The NHL’s slow skate toward change
How much progress has the league made in addressing diversity and inclusion in hockey?
As the Tampa Bay Lightning pursue another Stanley Cup trophy, let’s not forget they already made history this season. On May 10, the team started the first all-Black line in NHL history. The league celebrated by tweeting a highlight with the hashtag #HockeyIsForEveryone. It was a moment to be remembered.
It also begged the question: What took so long? The NHL was founded in 1917.
In 2021, the NHL remains the least racially diverse pro sports league in America. Less than 5% of players in the league are Black or people of color. There are no Black head coaches in the NHL and only one Black executive in team front offices. (The Florida Panthers hired Brett Peterson in 2020 as the first Black assistant general manager in NHL history.)
Because of this, the league has long been at a disadvantage when addressing diversity and inclusion challenges.
After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer a year ago, the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) was formed in June 2020. An independent organization, the HDA was seen by many as a much-needed development in the sport. Made up of current and former NHL players, including Wayne Simmonds, Matt Dumba, and co-founders Evander Kane and Akim Aliu, the alliance was created to “eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey,” as stated on its website.
“It’s born out of frustration,” said NHL analyst Kevin Weekes, who spent 11 seasons in the league as a goalie. “It’s born out of frustration of having the same conversations from ’92 to 2020. And the intention to wanting to help and then bubbling over with just not enough being done that was concrete.”
The HDA initially had a productive relationship with the NHL. The league and its players association announced a partnership with the HDA in September 2020 to implement a first-of-its-kind grassroots hockey program for younger players of color. But the partnership quickly soured.
The alliance broke ties in October 2020, stating the NHL was ultimately focused on “performative public relations efforts” rather than supporting what the alliance saw as a viable action plan. The HDA presented the league with a list of requests in the summer of 2020, which included growing the number of Black executives in the NHL to 3.5% before the end of the 2024-25 season. But it didn’t get the timely response from the NHL it was looking for.
Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives & legislative affairs, says the HDA wanted to move right to tactics, while the league saw the best path to charting change was through a systems approach.
“Tactics are vital to impact communities on a grassroots level, but they must be accompanied by systemic changes,” said Davis. “Systems change starts with reimagining our day-to-day approach to these dimensions so we can maximize our long-term impact by connecting individual tactics to a meaningful overall strategy.”
The HDA wanted to address the root issue.
“You can’t address diversity and inclusion until you address racism,” said Kane.
Today, the NHL’s relationship with the HDA is strained. And it is emblematic of the challenging situation the league still finds itself in a year after Floyd’s killing. Two key issues persist: the traditional hockey culture that is a breeding ground for racism and exclusion, and a failure to grow the game’s fan base.
‘The sport doesn’t necessarily love us back’
There are numerous examples from just this past decade of the NHL’s challenges around racism. In 2011, a fan threw a banana on the ice at Simmonds while he was a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. The fan received a small fine, but the incident went largely unaddressed by the NHL, except for a brief statement from commissioner Gary Bettman, who said the league has “millions of great fans” and that the action didn’t reflect the broader fan base.
More recently in 2019, Aliu spoke out about racial insults allegedly hurled at him by then-Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters. Aliu was in the AHL, one of the feeder leagues for the NHL, when he said his choice of music in the dressing room spurred Peters to say, “You know, I’m just sick of this n—– s—. It’s every day. From now on, we need to play different music.”
But in the summer of 2020, pro sports leagues were put under the spotlight around how they would respond following the murder of Floyd. The NHL’s response was built on messaging not supported by the HDA.
In its playoff bubble, the league supported the growing social movement with a message of #WeSkateForBlackLives. According to Kane, it was a message the HDA did not support because it didn’t address social injustice and racism head-on. In contrast to the message of Black Lives Matter, which was embraced by leagues like the NBA, #WeSkateForBlackLives had an underlying notion that the game must go on.
And go on, it did. Following the shooting of Jacob Blake by police on Aug. 23, 2020, leagues like the NBA and WNBA canceled games on Aug. 26, but the NHL held games. After intense pressure and scrutiny around its decision to hold games, including from the HDA, which called the league’s response “disheartening,” the NHL followed suit with cancellations the following two days. At that point, however, it would be too little, too late.
From hashtag campaigns that missed the mark of the moment to favoring a message of “End Racism” over “Black Lives Matter” in the bubble, the NHL’s stance was unclear.
Davis, who is African American, says there were valid reasons for the NHL’s decisions.
“A league like ours, that is represented across North America, where the issues in Canada are very different than the issues in the United States, particularly as it relates to how racism shows up not just for the Black community, but for the Indigenous community, we need to be mindful of the bigger issue that we have to fight across the hockey system in order to create credibility with all of these communities that are important to us,” said Davis. “And so, ‘End Racism’ spoke to the Indigenous community in a way that ‘Black Lives Matter’ did not. And I think we wanted to be respectful about our journey. It wasn’t just about that moment.”
The NHL is indeed unique, with seven Canadian franchises in its league and an Indigenous population in Canada north of 1.6 million. But for current and former Black players in the league, it was another reminder of an ongoing struggle with loving a sport that often doesn’t reciprocate those same feelings.
“I respect our sport,” said Weekes, who became the first Black analyst for the NHL and now works for the NHL Network. “I’m going to echo what the great Wayne Gretzky said: ‘Everything my family and I have we owe to the game of hockey.’ I love it. But there are times when the sport doesn’t necessarily love us back.”
