MYHockey News

Hockey & Diversity: Making Strides, but More to Do

By Scott Lowe – Photo

Unfortunately, the hockey world many of us live in is one of the least diverse communities among all sports. There’s no doubt that the sport has made tremendous progress since Willie O’Ree broke the National Hockey League color barrier in 1958, but there still is plenty of work to be done.

Some of that work has been fast-forwarded in response to the recent tragic death of George Floyd, which has prompted professional athletes of all races in all sports to speak out about the racial injustice and systemic racism that still exists in today’s society.

One group of professional hockey players has stepped to the forefront in hopes of raising awareness and promoting change within the sport.

A few weeks ago, San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane, former NHL player Akim Aliu, Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, Detroit Red Wings defenseman Trevor Daley, Buffalo Sabres forward Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers forward Chris Stewart and former NHL forward Joel Ward – all athletes of color – announced the formation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance.

The Hockey Diversity Alliance was formed with the mission “to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey.” 

“Unfortunately hockey has kind of taken on this narrative as an elitist sport, much like golf used to be," Kane, who along with Aliu will head the organization, said recently, "and I think our group and our alliance is going to help try to create and give opportunities to youth that wouldn't have an opportunity to play hockey or even learn about the game.” 

A scan of NHL rosters in January showed that 43 out of 690 league players, or 6.2 percent, were persons of color. Finding exact numbers for minority participation in youth hockey is difficult since USA Hockey wasn’t tracking those numbers until fairly recently, but you can look around local rinks and it’s pretty clear on the surface that youth hockey is not a particularly inviting environment for kids who are not white.

It’s hard for young black kids who are interested in hockey to find other kids playing the sport who look like them – and even harder for them to find coaches to whom they can relate.

The good news, however, is that the NHL has invested more than $100 million in growing the game since 2015, with much of that money going toward programs that provide opportunities for young people of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds, including Hockey is for Everyone, Learn to Play and Future Goals.

In 2017 the league appointed Kim Davis, a woman of color, to the position of Executive Vice President, Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs. A respected business and philanthropic leader for more than 20 years, she had been named one of The Business Journal’s 100 Most Influential Women and became the highest-ranking female executive for the NHL.

“The NHL has long used the phrase ‘Hockey is for Everyone,’ not as a statement of reality, but as an expression of our vulnerability and a vision for the future,” Davis said in a recent article. “While the game is not renowned for its diversity, I believe it is nonetheless poised to become the most inclusive sport in the world. We will continue to work toward this vision, though we acknowledge it takes time. It requires us to be committed for the long haul. For change to occur, we need an unprecedented level of commitment, accountability and courage.”

The Hockey Diversity Alliance will operate separately from the NHL, but both sides understand the necessity of working together.

"We are supportive of all efforts that are intended to advance the role of our sport in society," Davis said. "We are hopeful that this alliance will collaborate with our NHL structured council and committees – particularly the Player Inclusion Committee – to bring ideas for change." 

Prior to the creation of the HDA, the NHL was in the process of establishing the Executive Inclusion Council, which will act on recommendations provided by the Player Inclusion Committee, the Fan Inclusion Committee and the Youth Inclusion Committee.

The league also has been lucky to have Willie O’Ree, who broke the color barrier in the NHL as a member of the Boston Bruins in 1958, serving as its Diversity Ambassador for nearly 25 years. In recent years the league has created Black Hockey History Month and the NHL Black Hockey History Tour, a mobile museum that travels throughout North America. This year the mobile museum visited 14 cities around the continent.

For many years the NHL has been aware that its continued growth and success as a top professional sports league are dependent upon the continued growth of the game at the youth level and in non-traditional hockey areas. Census estimates have shown that in 2020 40 percent of the national population will be classified as non-white, with the percentage of white citizens under the age of 18 likely to be less than 50 percent. And by 2040 there likely will be no majority race in the United States. 

If the NHL and USA Hockey aren’t ready for this demographic shift, a sport that has shown a consistent increase in youth participation in the United States during the past decade may plateau or decline. Decreasing participation eventually would lead to a declining fanbase and all of the economic hardships that go along with that.

While the push for diversity in hockey has business ramifications for professional leagues and amateur governing bodies that are well-documented, the movement has taken on a new sense of urgency in light of recent events. Providing safe and accessible havens for kids of any race to learn, grow, compete and work together is essential as we lay the foundation for future generations to inherit a world that is color blind and provides equal opportunities to all.

There still are obstacles to overcome. Hockey is not an inexpensive sport, which often can eliminate potential players of all races who don’t have the means to play. Many rinks are not conveniently located for inner-city families or families from traditionally lower-income areas.

There are more inclusive programs than ever available that allow kids from any background to try the sport, but we still need additional ways to keep those kids who fall in love with the game involved beyond those introductory opportunities. And if we truly want more minority kids to continue advancing up the youth hockey developmental ladder with legitimate aspirations of playing collegiate or professional hockey, programs that help bridge the financial gap in a sport that continues to get more expensive with each level of advancement will be key.

“We will focus downstream, on our youngest generations, with substantive programs that will have long-term, sustainable impact – building a diverse pipeline of participants, fans and employees,” wrote Davis. “This effort will involve reestablishing our relationship with youth ice hockey programs, particularly those intentionally reaching out to welcome non-traditional hockey communities. It also will include building an alliance of non-profit programs serving historically marginalized populations. And it will include a reformed approach to league and club offerings, such as Learn to Play, with greater attention paid to the families we are recruiting.”

