These are truly the dog days of the offseason. When the biggest news item in weeks is that The Canucks signed Ryan White to a PTO, you know it’s a slow period. So, with that in mind, I’m abandoning the somewhat limiting “what would you do?” pretense of this series and asking for a simple prediction. Who’s your dark horse candidate to make the team out of camp?
Last week I asked: Pretend for a minute that you’re in Gary Bettman’s shoes. What would you do to improve diversity within the NHL?
Hockey players, for the most part, are good people – and a lot of them spend their summer in camps for kids. It would be great to see a fund available in smaller rural communities for kids to access equipment, ice time, and coaching. A joint NHL/NHLPA venture would go a long way to helping kids in those communities access the game. Its a tough call as there are under-privileged kids all over, even in urban cities like Vancouver and TO.
NHL players should be there based on merit rather than diversity quotas. So to raise the level of diversity in the NHL, you need to increase accessibility at all levels that precede the NHL (i.e. recreational ball hockey, junior hockey, college hockey). One way is for the NHL to take the billions of dollars in profit and start subsidizing equipment and fees to make the game accessible to kids of lower socio-economic status. Quick, name an organization that’s helping kids in hockey? Did you think Tim Hortons or Canadian Tire? I’ll bet you *nobody* thought of the NHL.
To prove my point, let’s look at soccer. To access the sport, all you need is a soccer ball. Cristiano Ronaldo grew up dirt poor and he’s considered to be one of the best players all-time. Soccer has many more non-white players playing professionally compared to the NHL. That’s because millions of poor kids can play without specialized equipment or a specialized playing surface.
This is actually an area I’d give Bettman a fair amount of credit for already. The NHL’s stuck around in the US South despite financial struggles, helping to grow the game in the parts of the country with larger black and Latino populations. And in recent years they’ve come down *very* hard on players caught making racist or homophobic comments, with big fines and short suspensions. This’ll go a long way to helping the game become more diverse.
There are lots of other things that could be done, but I’m not sure they’re really the NHL’s responsibility. Hockey’s expensive, and hockey’s most popular in the northern US and in Canada. That’s just the nature of the game, and until that changes, it’s going to remain a sport that’s most popular with middle class white people.
I don’t know if, in the end, it will help with diversity in the NHL, but I’d like to see the NHL (the league) and NHL (the teams’ ownership) spend considerably more of the billions they make helping ALL kids gain access to playing the game affordably. I have lived in “small towns” my entire life, and the cost of ice rental alone can be a killer, before you even start with equipment. I know larger cities that problem is only magnified. So let’s see each and every team begin with $1B to build and fund usable arenas. Why should we rely on Kraft for that, but a huge thanks to them anyway. And the league? They want to expand into new money making possibilities, why not spend a LOT more money here at home? New, sustainably affordable arenas will result in more kids having the chance at an NHL career, and that should help expand the league. Kids that can only dream right now. Plus the league and the teams will likely find a way to deduct the cost from their corporate tax bills
Interesting question and also the ways in which it’s being interpreted — with race and class (but not gender) seeming to be the main responses. I actually think that the NHL and the NHLPA do a decent job of trying to broaden both their audience and playing public base — there are all kinds of initiatives (like “You Can Play” and “Hockey is for Everyone”) but also the various hockey camps aimed at underprivileged kids in Southern California and Nashville and Colorado and other places. It also helps when teams invest in their local communities and the teams are successful which leads to a much more diverse audience.
It’s true that hockey is a far whiter sport than most of the other major ones — but it’s also a much more marginal sport in general; other than little pockets in the US it still doesn’t register in anyway close to the NFL, the NBA or even baseball. There’s definitely a cultural issue still which plays out in the way that players like Evander Kane or PK Subban get treated versus a Patrick Kane or even an Alex Ovechkin (but then hockey’s culture as protected by the Don Cherrys of the world is very conservative and still rails against the supposed “whining” of skill players like Crosby) but I think a lot of teams have pushed back hard against racist stuff both on and off the ice (like the Bruins after the stuff against both Subban and Joel Ward a few years ago).
Hockey is also far better than the NFL (where the imbalance between black players and white coaches and owners is far more stark) or the NBA (which used to try and control what it used to paternalistically decry as “thug culture” and countenance owners like Donald Sterling) or soccer (whose global issues with racism and indeed fascist fans are well known).
Sports, even though they are supposed to be “neutral” or “apolitical” are just a reflection of society and ours is one that struggles with questions of diversity so it’s not surprising to see a sport like hockey trying to make changes and moving in multiple directions as a result.
Last year I had a chance to go to an NCAA tournament in Belfast, Northern Ireland called the Friendship Four. Four US college teams competed in a round-robin tournament in a place where hockey is just not a big deal. It was a pretty interesting idea — they play in an arena that was intentionally created as part of the peace-building process. The EU and others invested in it because it was supposed to be a site where Protestants and Catholics could enjoy sports without it becoming tribalistic. They chose hockey (and the Belfast Giants — who Theo Fleury played for as a 46 year old!) because it wasn’t viewed as a sectarian sport. As a result when you go into the stadium it says specifically on the ticket you can only wear “hockey colors” and no Glasgow Rangers or Celtics gear or anything else that’s associated with either community or sectarian conflict. It was a pretty amazing event in a town and region where the tensions are still palpable and huge walls and barricades still divide the community. Part of the event included sending the students out into local schools to meet with Catholic and Protestant kids to teach them about hockey. It wasn’t ideal by any means (and I’d argue that Game of Thrones which is filmed locally probably does more for peace building than hockey) but it represented to me the best that sports can do to make positive interventions in the world that vague notions like diversity are supposed to address.
Hockey is a sport that is difficult for parents to embrace. It costs an arm and a leg, and is overly competitive. Have you sat in the stands at a youth hockey game? I still love watching it, and loved playing it as a kid. But if a white middle-class parent like me hopes my kids choose another sport, there is a problem. Broadening diversity in the game will be an uphill battle. There is one significant opportunity for growing the sport, however: women. The NHL should support a women’s professional league. Each NHL team could be required to ice a women’s team with its own salary cap (both floor and ceiling). They could play divisionally only during the regular season to keep travel costs down, with the division champs playing for the championship.
Author’s Note: I’d like to thank the majority of commenters for their thoughtful answers last week. These subjects can often create a tire-fire in the comments section but I was impressed with the majority of the answers we received. I was even more impressed by how many readers went with a material analysis and drew a line between the lack of diversity in the NHL and the relatively high cost of entry into minor hockey. It’s something I find myself in complete agreement with. Keep up the good answers.