Hockey is not for everyone: Where the NHL stands to improve on diversity

Arun Srinivasan
·Writer
The NHL has a long way to go in order to ensure that hockey is indeed for everyone. (Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The NHL has a long way to go in order to ensure that hockey is indeed for everyone. (Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The NHL implemented an initiative in 2017 called Hockey is for Everyone, which aims to reduce racism, sexism and homophobia within the league and the sport itself.

These goals should be an obvious component of any league going forward and while it's well-intended, hockey routinely fails to include fans outside their core demographic, whether it's due to acts of overt or subtle racism, homophobic transphobic language and performative efforts to include women and people of colour.

As a hockey fan and journalist, I've grown frustrated with the league falling behind on the cultural spectrum. I'm certainly not alone, so I decided to speak to a number of journalists, fans and the NHL, showing that while hockey may be intended for everyone, the league and the sport still has a long way to go to meet its desired messaging.

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In February 2017, the NHL in conjunction with the You Can Play project implemented its first Hockey Is For Everyone Month, focusing on awareness regarding LGBTQ+, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic inequality and disabilities. While the campaign is a good-faith effort, there are many pressing questions that make it ring hollow.

Jashvina Shah is a freelance reporter, specializing in college hockey. Shah has written for a number of outlets, including The Athletic and espnW. She has been a leading advocate in calling out where hockey fails to include fans and spoke about the performative effect of the campaign, pointing to some of the flaws the NHL has displayed in its partnership efforts.

“A lot of teams donate to You Can Play project,” Shah said. “It's an organization run by a straight person and it's not really the organization that community works to. That's where the NHL donates instead of supporting other organizations that do a better job with LGBTQ+ issues. It's things like not training the staff, not training their players, not having a better structure in place to educate the players to combat their internalized biases."

"It's a farce, basically."

Ramina Shlah is a writer and recently worked as a social media manager for the CWHL's Calgary Inferno. Shlah believes the league is subverting real attempts at racial inclusion, but also highlighted that certain teams are further ahead of the curve than others.

Shlah also makes a critical distinction that the league and teams would be better off donating proceeds to local organizations that work regularly to eradicate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, along with groups that assist marginalized communities, as opposed to a not-for-profit that is primarily headed by white, cisgendered people.

"They have the teams wear their rainbow stuff during warmups and stuff but it's not always shown where the proceeds will go and I do know that some teams, if they don't even say where they go, but I do know a lot of it goes to You Can Play. But I do think it would be better if they went to local youth LGBTQ organizations, similar to what the (Carolina) Hurricanes did this year with their Pride Night that they had, I thought that was a really great idea."

Kim Davis joined the NHL as its executive vice president, social impact, growth initiatives & legislative affairs in December 2017. One of the primary responsibilities Davis holds is to make hockey more inclusive for everyone, and fostering events and partnerships that allow the NHL to be more readily accessible outside of its core demographic.

"The idea of the campaign was to create the opportunity to — I talk about it through three pillars: the pillar of educating, the pillar of providing information and ultimately inspiring both our existing fans as well as our new and casual fans to understand that our sport is welcoming," Davis said.

"And when that work began some years ago, it was primarily focused around engagement, around Pride and Pride month and February was seen as Hockey is for Everyone month with a lot of efforts around Pride.

"So, I think that as we have evolved and we have understood demographic shifts in North America, we understand that in order for us to be able to educate, inform and inspire, we have to broaden the perspectives of our sport with underrepresented audiences.”

The Declaration of Principles, and how to enforce them meaningfully

The NHL and NHLPA released the Declaration of Principles in September 2017, operating as a code of conduct for teams, players and other stakeholders to abide by.

Here are the principles:

  • We believe hockey should be an enjoyable family experience; all stakeholders — organizations, players, parents, siblings, coaches, referees, volunteers and rink operators — play a role in this effort.

  • We believe hockey's greatest value is the role it plays in the development of character and life skills.

  • We believe all hockey organizations — regardless of size or level of competition — bring value to players and families in their ability to deliver a positive family experience.

  • We believe physical activity is important for a healthy body, mind and spirit.

  • We believe there are significant benefits of youth participation in multiple sports.

  • We believe hockey programs should be age-appropriate for all players, accounting for each individual's physical, emotional and cognitive development.

  • We believe there is great value in all forms of hockey, both on and off the ice.

  • We believe all hockey programs should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status. Simply put, hockey is for everyone.

"I think that a big part of our Declaration of Principles work has been making sure that our clubs and our players actually know that the DOP is not a program or a campaign, but they are in fact, the values and the principles by which we should conduct and display our sport," Davis said.

Davis points to a pilot program the NHL launched in partnership with the Tampa Bay Lightning as an example of substantive programming, which provides training for parents, players and coaches about how the Declaration of Principles should be applied. The league plans to implement the program across the board after a “very, very successful” trial last year.

Shah disagrees, pointing out some of the limitations of the Hockey is For Everyone campaign, along with the limited efficacy the league has shown in enforcing the Declaration of Principles.