In addition to the NHL’s efforts promoting diversity in hockey, outstanding local programs such as Ed Snider Hockey in Philadelphia, Detroit Ice Dreams, Ice Hockey in Harlem and the Fort Dupont Hockey Club in Washington, D.C. have been providing more funded opportunities for young players of varying races and economic backgrounds.

Created by former Flyers owner Ed Snider in 2005, Snider Hockey “provides underserved children from urban neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., with opportunities to play the game of ice hockey as a means to succeed in the game of life.”

Snider Hockey partnered with Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in 2010 on a $14.5 million construction project that refurbished four rinks in Philadelphia for year-round use and provided new classrooms, learning labs and public meeting spaces while upgrading the rinks to NHL standards.

The organization now provides programing for more than 3,000 boys and girls at various inner-city sites. As the program continues to grow, it has reached the point where alumni who have advanced through the program to college and professional careers are returning to serve as coaches and role models for the next generation of players.

Detroit Ice Dreams was established in 2014 by Jason McCrimmon, a former professional hockey player who got his start playing in Detroit. McCrimmon advanced through the youth and junior hockey ranks to play NCAA Division III hockey at UMass Boston before competing professionally in Europe. Upon his retirement, McCrimmon wanted provide similar opportunities for other young athletes in a sport that isn’t traditional or represented within their neighborhoods.

The program “is dedicated to promoting and subsidizing ice-related sports, mainly hockey, a non-traditional sport within our community, providing a high-quality program that provides recreational, social and mentoring support, encourages academic excellence and promotion of community involvement.” 

Detroit Ice Dreams offers programs and teams for players ranging in age from 3-18, starting with “Learn to Skate” programs and advancing to a house league featuring competitive teams in which players receive equal playing time and are taught “strong fundamental skills, while building a sense of teamwork and game strategy.”

Ice Hockey in Harlem “is a non-profit community-based organization for kids that uses the sport of hockey to promote academic achievement, responsibility, teamwork and good character.”

Established by the New York Rangers, the program started with 40 participants, has impacted thousands of inner-city New York boys and girls since 1987 and has served as model for other programs around the country. IHIH features on-ice programming three nights per week and on Saturdays, including a “Learn to Play” program for ages 4-12 and age-specific skills and game sessions for ages 4-18. Off-ice programs focus on academic achievement and character development for ages 9-13.

The Fort Dupont Hockey Club in Washington, D.C. was started after Neal Henderson had been renting ice time for kids at Fort Dupont Ice Rink during the 1970s. In 1978 he decided to found what is now the oldest minority hockey club in North America, having provided equipment and opportunities for more than 1,000 young players over the years. For his efforts, Henderson, who still coaches now into his 80s, was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame last year.

Designed for young athletes ages 8-18, the Fort Dupont Hockey Club provides local and inner-city youth skaters with the opportunity to learn the skills and fundamentals of hockey while also participating in a league. The program aims to develop young hockey players while also using hockey to “establish a sense of community, self-esteem and purpose” with the additional goals of building character, teaching life skills and promoting positive personal values. The club also allows players to travel to new cities and visit colleges in those areas.

“I was working with children for the love of the children and seeing them progress and have the opportunity to see a game that they saw on TV or came to the rink and saw, but maybe thought were not able to do it,” Henderson said in a Hockey Hall of Fame Q & A session. “And, after they found out they could have that opportunity, they took advantage of it and became successful at it. It’s been a rolling effect ever since I started. Kids have been coming and parents have been bringing their children to me. I’ve never had to put up an announcement about enrollment or anything. It’s been a constant enrollment through word of mouth.”

So, yes, the sport of hockey is moving in the right direction. Things have gotten better, but the situation is far from fixed.

Those of us who truly love the sport and have invested a good portion of our lives into it, have desperately wanted to see it grow as much as possible for a long time. We love introducing new young players and their families to the game and providing opportunities for anyone who is interested, because we know once someone sees hockey in person and steps on the ice to try it, he or she will be hooked.

Thanks to the NHL and people like Ed Snider, Jason McCrimmon and Neal Henderson, hockey has become more accessible to people of all races and economic backgrounds than ever before. Anyone who has seen the NHL Learn to Play and Hockey is for Everyone programs knows what a difference-maker those opportunities can be, and the sport is fortunate to have them.

And there are others out there volunteering their time to provide similar opportunities – too many to name here, unfortunately. But they are out there, fighting the good fight every day to provide new and equal opportunities for young people of all races and backgrounds. Just do a Google search, and you should find something in your area.

Over the past several weeks, with awareness about racial injustice and systemic racism at an all-time high, the question most often heard around the world has been, “What can I do to help?”

Well, if you’re a hockey family or a player or a fan, find a local organization that is growing the game among non-traditional communities. Volunteer your time and get out on the ice. Donate some of that equipment sitting in your garage so that someone else can enjoy the sport that has brought you so much joy. Make a financial contribution or sponsor a player.

Every little bit counts. If we all make an effort, positive change is not only possible, it’s virtually guaranteed.

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