 2013 and Pat DeLorenzo, Jr. who, at the time, served as the Scoring Systems Manager.
DeLorenzo, according to the lawsuit, made negative racial comments about NHL African-American hockey players and Sonya Bryson-Kirksey who sings the National Anthem at Bolts games at Amalie Arena.
"DeLorenzo also regularly made racially offensive comments about African Americans, referring to African-Americans as 'n*****s,'" the lawsuit reads.
In one specific instance, Watkins and Walkowiak claim, that while in the booth with co-workers on Dec. 14, 2019, DeLorenzo told them "chocolate" was his code word for "n****a" in reference to an NHL team with African American players that were on the ice that night.
"[Watkins and Walkowiak], as well as their supervisor Brace, and other NHL employees, hockey players, coaches, entertainers, and crew working at the stadium during hockey games, were exposed to DeLorenzo’s intentionally racist comments," the lawsuit states.
According to court documents, Watkins and Walkowiak opposed the racially discriminatory comments that occurred "for several years" and even reported their complaints to Brace.
The efforts allegedly went unheard by both the NHL and Brace.
The lawsuit claims "the racial comments became so offensive and so pervasive" that in November and December of 2019 the two men learned that another co-worker had started recording DeLorenzo's comments at work.
Among the comments caught on video was DeLorenzo saying “once you go black, you never go back," and stating that others were “internally r******d” during hockey games at Amalie Arena," according to the lawsuit.
After making their complaints known to their supervisor and the League, Watkins says he was called by the NHL's vice president of human resources, attorney and senior counsel to be informed that Brace had also "made complaints about him."
Watkins added that he disclosed DeLorenzo's alleged comments and actions to the NHL and informed them of the videos in a co-worker's possession. Following the conversation, the lawsuit states the NHL learned that Walkowiak was also a witness to DeLorenzo's alleged racist conduct and Brace's alleged inaction.
Watkins and Walkowiak also say they shared concerns with the NHL about being terminated as a form of retaliation for reporting DeLorenzo.
"In fact, Brace had previously told [Watkins and Walkowiak], and others, that if the NHL received complaints, [NHL] would find a way to terminate them," the lawsuit reads.
According to court documents, that policy was reinforced by David Baker, Sr. Director of Off-Ice Officials, in addition to Brace's boasting of the "close relationship" he had with the NHL's vice president of human resources and how "she would fire anyone he wanted."
Despite their concerns, Watkins and Walkowiak claim NHL officials assured them they would be protected by the League's "whistle-blower policy" and would not be retaliated against.
But the two say that wasn't the case. The lawsuit states that after sending six videos to the NHL's attorney and vice president of human resources, Watkins and Walkowiak "were the target of a proactive, vengeful, campaign by [NHL] to terminate them for reporting the offensive and discriminatory behavior of DeLorenzo."
Other claims outlined in the lawsuit state the NHL attorney "instructed that the video recordings be destroyed" and that the NHL went back to DeLorenzo to "find any comment of [Watkins and Walkowiak's] that could be painted as discrimination by [the NHL.]"
According to the lawsuit, DeLorenzo and Brace were terminated by the NHL on or about Jan. 2, 2020. Almost two months later, Watkins and Walkowiak say the NHL terminated them for "pretextual reasons."
In the end, the lawsuit claims the two were fired for alleged involvement in a group message thread of DeLorenzo's from an unspecified amount of years prior.
When requesting to be provided a copy of the alleged text, Walkowialk claims the NHL refused to provide one and responded to questions of the authenticity of the message with: “We believe the text message to be authentic.”
"[Watkins and Walkowiak] were terminated due to their opposition to and engagement in protected activity related to DeLorenzo’s racist and offensive behavior, as well as reporting the racist and offensive behavior on multiple occasions and participating in the investigation of those complaints," the lawsuit reads.
10 Tampa Bay reached out to the Tampa Bay Lighting for comment. A spokesperson provided the following statement:
"Vinik Sports Group does not comment on any claims or litigation."
The NHL has also been contacted for comment. This story will be updated once we hear back.