The ice has not always been a welcoming place for people of color. But as the demographics of North America change the league knows it must adapt
No team sport projects white machismo as aggressively as ice hockey. Fans witness violence that, were the majority of players black or brown, would prompt pearl-clutching about “incivility” or “disrespect.” Racism accompanies players and fans of colour alike, from the youth level all the style up to the NHL. The league’s newest mascot may be a leftist hero, but even Gritty couldn’t stop a Flyers broadcaster from spewing racist vitriol while commenting on another sport with Native American roots.
” You see it, hear it and start recognise who’s picked on by announcers, media and fans ,” NativeHockey.com founder Shannon Valerio says. She notes that similar shades of racism affect all hockey participants of color- the recent racist abuse of a black hockey player in Quebec is just one example.
But the the demographics of the United States and Canada are changing. Even if the NHL’s primary audience still represents the old guard, the league clearly understands that it needs a new one to survive.” Now, more than ever, hockey communities and leaders must focus on the drastic demographic and cultural change that is coming ,” a 2018 NHL policy brief reads.” It is incumbent upon those currently in the game- for the sake of the game’s future- is working to ensure that the athletic is perceived as welcoming to all .”
” My favorite player was Guy Lafleur, and I remember saying I was going to be him ,” Damon Kwame Mason says.” This kid told me I couldn’t be him because he was white. That always stood out in my head .”
Black Canadians like Mason grow up surrounded by hockey culture in a way that African Americans don’t. But the idea that black people aren’t an integral part of hockey’s narrative clearly still affected him. He revisits the experience in Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future, which discusses how black Canadian communities established the trailblazing Colored Hockey League. It also gives voice to the resilience of Herb Carnegie, Larry Kwong, Willie O’Ree, Val James and other early leaders who silently suffered racist taunts so future generations could have it easier.
” I would’ve loved, as a kid, to say,’ there was a league of black players, and one of players did the first slapshot ,'” Mason says.
And get kids to play in the first place can be tough. A 2017 Utah State University study found that households with hockey-playing infants expend an average of $7,013 per season on the equipment, training and travelling often necessary to nurture future professionals. Such expenses inevitably prevent many indigenous, black, latinx and immigrant groups, who are suffering from disproportionate poverty, from enrolling their children.
” As a people, we feel like this is our game, much like lacrosse ,” Valerio explains.” There’s a lot of irony that it’s so inaccessible for so many Natives who actually started the athletic .”
In addition, NHL tickets can be expensive, and its own experience doesn’t guarantee security to fans of color. Renee Hess, who made the Black Girls Hockey Club, recalls an incident at the Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Kings:” This older gentleman came up to me and said,’ Oh, girl, the friends that I’m with love black daughters! Come take a scene with me! I merely kind of smiled, as most women would do, and[ declined ]. And he grabbed my limb and said,’ Don’t be such a bitch !'”
Hess created Black Girls Hockey Club last year after a survey of other fans yielded similar tales. Members don’t need to be black girls to participate in the club, which recently coordinated meetups at both NHL and National Women’s Hockey League games. But they must understand what it means to share space with those who, without strength in numbers, have few recourses when they experience abuse.” Black females historically don’t have a lot of safe spaces ,” she notes.” I definitely want to make sure we’re amplifying their voices and know that they matter and are supported .”
And helping communities feel comfy with hockey may be the key to constructing the athletic a more diverse place. Harnarayan Singh didn’t have a hard time selling fellow Punjabi Canadians on ice hockey- especially not when the country’s third-largest linguistic community boasts its own rich field hockey tradition. After a childhood spent practicing colour commentary, Singh helped establish Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi in 2008. This version of the CBC’s tentpole hockey show survived two cancellations and outlived the CBC’s other attempts at multilingual broadcasts during its near-decade on the air. And thanks to a viral clip of him effusively calling a 2016 Stanley Cup Final goal, Singh and the Hockey Night Punjabi crew now reach far beyond their main community.
” Most of the hockey world is very familiar with what we do ,” he explains.” And through social media, we get a lot of people[ in the US] telling us that they love what we’re doing. It would be great to someday have a part of our broadcast air in the State, too .”
Singh admits that the program still endures racist trolling online. But that hasn’t impacted Singh’s deep patriotism , nor his conviction that athletics can promote mutual understanding.” I hope to show my fellow Canadians that this country is just as much mine as anybody else’s ,” he says.” And if I can use hockey to spread that message, then that’ll be it .”
Mason and Douglas also succeeded by tapping into their communities. Their efforts caught the eye of the NHL, which departed from its previous tone-deafness around Black History Month with a full slate of relevant programming, and both of them appeared on a special panel for NWHL All-Star Weekend.
Hess credits many of the changes to the NHL hiring Kim Davis. A longtime finance executive and leader in corporate diversity and inclusion, Davis has spent the past 15 months looking to construct the league more representative of the demographics of North America. That included inviting Hess’s group to Washington early in her tenure. In April, it will entail discussing how to best tell indigenous narratives with Cree leader Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild.
” Our overarching thesis is that there are many roads to fan developing, and one of those critical roads is engaging community in new and different ways ,” Davis explains. She follows NHL’s Black History Month with the current Gender Equality Month. as well as and Earth and Pride months in April and June, respectively. She also hopes to avoid what she calls” flavor of the month” attention.
Davis recognizes that sports, like entertainment, can fulfill fans’ calls for better representation when the executive suites include decision makers that look like them. To that aim, she reveals that the league’s commissioner, Gary Bettman, and Buffalo Sabres president Kim Pegula, one of the NHL’s few team owners of colour, will lead a council tasked with creating” a three-to-five-year strategy for diversity .” The plan will touch all aspects of the league’s behind-the-scenes operations, from teams’ front office hires to the league’s upper ranks.
” Change never happens fast enough, especially when you have pent-up demands for it ,” Davis says.
Maintaining this change rests on the one intervention that everybody seems to agree on: investing in the next generation of players. The specific application ranges from helping keep a roof over the country’s oldest minority youth-focused club to spotlighting rising players to subsidizing talented players’ educational costs. The present generation know that this can’t stop with them, and that the diversification of their sport and nations are inextricably linked.
” The first 100 years of this league was really about the change from it being perceived as a sport of toothless fighters to one of velocity, skill and technology ,” Davis observes. The next 100 years, I believe, will be defined by how our athletic makes a more welcoming surrounding and opens its doorways to new audiences .”
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