"To me, they're all just a way of saying ‘we're doing something!’ without actually doing anything," Shah said. "Pride Nights are great, participating in the Pride Parade is great, having the Declaration of Principles in theory is great, but it stops there for the NHL, for a lot of teams, for a lot of players. There's nothing past that.

“It's not like, 'oh, here's our Declaration of Principles', we're going to make Hockey is for Everyone, step-by-step, here's how we're going to do it. It basically just announced 'oh yeah, we're an inclusive community' without actually making it an inclusive community."

NHL Pride (Getty Images)
NHL Pride (Getty Images)

Take the 2019 World Pride Parade for example. Although the league highlighted and celebrated their gay employees who took part in Pride, not a single current player joined the number of ex-players on the NHL/NHLPA's double-decker bus at the event in New York.

Hardev Lad is a writer for SB Nation's Pension Plan Puppets, Raw Charge and Mile High Hockey. He also works as an off-ice official for Mississauga Steelheads of the Ontario Hockey League. Lad believes the league's inclusion efforts are merely a preliminary step in the right direction.

“They need to show their face,” Lad said. “You need to get players — I know Morgan Rielly and Kyle Dubas were at Toronto Pride, but why wasn't the whole team there? Why weren’t more people there? You need a majority to be involved for anyone to take notice. If you're just a minority within the league, no one's going to take notice of you, no one's going to listen to you. If a majority of people were involved, they'd get a bigger voice.”

Hockey media fails to hold its subjects accountable

The NHL isn’t alone in making the sport unwelcoming for large swaths of the population. Part of the role of media is to hold its subjects accountable, a responsibility that has been largely abdicated in this era.

The lack of intersectionality in hockey media is a major problem that goes beyond the scope of representation, according to Shah. Not only is the landscape dominated by white males, reporting has largely turned into a function of access journalism.

"For the mainstream media right now, really, it's just a lot of fanboys, who are like, ‘oh, I really like this player because they're nice to me in the locker room’ so they won't stop and think a little more critically about what Sidney Crosby's actions going to the White House actually mean. They're still going to defend him, ‘oh, he's a great person, he's a great leader.’ And it's always been really dismissed by the media — they do a really bad job of addressing it."

Brock McGillis is the first openly gay male professional hockey player and currently works as a LGBTQ+ advocate and public speaker whose life is threatened any time he speaks up and criticizes the NHL for being too lenient on homophobic acts.

"A few years ago, there was an incident with Ryan Getzlaf and I received about 50 death threats after I called out the NHL for the punishment they handed out. It was pretty intense. I posted a tweet this winter about Don Cherry and I received a ton of threats. And I recognize where they're coming from but it made me realize how much influence hockey has in this country that people are willing to kill me over my comments or threaten to kill me over my comments on a sport.”

McGillis argues that teams and other stakeholders that uphold the Declaration of Principles and make good-faith efforts should be highlighted by media, or otherwise.

"I think we have to ask the questions to teams, and to the league," McGillis said. "I've been pretty hard on them in the past and I continue to be, but I also know that there's a lot of allies there. Brendan Shanahan is one of the most inclusive people I've ever met in my life. Hands down, whether it's LGBTQ+, whether it's race, gender, doesn't matter. Kyle Dubas, super inclusive. I think they want to create a shift. And as those power brokers continue to push forward, the teams that are dragging behind will have no choice but to continue to (improve)."

So where does hockey go from here?

It would be unfair to say the NHL isn't trying. Davis points to the NHL partnering with USA Hockey to conduct a town hall on racism, hosted by the New Jersey Devils, which she believes will open up an authentic dialogue on how to further to attack the issue at the grassroots level. The league is also in talks with Hockey Canada, but no date for implementation of a pilot program has been set.

"I hope we get there. I hope we get to a point where we're seeing representations, of people of colour, of women in the sport, the LGBTQ+. I hope we get to a point where we can use hockey as a space to make people feel good," McGillis said.

"I had a (transgendered) kid come to me not long ago, who was cutting himself as a way to deal. But then he found powerlifting and now instead of cutting himself, his way to release that stress, that struggle, he goes to the gym. Hockey can be that change agent in Canada, for kids, for people. It's not necessarily about everyone making the NHL. It's about that release where you can feel safe and enjoy life for those two hours.”

Davis believes that the league's efforts should be measured by their intent, arguing that racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are a function of society itself.

"If we're being honest, we know that the kind of change that we're talking about here is not something that happens overnight. And I think we are taking definitive and very, very direct steps to ensure that our sport is welcoming. But it's not going to happen overnight, these issues weren't created overnight and they aren't going to be solved overnight."

"What I'd like us to be judged on is progress along the road. It's not going to be a sprint, it's going to be a journey. And so, measure us on how we are standing and the kind of courageous leadership that we are taking in order to engage communities, to ask when we don't know, to make some mistakes — right, we're not going to be perfect and we're not going to do everything in a way that everybody is going to agree with. But I think we can honestly say that over the course of the past couple of seasons, we're making progress," Davis said.

While the league is making efforts to reach out at the grassroots level, there is still ample progress to be made, whether it's consistency across the board from teams, harsher sanctions for players who violate the DOP, and a more critical media corps. Until then, hockey is certainly not for everyone.

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