There is a popular mantra in the hockey world: “It’s our game.” It’s been used for books looking at the history of the game and adopted as recently as this year by the Hockey Canada organization. It’s a slogan that has been bred into hockey fans through generations.
But applied to hockey and, more specifically, the NHL, the messaging becomes troublesome given the significant lack of diversity in the sport and clear challenges with racism. “Our,” in the context of hockey, can be seen as meaning “white.” A recent report shows that only the Los Angeles Kings have a fan base that is less than 50% white, with most of the league’s teams having fan bases that are overwhelmingly white.
“We have people that say, ‘It’s our game.’ No, it’s not your game,” said Weekes. “All of that stuff is stupid. Nobody in basketball says that. Hockey is the only sport where you hear that, and it’s a false sense of bravado and a false sense of ownership. Imagine if McDonald’s said on the golden arches, ‘Only certain people are welcome. Only certain people are allowed to have a hamburger.’ ”
‘We have more work to do’
On the one-year anniversary of the murder of Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Bettman wrote an op-ed on NHL.com saying that the league’s handling of matters of race in the past had been at times “awkward and uncomfortable.” He went on to say that players and team personnel no longer have the desire to “shut up and play hockey” and no longer want people to feel unwelcome in the sport.
Based on internal data shared with The Undefeated, the summer of 2020 spurred a flurry of activities around anti-racism and inclusion initiatives, including the creation of the executive inclusion council, chaired by Bettman and Kim Pegula, owner of the Buffalo Sabres, and the Player Inclusion Committee, co-chaired by Anson Carter and P.K. Subban. Fifty percent of clubs have also committed to implementing diversity and inclusion training and 59% of clubs built specific programs focused on increasing hockey participation among BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) youth. One such initiative is a ball hockey league developed by Vegas Golden Knights right winger Ryan Reaves at the Boys & Girls Club in West Las Vegas.
It’s a step in the right direction for a league that hasn’t invested enough time and effort in these ideas in the past, which has resulted in a limited pipeline for BIPOC players in the league.
“If you go back to the early ’90s, I was underwriting a skills hockey program in Scarborough [a suburb of Toronto] when a 4-year-old P.K. Subban was there,” Weekes of where Subban, one of the most recognizable Black athletes, got his feet wet in hockey. “I was underwriting this with my own time, my own Visa card at the mid-Scarborough Arena and at Malvern Arena without any assistance from anyone in hockey. Not one person, not one dollar, not a sponge puck, not a ministick from a club, from the league, from anyone.”
But as evidenced by only 50% of clubs implementing diversity and inclusion training thus far, the league knows it has a ways to go to ensure buy-in by its entire organization.
“As we work our way toward execution of these initiatives, many of which were affected by the pandemic, we are always conscious that we have more work to do, and we remain committed to doing it,” said Davis. “We know these efforts will strengthen the sport of hockey and empower the underrepresented communities who are connected to it. It’s a priority for us every day – a journey, not an event.”
In an attempt to broaden its audience, the league has also dipped its toe in the hip-hop music waters recently. While incorporating Snoop Dogg into Kings broadcasts resulted in humor, but likely did little to advance the relevancy of the sport to a younger, Black audience, the NHL collaborated with rap artist Bia for this year’s playoffs by adapting her song called “Skate.”
Steve Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer, told ESPN they felt it was time to chase younger audiences.
“For years, it’s been classic rock and hard rock,” said Mayer. “And I think we’re discovering that it’s not like that. Our audience likes pop music. Our audience likes hip-hop.”
Rap music may also be creating a bridge across racial divides in locker rooms.
“Nowadays, we’re listening to rap in the locker room,” said Kings prospect Akil Thomas. “I’ve had teammates come up to me and say, ‘I wish I was Black,’ and it’s funny to hear that. It’s kind of weird how all those things are connected, and liking [a certain] type of music can make you more open.”
It’s a polar opposite experience to the one alleged to have been had by Aliu, and an encouraging sign that a new generation of hockey players may be taking the sport in a more inclusive and relevant direction.
“This generation is completely different,” said Davis. “We need to continue to lean into cultural gatekeepers. We need to lean into diverse storytellers. We need to lean into creator culture to make our sport relevant to this generation. If we lean in that way generationally, then we will begin to create this bridge across race and ethnicity because that’s the place where hockey is going to be able to differentiate itself.”
It’s not hard to see why it’s also important for the NHL and HDA to work through their differences. The HDA is made up of players who have experienced the hardships of racism in the sport of hockey firsthand.
Aliu says the HDA is ready to work with the NHL, but first needs to see the league taking the issues of racism in the sport more seriously.
“Treat us as a real partner and respect the fact that we are players that have actually gone through these racial inequalities in the game,” said Aliu. “There is no one better to help fix these problems than us. We tried working with the league, and all we were doing was spinning our wheels. Some of the league’s biggest sponsors such as Scotiabank, Kraft and Bud Light have gotten behind us, where has the NHL been? …
“Last we spoke, they were still compiling data from Harvard professors. No one needs a Ph.D. to know our game has a lot of issues. We are willing and open to working with the league, but only when they are truly serious about it, and we don’t see that being the case as we sit here today. Hopefully, one day soon, that will change.”
For the NHL’s part, Davis says, the league is ready to welcome the HDA back into the fold.
“The HDA doesn’t have to ‘do’ anything other than pick up the phone,” said Davis. “We are ready and willing to work with anybody who wants to grow the game.”