ST. PAUL, Minn. – About 81 percent of players in the NBA are people of color. In the NFL, about 73 percent. MLS, 54 percent. MLB, 43 percent.
Missing from that list: the NHL. Its numbers aren’t as easily measured, as the NHL doesn’t release players’ racial backgrounds, saying it doesn’t want those numbers taken out of context.
The NHL has been working on its diversity practices for nearly 25 years to overcome barriers such as hockey’s cost and its accessibility in warmer climates where the sport is hard to find. The league also created a leadership position about a year ago to foster change around diversity and inclusion in both the NHL and hockey’s grassroots. From building ball hockey courts in southern cities, to collaborating with USA Hockey, to educating youth players about the destructiveness of homophobic language and racial slurs, the NHL is invested in expanding its community.
But is it enough?
“It’s kind of a tough question,” Wild forward J.T. Brown said. “Yes, they’re doing a good job. But there’s always more that I feel like can be done.”
The Wild hosted their “Hockey is for Everyone” theme night at its Monday home game, as part of an NHL-wide campaign to promote inclusivity. Several Wild players, for example, wrapped their sticks in rainbow LGBTQ pride tape for warmups on the ice. The league’s stated goal for the campaign: to welcome people regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation or socio-economic status.
“I know if you look at the numbers of minority players in the NHL, people say, ‘Oh, that’s not many,’ ” said William Douglas, who runs The Color of Hockey blog about diversity in the sport. “… It’s like a duck on the water. The duck looks like it’s not doing anything. But check underneath. Well, he’s paddling for all he’s worth.”
The Wild has three players of color: Brown and Jordan Greenway, who are black, and Matt Dumba, who is Filipino.
“That’s a lot for a team, honestly,” Greenway said.
Greenway, who became the first black U.S. Olympic hockey player last year, said he and his brother might have been the only such hockey players growing up in upstate New York.
Brown has been one of the few NHL players to speak out about social issues, raising his fist during the national anthem as a Tampa Bay Lightning player in 2017 to bring awareness to matters of racial injustice.
“There’s a lot more African-Americans playing different sports, so it’s easier to come together and make a big stand,” Greenway said. ” … As you see more mes and Brownies and Dumbas coming into the league, I think bigger efforts will be made.”
Just where the Wild rank among the 31 NHL teams is hard to say. The league doesn’t participate in the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s Racial and Gender Report Cards. The Institute issues yearly reports grading the hiring practices in major league sports and the NCAA.
The NHL could soon participate, too, according to Kim Davis, whom the league hired in 2017 for a new position called executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs.
Davis has been in discussions with the Institute for Diversity and Ethics about including the NHL in future reports, provided the reports give a reason behind the numbers.
She said, as an example, that the NHL has 27 active black players with another 18 coming through the system. Rather than frame those numbers as a reprimand, Davis said, “It should be about a plan of action on how you move from what your baseline is to the future.”
Filling the gaps
The NHL began its formal campaign for inclusivity in 1995 with “NHL Diversity,” which spawned the league’s current slogan, “Hockey is for Everyone.”
The past two seasons, February functioned as “Hockey is for Everyone” month, with all teams holding inclusivity events. But Davis changed that this year, making “Hockey is for Everyone” a year-round campaign. February is Black History Month, March is the league’s gender equality month and June is LGBTQ month. There are also plans for a Hispanic and indigenous peoples month next season.
Before this change, teams had to jam many groups into one “Hockey is for Everyone”-themed game. The Wild, for example, received some criticism from the LGBTQ community last season for not representing it as much as other groups. Wayne Petersen, the Wild’s director of community relations and hockey partnerships, said the main issue was a shipment of rainbow merchandise not arriving on time. This year, he said that wasn’t a problem.
“It’s not just about the LGBTQ community, although they are an important part,” Petersen said. “It’s about them. It’s about disabled veterans. It’s about kids with cognitive issues, now kids that are blind. It’s about African-Americans, and it’s more than just African-Americans. … Just trying to get the message out that hockey truly is for everyone.”
Jason Zucker, the Wild’s “Hockey is for Everyone” ambassador this year, wore a rainbow pride hat with his charitable campaign’s logo and specifically mentioned the LGBTQ community in his pregame interview.
Several NHL teams have marched in Pride parades, including the Chicago Blackhawks, who brought the Stanley Cup. These demonstrations are an acknowledgment of the LGBTQ community, but the NHL also has never had an openly gay current or former player. The NFL, NBA, MLB and MLS have had at least one player publicly come out as gay, either during his career or in retirement.
“Anybody would ask the question, ‘If no one has come out, is there something about the culture of the sport that’s preventing that?’ ” Davis said. “And I think it’s a fair question.”
Brock McGillis first realized he was gay around age 6. The Canadian didn’t come out publicly until he was 33 in 2016, after the goaltender’s semiprofessional career was done. He never played in the NHL, but he is still the only known pro hockey player to openly live as a gay man.
From age 18 to 23, he drank daily, acted like a womanizer and attempted suicide on several occasions. One of the biggest roadblocks in coming to terms with his sexuality, he said, was the homophobic and sexist language used in the locker room.
“I heard it on an everyday basis,” McGillis said. “And that language alone, just hearing that made me think I couldn’t be myself in the sport I loved.”
He now mentors youth hockey players about this language and the damage it can do.
At the NHL level, Brian Kitts is one of the founders of the You Can Play Project, which works with the league’s players to ensure a safe and respectful environment for athletes of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
“We may have had hundreds of athletes say that, ‘It’s OK to be gay in my locker room,’ ” Kitts said. “What we need is all of those hundreds of athletes to call out that language when they hear it in their own locker rooms. And I’m not convinced that still happens.”
Former Chicago Blackhawks player Andrew Shaw received a one-game suspension and had to undergo sensitivity training in 2016 after shouting an anti-gay slur in the penalty box. Last season, Washington Capitals player Devante Smith-Pelly endured racist taunts from fans, which arena staff quickly removed, while in the penalty box playing at Chicago.
Brown, who is in his seventh NHL season and first with the Wild, said he believes that language is phasing out of the league.
“Those aren’t a part of my everyday vocabulary. So for me, it’s not a big change,” Brown said. “But you hear less of it.”
The NHL’s diversity work, according to Davis, focuses on planning for long-term success while celebrating the current positives, so people stay inspired until that future arrives.
Douglas, from the Color of Hockey blog, sees more diverse players in the pipeline that could soon help change the face of the NHL. And with Davis driving the league’s increased support of diversity efforts, Brown feels the NHL’s approach “has been a little bit different this year.”
While nontraditional hockey markets must work on access, Minnesotans have plenty of that. Glen Andresen is the executive director of Minnesota Hockey, the state’s governing body for the amateur level, and said his organization still has more to do for diversity, making it “priority No. 1” this offseason. The group will start with reaching out to diverse families to figure out why most don’t participate in the sport.
Davis said putting youth hockey diversity in the forefront not only builds a channel of future talent but makes business sense: More diversity grows the game and creates economic value.
“One of those myths is that our sport is so conservative and people don’t really want inclusivity. I don’t think that’s correct,” Davis said. “With anything, there’s probably a small minority of people that aren’t supportive. But that’s not the overriding voice in our sport for change.”
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